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What is action research

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 5 months ago
It's not that easy to give a simple definition of action research.  It is a research approach with a long history; a history of continuous debate as to its nature.  In the school context however, action research can generally be defined as the reflective, systematic and collaborative study of one's own practice in order to bring about improvement in that practice. It differs from other forms of research in that an action phase characterises the process. In addition, action research is usually cyclical - an ongoing process of reflection, action, evaluation and improvement. Have a look at Richard Donato's paper (in Resources) to gain an overview of the deductive and inductive approaches to action research. (Di)
Here's a PPT that I used at the State Library Day 2008. It gives a brief overview of action research and it's suitability as a research approach for educators.

Craig Merlter (2006) offers this compilation of perspectives on the nature of action research.


Action research is:


  • a process that improves education, in general, by incorporating change.
  • a process involving educators working together to improve their own practices.
  • persuasive and authoritative, since it is done by teachers for teachers.
  • collaborative: that is, it is composed of educators talking and working with other educators in empowering relationships.
  • participative, since educators are integral members-not disinterested outsiders-of the research process.
  • practical and relevant to classroom teachers, since it allows them direct access to research findings.
  • developing critical reflection about one's teaching.
  • a planned, systematic approach to understanding the learning process.
  • is a process that requires us to "test" our ideas about education.
  • open-minded.
  • a critical analysis of educational places of work.
  • a cyclical process of planning, acting, developing and reflecting.
  • a justification of one's teaching practices.

      (Mertler, C 2006, Action research: Teachers as researchers in the classroom, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. pp. 11-12)



Dr Kirsty Williamson is our Researcher-in-Residence for October Research Retreat 2007.  I have pasted in a general talk she gave at a Research Retreat in Canberra (edited)

Dealing with the complexities of research methods and environments: The role of partnerships (Canberra 9 April)



The purpose of this [informal] talk is to encourage you all to undertake research so that you can add some insights into issues of importance to your field, and enjoy yourselves in doing it.  I shall advocate that partnerships are a very rewarding option to consider for achieving this. And it


First of all, I want to point out how complex the field of research is.  I believe it has taken me 30 years or more to gain a real understanding of the complexities involved – the key philosophies, the paradigms, the research methods and techniques.  I don’t think you need to have a deep understanding of the rich possibilities – I certainly undertook what I think was useful research in my early days, with a knowledge of one style of research only.  But I now wish I had gained a better overview earlier in my career – an overview which I think is now easier to acquire because of the more ready access to research information.



But acquiring such an overview is not problem-free.  To begin with, the terminology used to describe certain research concepts varies.  For example, what one writer labels a philosophy, another will label an epistemology or even a paradigm.  Students who undertake my research methods course will often pose curly questions where they have discovered these kinds of differences. My stock reply is to assure them that one must learn to live with this.  But there are certain basic elements to understand, e.g., that there are different perceptions of the social world and how it functions which result in different views of what constitutes ‘reality’ (as it is often referred to).  These very much influence – or should be influence – the way research is undertaken.  While Brian probably wasn’t aware of it, he summed up the principal tenet of one of the key research philosophies – interpretivism – in this excerpt from The Life of Brian.  This is my overview conceptualisation of the research arena.




  • Different world views (philosophies) about research (can also be referred to as epistemologies or even ontologies).- the world is measurable; the world is interpreted.


  • Deduction is associated with positivism – starts with a theory and then tests it through empirical research, often generating hypotheses; induction associated with interpretivism – starts with empirical investigation and then generates theory from the findings (grounded theory).


  • Generalisations can be made if positivists methods are carried out with rigour, e.g., the sample is randomly selected; interpretivists (through qualitative research) must be very wary of generalising.


  • Interpretivism tends to have quite a large number of paradigms. (A paradigm is a set of assumptions that provides a framework for understanding particular phenomena.  But phenomenology is also labelled a philosophy.)


  • Methods for positivist and post-positivist approaches are similar.  The main difference is that, while post-positivists believe there is a measurable, objective reality, it is hard to discover.  They rely on qualitative data much more than positivists. Two key methods: survey and experimental design.      
  • Most common method for constructivists is ethnography, also referred to as participant observation – very flexible offering a range of techniques and the possibility of emphasising some techniques over others.  [Excellent for Action Research LGL] 


  • The fact that different techniques can be used for a variety of methods.


  • There can be a mixed methods approach, where aspects that are ‘measurable’ are quantified and those that aren’t are ‘explored’.  For example, if you just want to collect statistics on library use (types of users/types of uses), then a quantitative approach is fine.  If you want to understand why certain people do or do not use the library (the why questions), then a qualitative approach is appropriate. 




 Why is it important to have an overview?


 If one does not have some understanding of research philosophies and paradigms then one cannot place one’s research in a broader context.  I have seen this recently because I am writing an overview chapter for a book in which there is a range of different contributions.  Some authors have written excellent chapters using a particular research method but have made statements that indicated a lack of understanding of the broader context of research.  E.g., one paper I read recently talked about the role of qualitative research in making generalisations and developing scientific laws.  That is patently wrong.  It is what the positivists using mainly quantitative research do.



I hasten to add that there are different levels at which research can be conducted.  A deep understanding of research theory is not always necessary.  All I am saying is that some background can be very helpful so that you can place your research in a wider context and write about it with some confidence for the benefit of others.



And the most important thing of all is to match the method and techniques to the research questions.  Questions that are about: how much, how many, when, where, who are suited to quantitative research; the why and how questions are more suited to qualitative research



And so how can you ease yourself into the research methods field, gradually acquire the background you need, and enjoy research.



What to Do?


1. Do some reading to give you an overview of research philosophy and methods.  Remember that you don’t have to remember all you read or even understand it all.  You just need to have a grasp of the complexities and know where to look if you need to do some checking.



2. Decide which approach suits your questions (which you should try to frame clearly).  Focus of research questions is extremely important. 



3. Work out the method which you think is most suited.



4. Try to find someone, who has experience with the method, to partner you, especially if you are new to research.  I have been advocating practitioner/academic partnerships for years.  I like them a lot from my own point of view as I feel that I learn so much from working with practitioners.  I think the research outcomes from such partnerships are often more useful and grounded. 


[BTW The ARC has a category of funding, called Linkage, which encourages academic/ practitioner partnerships]. [LGL]













is much more fun to work with others of like mind rather than to work alone.


Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 8:34 pm on Jun 13, 2007

Hi Dianne (Lane). I hope you don't mind... I moved your suggested resource into the resources section.

Anonymous said

at 8:16 pm on Aug 6, 2007

That's OK

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