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What is action research, and why do it?

Published: Feb 26, 2015 4 min read

STEM learning

Action research in education is research carried out by teachers in their own schools and classrooms.

It is useful in several ways:

  • action research can provide one of the highest levels of structured personal reflection for a teacher in terms of their own practice.
  • for those teachers who want to try something out, but don’t know how well it will suit their children, school, wider environment or their teaching style, it provides evidence of impact.
  • you may come across a great idea, programme or other innovation, backed by evidence of success elsewhere, but wonder whether this would work in your school? Action research can provide this evidence. The evidence can then be used to persuade colleagues, as well as senior management, to roll out the innovation beyond your own classroom, and even beyond your own school.

As with any research, you need to spend time working out exactly what it is you want to know, and create a research question that provides a tight focus for your data collection. You may find it easy to start with quite a broad research question, then list a series of ‘sub questions’ from which to select.

How do you collect your evidence?

Use similar methods to more formalised research, but tailored to meet your school’s needs. For example, you can devise simple questionnaires; paper-based or online, using tools such as Survey Monkey, to collect information and perceptions. Questionnaires can be sent to pupils, teachers, parents and governors both before and after the implementation of a new strategy.

The questionnaire design is crucial. It is always a good idea to pilot the questionnaire with a small number of people, before unleashing it on all your intended audience. This way, you can find out whether the questions are measuring what you intended them to measure. Questions should be carefully crafted to ensure that they will successfully measure the successes and difficulties faced by the implementation of the innovation/strategy.

You may also wish to collect data/evidence via classroom observations. To avoid simply watching ‘everything’ that is happening in a classroom during the innovation, try to devise an observation schedule. Models exist which can be adapted and tailored to suit your needs, and to focus on the appropriate aspects of your innovation. Involving colleagues in observations is also beneficial. They can check whether the schedule is effective in achieving its aims, and to add to your data/evidence.

Interviews with pupils and/or colleagues are another effective way of collecting data. This is a much more time-consuming approach, as the data often needs transcribing, then analysing to categorize responses. However it does provide rich in-depth results.

Questions should be carefully crafted to ensure that they will successfully measure the successes and difficulties faced by the implementation of the innovation/strategy.

Whatever methods are used, always ensure that you are completely open with everyone involved about the purposes of your research, your intended methodology, and the use of the data you collect. All data should be reported anonymously, unless permission has been given otherwise. People are generally much more likely to answer questions openly and honestly, if given and reported anonymously.

Eight top tips for carrying out your own action research:

  • stay small, stay focused
  • identify a clear research question (e.g. What is the impact of X on Y?)
  • be realistic about what you can do; also be aware that wider change begins with you
  • plan carefully
  • set a realistic timescale
  • involve others – as fellow researchers, as observers
  • ensure good ethical practice.
  • concentrate on learning, not on the outcomes of action

(From McNiff & Whitehead (2002) Action Research: Principles and Practice)

You can find out more about action research from the following sources and courses: