Action research refers to a wide range of evaluative or investigative methods designed to analyze professional practices and take action for improvement.
Commonly used in education, those practices could be related to instructional methods, classroom practices, or school organizational matters.
The creation of action research is attributed to Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist also considered to be the father of social psychology.
Gillis and Jackson (2002) offer a very concise definition of action research: “systematic collection and analysis of data for the purpose of taking action and making change” (p.264).
The methods of action research in education include:
- conducting in-class observations
- taking field notes
- surveying or interviewing teachers, administrators, or parents
- using audio and video recordings.
The goal is to identify problematic issues, test possible solutions, or simply carry-out continuous improvement.
There are several steps in action research: identify a problem, design a plan to resolve, implement the plan, evaluate effectiveness, reflect on results, make necessary adjustment and repeat the process.
Action Research Examples
- Working with parents through research: A school’s admin staff conduct focus group sessions with parents to identify top concerns.Those concerns will then be addressed and another session conducted at the end of the school year.
- Peer teaching observations and improvements: Kindergarten teachers observe other teachers handling class transition techniques to share best practices.
- PTA surveys and resultant action:The PTA of a district conducts a survey of members regarding their satisfaction with remote learning classes.The results will be presented to the school board for further action.
- Recording and reflecting:A school administrator takes video recordings of playground behavior and then plays them for the teachers. The teachers work together to formulate a list of 10 playground safety guidelines.
- Pre/post testing of interventions: A school board conducts a district wide evaluation of a STEM program by conducting a pre/post-test of students’ skills in computer programming.
- Focus groups of practitioners:The professional development needs of teachers are determined from structured focus group sessions with teachers and admin.
- School lunch research and intervention:A nutrition expert is hired to evaluate and improve the quality of school lunches.
- School nurse systematic checklist and improvements: The school nurse implements a bathroom cleaning checklist to monitor cleanliness after the results of a recent teacher survey revealed several issues.
- Wearable technologies for pedagogical improvements; Students wear accelerometers attached to their hips to gain a baseline measure of physical activity.The results will identify if any issues exist.
- School counselor reflective practice: The school counselor conducts a student survey on antisocial behavior and then plans a series of workshops for both teachers and parents.
1. Cooperation and Leadership
A science teacher has noticed that her 9th grade students do not cooperate with each other when doing group projects. There is a lot of arguing and battles over whose ideas will be followed.
So, she decides to implement a simple action research project on the matter. First, she conducts a structured observation of the students’ behavior during meetings. She also has the students respond to a short questionnaire regarding their notions of leadership.
She then designs a two-week course on group dynamics and leadership styles. The course involves learning about leadership concepts and practices. In another element of the short course, students randomly select a leadership style and then engage in a role-play with other students.
At the end of the two weeks, she has the students work on a group project and conducts the same structured observation as before. She also gives the students a slightly different questionnaire on leadership as it relates to the group.
She plans to analyze the results and present the findings at a teachers’ meeting at the end of the term.
2. Professional Development Needs
Two high-school teachers have been selected to participate in a 1-year project in a third-world country. The project goal is to improve the classroom effectiveness of local teachers.
The two teachers arrive in the country and begin to plan their action research. First, they decide to conduct a survey of teachers in the nearby communities of the school they are assigned to.
The survey will assess their professional development needs by directly asking the teachers and administrators. After collecting the surveys, they analyze the results by grouping the teachers based on subject matter.
They discover that history and social science teachers would like professional development on integrating smartboards into classroom instruction. Math teachers would like to attend workshops on project-based learning, while chemistry teachers feel that they need equipment more than training.
The two teachers then get started on finding the necessary training experts for the workshops and applying for equipment grants for the science teachers.
3. Playground Accidents
The school nurse has noticed a lot of students coming in after having mild accidents on the playground. She’s not sure if this is just her perception or if there really is an unusual increase this year.
So, she starts pulling data from the records over the last two years. She chooses the months carefully and only selects data from the first three months of each school year.
She creates a chart to make the data more easily understood. Sure enough, there seems to have been a dramatic increase in accidents this year compared to the same period of time from the previous two years.
She shows the data to the principal and teachers at the next meeting. They all agree that a field observation of the playground is needed.
Those observations reveal that the kids are not having accidents on the playground equipment as originally suspected. It turns out that the kids are tripping on the new sod that was installed over the summer.
They examine the sod and observe small gaps between the slabs. Each gap is approximately 1.5 inches wide and nearly two inches deep. The kids are tripping on this gap as they run.
They then discuss possible solutions.
4. Differentiated Learning
Trying to use the same content, methods, and processes for all students is a recipe for failure. This is why modifying each lesson to be flexible is highly recommended. Differentiated learning allows the teacher to adjust their teaching strategy based on all the different personalities and learning styles they see in their classroom.
Of course, differentiated learning should undergo the same rigorous assessment that all teaching techniques go through. So, a third-grade social science teacher asks his students to take a simple quiz on the industrial revolution. Then, he applies differentiated learning to the lesson.
By creating several different learning stations in his classroom, he gives his students a chance to learn about the industrial revolution in a way that captures their interests. The different stations contain: short videos, fact cards, PowerPoints, mini-chapters, and role-plays.
At the end of the lesson, students get to choose how they demonstrate their knowledge. They can take a test, construct a PPT, give an oral presentation, or conduct a simulated TV interview with different characters.
During this last phase of the lesson, the teacher is able to assess if they demonstrate the necessary knowledge and have achieved the defined learning outcomes. This analysis will allow him to make further adjustments to future lessons.
5. Healthy Habits Program
While looking at obesity rates of students, the school board of a large city is shocked by the dramatic increase in the weight of their students over the last five years. After consulting with three companies that specialize in student physical health, they offer the companies an opportunity to prove their value.
So, the board randomly assigns each company to a group of schools. Starting in the next academic year, each company will implement their healthy habits program in 5 middle schools.
Preliminary data is collected at each school at the beginning of the school year. Each and every student is weighed, their resting heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol are also measured.
After analyzing the data, it is found that the schools assigned to each of the three companies are relatively similar on all of these measures.
At the end of the year, data for students at each school will be collected again. A simple comparison of pre- and post-program measurements will be conducted. The company with the best outcomes will be selected to implement their program city-wide.
Action research is a great way to collect data on a specific issue, implement a change, and then evaluate the effects of that change. It is perhaps the most practical of all types of primary research.
Most likely, the results will be mixed. Some aspects of the change were effective, while other elements were not. That’s okay. This just means that additional modifications to the change plan need to be made, which is usually quite easy to do.
There are many methods that can be utilized, such as surveys, field observations, and program evaluations.
The beauty of action research is based in its utility and flexibility. Just about anyone in a school setting is capable of conducting action research and the information can be incredibly useful.
Aronson, E., & Patnoe, S. (1997). The jigsaw classroom: Building cooperation in the classroom (2nd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
Gillis, A., & Jackson, W. (2002). Research Methods for Nurses: Methods and Interpretation. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of SocialIssues, 2(4), 34-46.
Macdonald, C. (2012). Understanding participatory action research: A qualitative research methodology option. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 13, 34-50. https://doi.org/10.33524/cjar.v13i2.37 Mertler, C. A. (2008). Action Research: Teachers as Researchers in the Classroom. London: Sage.