This is a short overview of action research for new action researchers which is revised yearly. It serves as an initial orientation to action research for students in the online Masters of Arts in Learning Technologies program at Pepperdine University. Each year a cadre of students engage in action research. Please feel free to share this document. For an interactive guide, resources and tutorial supporting action researchers, click on interact in the menu above.
Understanding Action Research
Each of us will come to understand action research as a tension between forces that lead to personal, professional and social change. I think of action research is a process of
deep inquiry into one's practices in service of moving towards an
envisioned future, aligned with values. Action research, can be seen as a systematic,
reflective study of one's actions, and the effects of these actions,
in a workplace or organizational context. As such, it involves deep inquiry into one's
There are a range of modifiers that people use for action research and many different dimensions which can be highlighted in different ways to create what some have called a family of approaches to action research(Noffke and Somekh, 2009; McNiff, 2013). We use collaborative action research to highlights the different ways in which action research is a social process.
Action researchers examine their interactions and relationships in social setting seeking
opportunities for improvement. As designers and stakeholders, they work
with their colleagues to propose new courses of action that help their community
improve work practices. As researchers, they seek evidence from
multiple sources to help them analyze reactions to the action taken.
They recognize their own view as subjective, and seek to develop their
understanding of the events from multiple perspectives. The action researcher
uses data collected from interactions with others to characterize the forces in ways that can be
shared with other practitioners. This leads to a reflective phase in which
the action researchers formulates new plans for action during the next cycle.
Action research provides a path of learning from and through one's
practice by working through a series of reflective stages that facilitate
the development of progressive problem solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Over time,
action researchers develop a deep understanding of the ways in which a variety of social and environmental forces interact
to create complex patterns. Since these forces are dynamic, action research is a process of living one's theory into
practice (McNiff & Whitehead, 2010).
of action research are the actions taken, the resulting change, and the transformation thinking, acting and feeling by the persons enacting the change. While
the design of action research may originate with an individual,
the process of change is always social. Over time, the action researcher
often extends the arena of change to a widening group of
stakeholders. The goal is a deeper understanding of the factors of change which result in positive personal and professional change.
This form of research then is an iterative, cyclical process of reflecting
on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action.
Therefore, the research takes shape while it is being performed. Greater
understanding from each cycle points the way to improved practice.
Not every action researchers will agree with how I have described action research. In fact, each action researcher will have to find his or her own approach to doing action research as the conditions and support structures will be unique. To understand how action research varies, I describe two points, A, and B, along six dimensions. When someone engages in action research, they (or others) make choices that place them at some point along the continuum for each dimension. Some will argue that side A, or B, or a perfect balance between them, is ideal, or even necessary, to call the process action research. Most will have very convincing arguments for why all action research should be done in the way they advocate. The dialogue is healthy and helps us each understand the value of the positions we take. By understanding the boundaries we develop a deeper understanding of the process. (If you click on the bar graphic, you can make your own choices and compare them with others. )
A. Theory from Practice - Using practices to generate theories beginning with values, needs and knowledge of human interaction
B. Theory into Practice - Using social science findings to inform patterns of change
A. Inside Expertise- Action researchers are empowered to locate problems of practice and develop methods to improve them
B. Outside Expertise - Action researchers form partnerships with outside experts to guide the process
A. Individual Process - Action researchers select their own questions to investigate
B. Group Process - A group of action researchers select a common question or set of questions to investigate
A. Problem-Based Approach- Action Researchers locate problems and engage in progressive problem solving in cycles
B. Inquiry-Based Approach - Action Researchers explore effective practices to better understand and perfect them through multiple cycles
A. Identity Transformation - The primary outcome of action research is change to the way the action researcher thinks, acts and feels
B. Social Change -The primary outcomes of action research is the shift in the social context where people collectively change how they act, think and feel
A. Shared Practices - Action Researchers share what they have learned informally at their site
B. Shared Knowledge- Action Researchers share their findings in more formal contexts
Authors and professors as well as practitioners often have very strong views about what are the essential (and non essential) characteristics of action research. Movement to one or the other side of each continuum represents a shift in the action research approach.
I like to think of action research as a disposition of mind as well as a research approach. It is a commitment to cycles of collective inquiry with shared reflections on the outcomes leading to new ideas. Action research forms a path towards a professional "adaptive" expertise. Hatona and Ingaki (1986) set out a contrast between efficiency expertise and adaptive expertise. I have added innovative expertise.
The yellow path can also be applied to the activist who is singled minded without researching the outcomes and consequences of action, The blue panel might be the path of researchers who do not apply their theories to change contexts. The green combines inquiry and activism to engage in action research. When you balance these two very different learning approaches you follow the green path of action research leading to adaptive expertise and the acquisition of a deeper understanding of yourself and others.
of Action Research include:
The improvement of professional practice through continual learning and progressive
A deep understanding of practice and the development of a well specified
theory of action;
An improvement in the community in which one's practice is embedded
through participatory research.
research involves a systematic process of examining the
evidence. The results of this type of research are practical, relevant,
and can inform theory. Action research is different than other forms
of research as there is less concern for universality of findings,
and more value is placed on the relevance of the findings to the researcher
and the local collaborators. Critical reflection is at the heart
of action research and when this reflection is based on careful examination
of evidence from multiple perspectives, it can provide an effective
strategy for improving the organization's ways of working and the
whole organizational climate. It can be the process through which
an organization learns. We conceptualize action research as having three outcomes—on the personal, organizational and scholarly levels.
(from Riel and Lepori, 2011)
At the personal level, it is a systematic set of methods for interpreting and evaluating one’s actions with the goal of improving practice. Action research is often located in schools and done by teachers, but it can also be carried out in museums, medical organizations, corporations, churches and clubs—any setting where people are engaged in collective, goal directed activity. Equally important, not all teacher research is action research. Teachers can do ethnographic, evaluative or experimental research that is NOT action research. The process of doing action research involves progressive problem solving, balancing efficiency with innovation thereby developing what has been called an “adaptive” form of expertise.
At the organizational level, action research is about understanding the system of interactions that define a social context. Kurt Lewin proposed action research as a method of understanding social systems or organizational learning. He claimed that the best way to test understanding was to try to effect change. Action research goes beyond self-study because actions, outcomes, goals and assumptions are located in complex social systems. The action researcher begins with a theory of action focused on the intentional introduction of change into a social system with assumptions about the outcomes. This theory testing requires a careful attention to data, and skill in interpretation and analysis. Activity theory, social network theory, system theories, and tools of evaluation such as surveys, interviews and focus groups can help the action researcher acquire a deep understanding of change in social contexts within organizations.
(Activity Theory Model based on the work of Engeström, 2004))
At the scholarly level, the action researcher produces validated findings and assumes a responsibility to share these findings with those in their setting and with the larger research community. Many people acquire expertise in their workplace, but researchers value the process of building knowledge through ongoing dialogue about the nature of their findings. Engaging in this dialogue, through writing or presenting at conferences, is part of the process of action research.
Action Research and Learning Circles
||Action research is conducted in the workplace with others. It is a collaborative process. But, also, the doing of action research is more effective when action researchers can benefit from the help of a community of action researchers. The Center for Collaborative Action Research is part of a process of developing the community of action researchers for each cadre. In our program, action researchers carry out their work in learning circles—a structure for organizing group interaction. Combining this collaborative structure with the action research process is an effective way to provide high levels of support for action researchers as they design their action and engage in the process of studying the outcomes.
Research Questions: A Guide to Progressive Inquiry
The questions asked by action
researchers guide their process. A good question will inspire
one to look closely and collect evidence that will help find possible
answers. What are good examples of action research questions? What are questions
that are less likely to promote the process of deep sustained inquiry? The best question is the one that will
inspire the researcher to look at their practice deeply and to engage in cycles of
continuous learning from the everyday practice of their craft. These
questions come from a desire to have practice align with
values and beliefs. Exploring these questions helps the researcher
to be progressively more effective in attaining their personal goals
and developing professional expertise.
Good questions often arise from visions of improved practice and
emerging theories about the change that will move the researcher
closer to the ideal state of working practices. When stated in an
if/then format, they can take the shape of a research hypothesis.
If I [insert the action to be taken], how will it affect [describe
one or more possible consequences of the action]? We will look at
two examples, one from education and one from a business setting.
Development of Action Research Questions
in an Educational Context
Suppose the researcher is worried about designing the learning context
to meet the needs of students who are currently not doing well in
the classroom. The general question might be:
How can I personalize instruction to match the diverse needs of my
This forms a good overall goal which can then lead to a number of
possible cycles of action research, each with a separate question. I find that a help research question has two parts. the first part describing the action and second part focused on the outcome that is anticipated.
Consider this question:
If I listen to students, will I have better understanding of them?
This question suggests an action and possible outcome but is vague
in both in the description of the action and in the possible outcome. It is not clear what is going to be done to increase attention to students and what evidence will help evaluate the action.
If I set up community circle time to listen to students describe
their learning experiences in my classroom (description of the action), in what ways, if any,
will the information about their learning processes lead to changes in my teaching practices (description of the outcome that will be studied)?
Now it is clear what the researcher intends to do and what a possible
outcome might be. In listening to students, the researcher might
discover information that will lead directly to an experiment in
instructional design or might refocus the overall goal to one that
was not apparent when the researcher began the inquiry.
Development of Action Research Questions
in a Corporate Context
The following is another example, from a business setting where people in diverse offices are working in ways that would benefit from greater coordination.
The action researcher might identify the problem
as one in which
poor communication results in decisions being made without attending
to the issue of how a decision affects the larger system. The researcher might see a role for technology in forging a solution to this problem, such as creating a database for storing and sharing documents. The overall research question might be:
How can the development of a common location
for shared knowledge and the use of interactive communication tools
increase the collaborative effectiveness of team-based decision-making
in our different regions?
The next step is to define what kind of communication tool will
be used and how the researcher plans to measure collaborative effectiveness
of the distant teams.
Cycle questions that might evolve should be specific with respect
to the actions taken and the outcomes that will be monitored:
If I create a wiki to share documents and increase coordination,
to what extent will the teams use this means of storing information
to coordinate their decision-making?
A second cycle question that might follow when it is clear that
other teams failed to use the wiki as effectively as the researcher
How will making all day support available on instant messenger for
questions about the use of the wiki affect the use of the wiki
to organize group work?
Recognizing Weak Action Research
- Questions with known answers
where the goal is to "prove" it
to others. For example, suppose a person has been holding family math
night for years and sees an effect on parent participation. A weak
question for action research would be: Will holding a family math
night increase parent participation? This might be a useful evaluative
research question where a controlled study could be set up to explore
the connection. But evaluative research is different than action
research. Action research is an experiment in design, and involves implementing an action to study its consequences.
- Questions that can
be answered yes or no. Generally these are questions
that will not encourage paying attention to the many nuances
of the setting and the social interactions. Although, like any guide,
while some yes/no questions can provide direction, it is often
helpful to think about ways to transform the question into a
different format. For example: Will the introduction of project-based
learning lead to more student engagement? The question might be reworked
to, How will the introduction of project-based learning affect
student engagement in my classroom? The first one, the researcher
can answer the question with yes (an outcome that they might
have expected). The second question guides them to look for
the possible mechanism of project-based learning (maybe ownership,
collaboration, or self-assessment) that have been found to be related
to increased engagement.
- Questions that can
be answered by reading the literature. What does community
of practice mean? This might be a question that the researcher needs
to answer, and can do so by reading more readily
than by engaging in action research. A better formulation for
action research might be: How will increasing the time for
teacher collaboration in grade level teams affect the development
of a community of practice at our school?
Sharing your Action Research with
One of the strongest acts of leadership can be the act of writing—of sharing knowledge and insights gained. Writing enables contribution to the body of knowledge that exists beyond the researcher. The final report serves the purpose of sharing the knowledge gained through action research with others in a community of practice. Action researchers
will need to decide what to write and to whom to write.
A Written Report
The following is the recommended template for the Master of Arts in Learning Technologies thesis for Pepperdine students. However, there are multiple ways that an action research report may be organized.
The significance of the problem you are addressing. The reader needs to be invited to think about the problem at the widest level. This should answer the question—Why should I read this; why should I care about this study? This is not about the context but about the problem and how it is linked to your vision for a different future.
WORK/COMMUNITY CONTEXT (Action context)—
Once you have a posed a problem at a general level, you will need to provide the context of your work. There are two parts to this. One, is the local context (this section,) and the other, is the professional context (review of literature). These can come in whatever order makes sense to you. In your local context, you may want to describe your membership/position in your community of practice, as well as how you have previously tried to address the problem described.
LITERATURE REVIEW (research context )—
The literature is another way to set the context for your work. What previous work informs your understanding of the problem? What theories or predictions about outcomes come from past studies? How is what you plan to do similar or different from what others have tried?
The research question sets up your inquiry. The overall question
is the over arching problem selected. The cycles questions are
sub questions that helped address this larger issue in different
REPORT OF CYCLES OF RESEARCH—
Action research takes place in cycles. Each cycle is a discrete
experiment—taking action as a way of studying change. Your
report needs to include either a detailed report for each
cycle as follows or a report of the cycles in a more summary
DESCRIPTION OF CYCLE ACTION: Description of what was planned and why this is seen as a effective change. Might include some guesses about what will happen.
CYCLE RESEARCH QUESTION: A strong question sets out both the action and expected reactions. The first part of the question clearly states what you will
do in very specific language. The second part shares your best
guess at an outcome. (The reactions of others that you expect
to result from your action.) Your action research is a design
experiment. You are designing with an eye toward a deeper understanding
DESCRIPTION OF WHAT HAPPENED: Brief description of what took place.
EVIDENCE USED TO EVALUATE THE ACTION: What evidence did you
collect to tell you how others respond to your action? Where
did you look for direct or indirect evidence of what
EVALUATION: How will you/did you evaluate the outcomes of your
action?.....(Indicate your plans for your analysis in a paragraph
REFLECTION: Looking back on your action after collecting data, what thoughts come to mind? If you were to repeat the process, what would you change? What worked best for you? What most surprised you?
This is where you will take stock of your overall learning process during your action research. It might be helpful to think of a reflection as a set of connections between the past, present and future. If this section is only a summary of events that happened, it is inadequate as a reflection. A reflection provides a deep understanding of why events occurred as they did, and how those outcomes helped you address your over arching question. At the conclusion of a good reflection, you should ideally know more than you did when you began. If you have not gained new insights about the problem and your problem-solving action, it is likely that you are only summarizing. Reflection is a powerful learning experience and an essential part of action research.
The references provide the context for your ideas.
In many ways, the references indicate the community of researchers
and writers that you are writing for. (See the CCAR wiki for detailed suggestions for each of these phases of action research.)
An important part of the action research process is sharing artifacts of the inquiry to enable the action researcher to continually reflect on practice so that peers may contribute feedback and support. The Web Portfolio, then, becomes a place for both internal and external reflection.
A good action research portfolio, like a report, documents practices
at each step of the inquiry. The accumulation of content provides
critical mass for reflection and for recognizing change of practice.
There is no perfect template for an action research portfolio.
One key idea, however, is to be sure to document each cycle and
gather artifacts accordingly. That documentation process should
utilize both descriptive and reflective writing.
The Center for Collaborative Action Research has collected action
research portfolios that serve as effective models. The model
portfolios are categorized into two groups: School
Action Research for projects that help improve instructional practices and Community
Action Research for projects
in university, corporate, and other community settings.
In general, your portfolio might include, but is not limited
to the following:
- An overview of your problem at a general level and
why you (and others) see this as an important challenge and some hints about what you did to solve it- this opening page should be engaging with photos, graphics and possibly a video or audio intro from you
- A description of the problem that you are researching with
an action to be taken
- A detailed description of the field of action (the action context)
- A review of literature as part of a planning process (the research context)
- The action research question(s)
- The action research process described briefly
- Cycle Reports that document the activity across multiple efforts of change including
- data collected
- details of the analysis process
- cycle reflections
- Your final reflection considering what was learned across all of the cycles about yourself, your actions, your context and the process.
- Collection of any artifacts, images, and videos, or research blogs that you with to include
- Professional bio
Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Engeström, Y. (2004). "New forms of learning in co-configuration work", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 16 Iss: 1/2, pp.11 - 21
Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262-272). New York: Freeman.
McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research: Principals and practice (Third Edition). New York: Routledge.
McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2010) You and your action research project. (3rd Edition). Abingdon:Routledge.
Riel, M. & Lepori, K. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of the Outcomes of Action Research. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association conference, April 2011, New Orleans.
Citation for Web Document:
Riel, M. (2010). Understanding Action Research, Center For Collaborative
Action Research, Pepperdine University (Last revision Sep, 2013). Accessed Online on
for Collaborative Action Research | Pepperdine
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