What Is Action Research? Meaning and Application of Action Research

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A quick look at history will help in answering the question, “What is action research?”

Kurt Lewin coined the term action research to describe research that involved a cycle of discovering an issue, gathering and organizing data, acting upon what is found in the data and finally, reviewing the results to consider further steps to be taken. Columbia University’s Stephen Corey used action research for the first time in education, believing that it would allow educators an opportunity to both research and apply the information at the same time. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that action research began to be accepted by academia as a legitimate form of inquiry. In fact, it is through action research that many of the advances found within classrooms today can trace their roots.

Types of Action Research

Within the field of education, there are four possible scenarios for action research -

  1. an individual teacher researching a single classroom issue
  2. a collaborative action involving two or more teachers within one or more classrooms with a common issue
  3. a school-wide action focusing on a school issue/problem or something of interest to the school community
  4. a district-wide action working toward solving an issue within the district or changing/improving the organizational structure

Each of these scenarios presents opportunities for positive change for the individual researchers, their classrooms, as well as the schools or districts as a whole. However, while the desired outcome is to hone teaching skills, improve relationships with colleagues, build teams and/or work towards a shared vision, researchers should also be aware of the pitfalls.

Often data is not shared, disagreements on how to proceed can arise and groups can become cliquish. Obtaining the support of mentors, colleagues outside the research and partners beyond the context of the school can help to keep everyone on an even keel.

Cycle of Action Research

Most researchers would agree that action research is non-linear, beginning with reflection on an issue and ending with reflection on the outcome of the solution. Most descriptions of action research discuss four key elements: empowerment, collaboration, acquisition, and change.

Brown University created a five-phase cycle for use in school communities. The phases are:

  • to identify a problem
  • to collect and organize data
  • to interpret data
  • to act upon what is found in the data
  • to reflect on the process and outcome

Information on the Phases

In beginning of an action research project, it is important to consider if the question being researched will make a difference; if the teacher/school/district will have influence over it; and if it is worth the time and effort put into the research. Identifying a problem or issue should be done mindfully and without haste.

Gathering data for the project can be done utilizing multimedia. Tools such as videos, recordings, portfolios, case studies and photos can all be collected and organized as evidence of research. Organization can be done in multiple levels or themes such as, gender, class, school, etc.

When analyzing the data it is important to realize that some data may be quantifiable, but other data will not be. This data can be presented by theme or other factors of importance.

After analyzing/review the data researched as well as the current literature, create a plan of action. The plan should allow for changes, which should only be made singularly, and time to study the changes.

Finally, reflection on the process of research and the outcome of the action made will give educators the opportunity to discern what steps might be needed as next steps.

A Reflective Process

Reflection is vital to what is action research. Researchers begin and end with reflection. Action research fits well in the educational context because it actually allows educators to gather data, as they are teaching, which eventually leads to improvements in their teaching and the teaching of others.


Brown University: https://www.alliance.brown.edu/pubs/themes_ed/act_research.pdf