At some point, teachers and instructors will come across some form of problem that they would like to address in their classroom or course. Some teachers will rely on traditional ways to solve these problems. Teachers will also seek out the advice of experts or colleagues to try and address challenges. Really good educators will conduct their own investigations to identify and solve problems while analyzing information about their school and the learning environment. These learning environments may be brick and mortar classrooms, online learning environments, or a hybrid mix of the two.
Action Research is either research initiated to solve an immediate problem or a reflective process of progressive problem solving that integrates research, action, and analysis. The integration of action includes the development and implementation of a plan or strategy to address the focus of the research. The research includes building a knowledge base to understand the effectiveness of the action or plan being considered. Put simple, action research can be viewed as a form of disciplined inquiry utilized by teachers, instructors, and supervisors to better understand student learning and teacher effectiveness.
There are many guides and permutations available for conducting action research in the classroom. I will link to some of these resources in the citations section at the conclusion of this post. The purpose of this post is to get you up and running with four basic steps needed to conduct action research in your own practice.
Selecting a focus
The first step in conducting action research is to identify and define the focus of your investigation. You’ll want to develop some questions about the area of your focus. Finally, you’ll need to identify a plan to effectively study and answer the questions you’ve developed.
Please note that action research typically will include an examination of the school, programs, students, and instructional practices. You’ll want to consider what aspects of these areas will you need to study in your research. Specifically, will you need to examine student outcomes (dispositions, achievement); curriculum (instructional materials, content standards, frameworks); instruction (teaching strategies, use of technology); school climate (student morale, teacher morale, relationships between teachers and supervisors); parental involvement (participation on committees, attendance at events).
As you develop your focus and identify a specific frame to guide your thinking, you should also adjust your research questions. As an example, if you’re concerned with issues of school climate, you might want to consider the following guiding questions:
- How can I document the morale of teachers?
- What impact does possible low morale of teachers have on student achievement?
- Will increased relationships between teachers and supervisors yield higher teacher morale?
- How might we increase more positive relationships between students, teachers, and supervisors?
Developing and revising the focus and guiding questions for your action research will help you understand what elements you are interested in examining. You will also need to identify questions you can effectively gather information about and conduct your research. What research questions do you want to answer? What research questions do you think you can answer?
The second step involved in conducting action research includes collecting data to use in answering your research questions. Once again, in step one you’ll identify questions you are interested in answering..and think that you can effectively “answer”? In the second step, you’ll need to gather info to address these questions. This data may consist of teacher-made surveys and standardized test data. Data may consist of surveys and interviews. Collected data may also consist of student portfolios, observations, and other sources of information.
The data you collect may also consist of research conducted to identify best practices, or research tested techniques. This is an opportunity to learn from others that may have been trying to unpack the same problems or challenges. In my own work I use a two-step process of Google searches and then Google Scholar to quickly learn more about a topic. After I have identified the focus, keywords, and relevant search terms, I can continue my examination at the library or using online sources.
You’ll want to make sure that your data will address the focus of your action research. If you’re interested in studying the district’s new ELA/Reading curriculum, you might collect interview and survey data. You may also collect student scores on district-wide assessments. Finally, you may collect the previous curriculum, or examine other curricular materials available.
As you collect data, you’ll want to make sure that you organize it to make it easy for you (and others) to analyze. You may not present the data to others, but it helps you in the long run in you keep your work organized as you work. You may also choose to share your data with others to help prove a point or connect your findings with others.
One of the last points I’d like to make about data collection is identifying when you have collected enough data. This is always a question that is asked as we begin the research process. What you’re looking for is “saturation of data.” As you collect data, you’ll begin to recognize patterns in the data. If you start to get a “gut feeling” that “you’ve already seen this before”…chances are you’re approaching saturation.
Analyzing and interpreting data
After identifying your focus and collecting data, you’ll need to analyze and make interpretations from your materials. In this you’ll want to describe or summarize the data clearly. You’ll also look for consistent patterns or themes across the data. Finally, you’ll want to use the data to answer your research questions and/or prove your hypotheses.
There are multiple strategies and techniques that can be used as you analyze your data. In my own work I find it is helpful to lay out all of my data and the identified themes or patterns in an area that is easily visible while working. I’ll save these themes and patterns written on paper on my desk, or on a white board in my office. I also find it helpful to just write and think through the data, themes, and patterns as I make sense of the results.
As you “make sense” of the results, you’ll want to identify how you’ll develop your findings. In qualitative analysis, there is usually a focus on deductive or inductive analysis of the data. Deductive means that you’re moving from concepts to examples while inductive means that you’re moving from examples to concepts. Another way to consider this is that deductive reasoning has you examine your data with an open mind, look for patterns, develop a hypothesis, and then move to theory. Inductive on the other hand has you moving from the theory and using your hypothesis and the data to confirm your findings.
Please also note that it is possible and appropriate to move from one frame to another, or include bits and pieces across the research process. You’ll just want to understand where you’re obtaining your results, and what lenses you’re using as you analyze and interpret your data.
The fourth step includes you making a decision about your research and identifying next possible actions. Let us suppose you have researched the question above about teacher morale and have uncovered the root cause of the problem. You’ve surveyed the students, teachers, and supervisors and you know exactly how to “fix” the problem.
You now have to take action and this includes several possibilities. First, you may choose to continue the system as it currently operates and make no changes. Second, you may choose to disband the organization to address the problem. This may include shutting down the school and sending all of the students, teachers, and supervisors elsewhere. Third, you may choose to modify or make small tweaks to the school, program, or relationships between all partners to address the culture of the school.
Your decision on how you take action will be determined by a multitude of factors…some of which may be out of your control. Please note that action research typically follows a cycle as you move through each of the steps. As you work through the sequence, you’ll learn a bit more about the problem or research question. You’ll use this information as a way to improve your focus, research, or action in subsequent steps through the cycle. This most likely will not be the end of the cycle. You’ll continue to observe, act, and reflect as you continue to plan and operate in the classroom.
Continuing the action research cycle
Information gained from previous research may open new avenues of research. You may choose to come down to this last step and decide to move back to the top of the cycle and start the process over again after tweaking one small variable in the sequence. Action research is ongoing. In this cycle, you are continually involved in assessing instruction and seeking ways of improving your practice, classroom, or even more.
For more guidance, please review some of the resources I used to compile this post:
- A practical guide to action research for literacy educators
- Action Research: A guide for associate lecturers
- Action research in education
- Action Research in Qualitative Research
If needed, I am available to help guide you in this process. You should also subscribe to my newsletter to continue your thinking about these skills and habits.
Also published on Medium.