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Action Research 101

What is Action Research?

  • AR is research done by practitioners in the contexts where they operate. It is also known as practition- er research.

  • AR can be undertaken in various disciplinary fields: education, applied linguistics, health care, social work, community services, business, commerce, organizations.

  • There are several types of AR: participatory, critical, classroom, industrial, technical, practical.

What is Action Research in Second Language Education? (SLE)

  • In education, AR is a “self-reflective, critical, and systematic approach to exploring [one’s] own teach- ing contexts” (Burns, 2010).

  • It starts from a question/issue/problem that arises in one’s teaching context. The practitioner- researcher then sets out to explore this issue by taking systematic action, in search of a resolution.

  • Main goals:

  1. Gain a better understanding of one’s teaching practices and students’ learning, which can lead

practitioners to develop their own theories of practice that are critical and evidence-based.

  1. Implement change: directly apply the knowledge acquired during the research process to solve

specific problems.

AR focuses simultaneously on action and research:

o Action:

  • planned intervention: concrete strategies, processes and activities are implemented in response to a perceived issue

o Research:

  • systematic data collection

  • data analysis

  • reflection on the implications of the data

  • development of alternative plans and actions based on data analysis

Essential features of Action Research

  • It is localized and usually small-scale

  • It investigates problems of direct relevance to the practitioner-researchers in their social contexts

  • It is participatory: the researcher is also an active participant in his/her context of research

  • It is a reflective process that aims at and facilitates changes and improvements in practice

  • Changes come from a systematic and self-critical evaluation of the findings obtained from the data

  • It does not adhere to one particular research paradigm. Therefore, AR is neither qualitative nor quanti-

tative per se, but it can draw from both paradigms and use methodologies for data collection and data analysis from both paradigms (e.g.: field notes, interviews, questionnaires).

Types of Action Research in Education

  • There are 4 different types of AR based on the research focus (setting), its purpose (issues to address) and its potential outcomes. (Table taken from Burns, 2007).

Historical background & Development of Action Research in Education

  • The term “Action Research” was coined by Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, to describe work that “did not separate the investigation from the action needed to solve the problem” (McFarland & Stansell, 1993, p. 14)

  • Lewin developed this type of research in the field of social sciences in the 1940s. He employed AR as a form of experimental enquiry to investigate groups experiencing social problems.

  • Lewin devised a theoretical model of AR consisting of action cycles of analysis, fact-finding, conceptual- ization, planning, implementation, and evaluation. He also “argued for the inclusion of practitioners from the target research communities in the work of professional researchers” (Burns, 2007)

  • By the end of the 1950s, action research was in decline because of the movement supporting the separa- tion of research and theory from practice

  • In the 1970s, Stenhouse (1971, 1975) stated that teaching should be based on research and advocated for an active role of teachers in research and curriculum development (teacher-researcher movement)

  • AR in SLE started to gain attention between the 1980s and 1990s, with 1) the publication of practical guides for language teachers and 2) the paradigm shift in teacher education, from the teacher as a con- sumer of theories implemented in his/her practice to the teacher as a reflective practitioner, who ac- tively participates in constructing theory from practice

Models of Action Research

  • The work of the action researcher is cyclical in nature and there are several models of cycles and spirals

  •  The most prominent is the Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) four phase model, specifically for Educational

Action Research. It consists of:

o Plan – identify a problem and develop a plan of action o Action – deliberate, controlled and critically informed intervention o Observation – systematic documentation of the action and its effects (data collection phase) o Reflection – evaluation and description of the action and its effects


At the research level:

  •  Teachers acquire researcher skills: they become more systematic and rigorous when investigating an issue, when collecting data and analyzing them

  •  AR is very relevant for analyzing and understanding a specific context or situation

  • Its spiral model allows for continuous evaluation and modifications during the research project itself

  • Opportunities to develop theories of practice that emerge from the research itself

At the teaching level:

  • Opportunities for professional development

  • Teachers develop more autonomy in finding solutions to their problems and implementing them

  • They become more reflective and aware of their teaching practices: they learn how to identify a problem that needs to be solved, how to formulate questions that need to be answered

  • They develop a sense of empowerment

  • They become more open to change and develop fresher attitudes towards education

  • They benefit from collaboration with colleagues (in CAR): sense of collegiality, improved relationships

among teachers

For learners:

  • Direct impact on learners: improved performances and learning experience because of prompt pedagogical changes / improvements


At the research level:

  • Teachers may not be capable of undertaking research (due to a lack of research knowledge and training)

  • It may lack rigour and quality (e.g., no control groups, lack of validity and reliability)

  • It may lack generalizability, because it is highly context-dependent

  • It is debated whether AR should meet the standards of academic research and how it should be evaluated and reported

  • There are ethical issues concerning AR:

o Risk of excessive involvement and biases on the teachers’ part o Issues related to confidentiality, consent, power relations, participants roles. According to Nolan and Vander Putten (2007), there is a need for clear ethical statements for action research by professional organizations

At the teaching level:

  • It may be too demanding for practitioners because of lack of time, support, resources, access to materials, institutional barriers.

  •  It may not be always feasible. Dörnyei (2007) states: “[it is] a noble idea, it just does not seem to work in practice”

  • It may be a top-down approach imposed on teachers, and not a voluntary undertaking. It may be part of 1) attempts to make teachers comply with organizational agendas or 2) teachers may be influenced by outside researchers

Example of an empirical study involving collaborative action research

Banegas, D., Pavese, A., Velázquez, A., & Vélez, S. M. (2013). Teacher professional development through collaborative action research: Impact on foreign English-language teaching and learning. Educational Action Re- search, 21(2), 185-201.

Participants and setting:

  • 3 EFL classes in a secondary school in Argentina

  • 90 students

  • 3 teachers and one teacher-researcher

  • Argentinian School Year: March to December - 2 week break in July

  • 3 CAR-CLIL Cycles in 2011: MAR-JUN, JUL-SEP, OCT-DEC


  • To increase teenage students’ motivation in EFL classes and improve their learning opportunities

  • To revitalize ELT and syllabi in their context

  • To inspire other teachers to use collaborative action research to improve and challenge their own work

Research Questions:

  • In what ways do teachers benefit from involvement in action research for the integration of content

and language?

  • To what extent does professional development through action research impact on student motivation

to learn English?


  • the teachers adopted CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning)

  • the research project consisted of 3 cycles, with each cycle divided into different steps. The results from

each cycle informed the following cycles

o Cycle 1: (MAR-JUN)

  • issue identification (through group interviews)

  • initial investigations (class observations, interviews) > decision to develop their own


  • action (developing individual materials, meetings for feedback) > lesson planning and

material development were powerful triggers for reflection, motivation alignment and

teacher development

  • intervention (lessons implemented, observed, group interviews, class interviews)

  • evaluation (student questionnaires)

• Results from Cycle 1: students’ positive perceptions of their teachers as motivated teachers, students’ requests for more complex, challenging and interesting topics and activities

o Cycle 2: (JUL-SEP)

  • action (developing and use of individual, authentic materials, meetings, classroom observations and interviews)

  • intervention (like Cycle 1 + group interviews with teachers and students and student


  • evaluation

• Results from Cycle 2: improved relationships among teachers, more teacher reflection, change in teaching styles, improved students’ motivation and language proficiency

o Cycle 3: (OCT-DEC)

  • action (new curriculum-related topics, more demanding activities, focus on listening and speaking skills through authentic sources, use of the course book to teach grammar)

  • intervention (like Cycle 1 and 2)

  • evaluation (teacher meeting, class interviews, questionnaires)

Final results:

  • Positive students’ evaluation of the project, especially in relation to language improvement and moti-


  • Students remarked on more participation opportunities and that fellow students were more interest-

ed in listening to them.

  • The teachers felt that they had co-constructed new knowledge for and from their classrooms

  • The teachers felt more autonomous and aware of their teaching practices

References (in order of relevance)


Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching. A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge. A very clear and user-friendly book addressed to teachers at their first experience with action research. It clear- ly describes action research and provides many examples of studies to clarify the definitions given. The book is structured according to the 4 phases of Kemmis and McTaggart’s cyclical model: for each phase (chapter) it is discussed what researchers need to do at that stage.

Mills, G. E. (2011). Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher. Boston: Pearson. A very user-friendly book designed for teachers wanting to explore action research for the first time. After an overview of action research, the book guides the teacher through the stages of data collection techniques, da- ta validity/reliability/generalizability and analysis through to writing up the reports.

Koshy, V. (2005). Action research for improving practice : A practical guide. London: PCP/Sage Publications. Another practical and user-friendly guide for practitioners interested in conducting action research. Particularly helpful for students / pre-service teachers who wish to carry out action research as part of their courses, it guides the reader through the entire process of conducting action research, including finding, organizing and reviewing the literature, and writing a research report.

Ferrance, E. (2000). Themes in Education: Action Research. LAB at Brown University An excellent overview of Action Research published by Brown University to introduce Action Research to teachers and professors. This booklet provides a complete overview of AR including a brief history, the steps involved and case study examples.

Edge, J. (2001). Action research. Alexandria, Va: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. This book is a collection of action research studies conducted by teachers in various EFL and ESL contexts and educational sectors. Very useful to look at examples of AR in ELT.

Stringer, E. T. (2014). Action research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. This book is another user-friendly guide for practitioners, but focuses on action research in a variety of contexts beyond education. It is particularly valuable for those interested in action research in professional and commu- nity settings.

Book chapters

Burns, A. (2011). Action research in the field of second language teaching and learning. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning, (pp. 237-253). Vol. II. New York: Routledge. In this book chapter, Burns gives a detailed overview of action research beginning with its theoretical inception and development through the 20th century highlighting its relevance as a research paradigm.

Burns, A. (2007). Action research in ELT: Contributions and future directions. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), The International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Volume 2. Norwell, Ma: Springer Publications. An introductory discussion of action research and its place within empirical research. Burns then positions ac- tion research within the field of ELT and includes debates and criticisms.

Burns, A. (2013). Qualitative teacher research. In C. Chappelle (Ed.) The encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Oxford: John Wiley A clear, introductory article about action research with a specific focus on ELT. The author also clarifies the dif- ference between teacher research and action research.

Journal articles

Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38(2), 57-74. Very informative introductory article about action research in ELT. It describes the nature of AR, its develop- ment, its theoretical underpinnings, benefits and limitations.

Mitchell, S. N., Reilly, R. C., & Logue, M. E. (2009). Benefits of collaborative action research for the beginning teacher. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(2), 344-349. This article was written in support of the new teacher with a view to helping them to transition into the real life challenges of their profession. This article suggests that collaborative action research will provide the new teacher both with the support and existing practical knowledge of their co-teachers in addition to a pathway to their own identity within the field.

Masters, J. (1995). The History of Action Research. I. Hughes (ed) Action Research Electronic Reader, The University of Sydney, on-line A concise history of Action Research covering its development over time highlighting key moments in its evolu- tion.


Educational Action Research (fully refereed international journal) Action Research (international interdisciplinary peer reviewed journal) Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research (shares reports of action research in education; peer re- viewed)


Website by professor Bob Dick from Southern Cross University (Australia), very rich source of resources on ac- tion research (articles, bibliography, notes, tips, FAQ, etc)

Website on action research in education developed by OISE professor, Dr. Antoinette Gagné, and her students and colleagues. English and Spanish versions.

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