education, community-building and change

What is action research and how do we do it?

does action research work

In this article, we explore the development of some different traditions of action research and provide an introductory guide to the literature.

Contents : what is action research ·  origins · the decline and rediscovery of action research · undertaking action research · conclusion · further reading · how to cite this article . see, also: research for practice ., what is action research.

In the literature, discussion of action research tends to fall into two distinctive camps. The British tradition – especially that linked to education – tends to view action research as research-oriented toward the enhancement of direct practice. For example, Carr and Kemmis provide a classic definition:

Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162).

Many people are drawn to this understanding of action research because it is firmly located in the realm of the practitioner – it is tied to self-reflection. As a way of working it is very close to the notion of reflective practice coined by Donald Schön (1983).

The second tradition, perhaps more widely approached within the social welfare field – and most certainly the broader understanding in the USA is of action research as ‘the systematic collection of information that is designed to bring about social change’ (Bogdan and Biklen 1992: 223). Bogdan and Biklen continue by saying that its practitioners marshal evidence or data to expose unjust practices or environmental dangers and recommend actions for change. In many respects, for them, it is linked into traditions of citizen’s action and community organizing. The practitioner is actively involved in the cause for which the research is conducted. For others, it is such commitment is a necessary part of being a practitioner or member of a community of practice. Thus, various projects designed to enhance practice within youth work, for example, such as the detached work reported on by Goetschius and Tash (1967) could be talked of as action research.

Kurt Lewin is generally credited as the person who coined the term ‘action research’:

The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice (Lewin 1946, reproduced in Lewin 1948: 202-3)

His approach involves a spiral of steps, ‘each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action’ ( ibid. : 206). The basic cycle involves the following:

This is how Lewin describes the initial cycle:

The first step then is to examine the idea carefully in the light of the means available. Frequently more fact-finding about the situation is required. If this first period of planning is successful, two items emerge: namely, “an overall plan” of how to reach the objective and secondly, a decision in regard to the first step of action. Usually this planning has also somewhat modified the original idea. ( ibid. : 205)

The next step is ‘composed of a circle of planning, executing, and reconnaissance or fact-finding for the purpose of evaluating the results of the second step, and preparing the rational basis for planning the third step, and for perhaps modifying again the overall plan’ ( ibid. : 206). What we can see here is an approach to research that is oriented to problem-solving in social and organizational settings, and that has a form that parallels Dewey’s conception of learning from experience.

The approach, as presented, does take a fairly sequential form – and it is open to a literal interpretation. Following it can lead to practice that is ‘correct’ rather than ‘good’ – as we will see. It can also be argued that the model itself places insufficient emphasis on analysis at key points. Elliott (1991: 70), for example, believed that the basic model allows those who use it to assume that the ‘general idea’ can be fixed in advance, ‘that “reconnaissance” is merely fact-finding, and that “implementation” is a fairly straightforward process’. As might be expected there was some questioning as to whether this was ‘real’ research. There were questions around action research’s partisan nature – the fact that it served particular causes.

The decline and rediscovery of action research

Action research did suffer a decline in favour during the 1960s because of its association with radical political activism (Stringer 2007: 9). There were, and are, questions concerning its rigour, and the training of those undertaking it. However, as Bogdan and Biklen (1992: 223) point out, research is a frame of mind – ‘a perspective that people take toward objects and activities’. Once we have satisfied ourselves that the collection of information is systematic and that any interpretations made have a proper regard for satisfying truth claims, then much of the critique aimed at action research disappears. In some of Lewin’s earlier work on action research (e.g. Lewin and Grabbe 1945), there was a tension between providing a rational basis for change through research, and the recognition that individuals are constrained in their ability to change by their cultural and social perceptions, and the systems of which they are a part. Having ‘correct knowledge’ does not of itself lead to change, attention also needs to be paid to the ‘matrix of cultural and psychic forces’ through which the subject is constituted (Winter 1987: 48).

Subsequently, action research has gained a significant foothold both within the realm of community-based, and participatory action research; and as a form of practice-oriented to the improvement of educative encounters (e.g. Carr and Kemmis 1986).

Exhibit 1: Stringer on community-based action research
A fundamental premise of community-based action research is that it commences with an interest in the problems of a group, a community, or an organization. Its purpose is to assist people in extending their understanding of their situation and thus resolving problems that confront them….
Community-based action research is always enacted through an explicit set of social values. In modern, democratic social contexts, it is seen as a process of inquiry that has the following characteristics:
• It is democratic , enabling the participation of all people.
• It is equitable , acknowledging people’s equality of worth.
• It is liberating , providing freedom from oppressive, debilitating conditions.
• It is life enhancing , enabling the expression of people’s full human potential.
(Stringer 1999: 9-10)

Undertaking action research

As Thomas (2017: 154) put it, the central aim is change, ‘and the emphasis is on problem-solving in whatever way is appropriate’. It can be seen as a conversation rather more than a technique (McNiff et. al. ). It is about people ‘thinking for themselves and making their own choices, asking themselves what they should do and accepting the consequences of their own actions’ (Thomas 2009: 113).

The action research process works through three basic phases:

Look -building a picture and gathering information. When evaluating we define and describe the problem to be investigated and the context in which it is set. We also describe what all the participants (educators, group members, managers etc.) have been doing.
Think – interpreting and explaining. When evaluating we analyse and interpret the situation. We reflect on what participants have been doing. We look at areas of success and any deficiencies, issues or problems.
Act – resolving issues and problems. In evaluation we judge the worth, effectiveness, appropriateness, and outcomes of those activities. We act to formulate solutions to any problems. (Stringer 1999: 18; 43-44;160)

The use of action research to deepen and develop classroom practice has grown into a strong tradition of practice (one of the first examples being the work of Stephen Corey in 1949). For some, there is an insistence that action research must be collaborative and entail groupwork.

Action research is a form of collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of those practices and the situations in which the practices are carried out… The approach is only action research when it is collaborative, though it is important to realise that action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined action of individual group members. (Kemmis and McTaggart 1988: 5-6)

Just why it must be collective is open to some question and debate (Webb 1996), but there is an important point here concerning the commitments and orientations of those involved in action research.

One of the legacies Kurt Lewin left us is the ‘action research spiral’ – and with it there is the danger that action research becomes little more than a procedure. It is a mistake, according to McTaggart (1996: 248) to think that following the action research spiral constitutes ‘doing action research’. He continues, ‘Action research is not a ‘method’ or a ‘procedure’ for research but a series of commitments to observe and problematize through practice a series of principles for conducting social enquiry’. It is his argument that Lewin has been misunderstood or, rather, misused. When set in historical context, while Lewin does talk about action research as a method, he is stressing a contrast between this form of interpretative practice and more traditional empirical-analytic research. The notion of a spiral may be a useful teaching device – but it is all too easy to slip into using it as the template for practice (McTaggart 1996: 249).

Further reading

This select, annotated bibliography has been designed to give a flavour of the possibilities of action research and includes some useful guides to practice. As ever, if you have suggestions about areas or specific texts for inclusion, I’d like to hear from you.

Explorations of action research

Atweh, B., Kemmis, S. and Weeks, P. (eds.) (1998) Action Research in Practice: Partnership for Social Justice in Education, London: Routledge. Presents a collection of stories from action research projects in schools and a university. The book begins with theme chapters discussing action research, social justice and partnerships in research. The case study chapters cover topics such as: school environment – how to make a school a healthier place to be; parents – how to involve them more in decision-making; students as action researchers; gender – how to promote gender equity in schools; writing up action research projects.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research , Lewes: Falmer. Influential book that provides a good account of ‘action research’ in education. Chapters on teachers, researchers and curriculum; the natural scientific view of educational theory and practice; the interpretative view of educational theory and practice; theory and practice – redefining the problem; a critical approach to theory and practice; towards a critical educational science; action research as critical education science; educational research, educational reform and the role of the profession.

Carson, T. R. and Sumara, D. J. (ed.) (1997) Action Research as a Living Practice , New York: Peter Lang. 140 pages. Book draws on a wide range of sources to develop an understanding of action research. Explores action research as a lived practice, ‘that asks the researcher to not only investigate the subject at hand but, as well, to provide some account of the way in which the investigation both shapes and is shaped by the investigator.

Dadds, M. (1995) Passionate Enquiry and School Development. A story about action research , London: Falmer. 192 + ix pages. Examines three action research studies undertaken by a teacher and how they related to work in school – how she did the research, the problems she experienced, her feelings, the impact on her feelings and ideas, and some of the outcomes. In his introduction, John Elliot comments that the book is ‘the most readable, thoughtful, and detailed study of the potential of action-research in professional education that I have read’.

Ghaye, T. and Wakefield, P. (eds.) CARN Critical Conversations. Book one: the role of the self in action , Bournemouth: Hyde Publications. 146 + xiii pages. Collection of five pieces from the Classroom Action Research Network. Chapters on: dialectical forms; graduate medical education – research’s outer limits; democratic education; managing action research; writing up.

McNiff, J. (1993) Teaching as Learning: An Action Research Approach , London: Routledge. Argues that educational knowledge is created by individual teachers as they attempt to express their own values in their professional lives. Sets out familiar action research model: identifying a problem, devising, implementing and evaluating a solution and modifying practice. Includes advice on how working in this way can aid the professional development of action researcher and practitioner.

Quigley, B. A. and Kuhne, G. W. (eds.) (1997) Creating Practical Knowledge Through Action Research, San Fransisco: Jossey Bass. Guide to action research that outlines the action research process, provides a project planner, and presents examples to show how action research can yield improvements in six different settings, including a hospital, a university and a literacy education program.

Plummer, G. and Edwards, G. (eds.) CARN Critical Conversations. Book two: dimensions of action research – people, practice and power , Bournemouth: Hyde Publications. 142 + xvii pages. Collection of five pieces from the Classroom Action Research Network. Chapters on: exchanging letters and collaborative research; diary writing; personal and professional learning – on teaching and self-knowledge; anti-racist approaches; psychodynamic group theory in action research.

Whyte, W. F. (ed.) (1991) Participatory Action Research , Newbury Park: Sage. 247 pages. Chapters explore the development of participatory action research and its relation with action science and examine its usages in various agricultural and industrial settings

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (ed.) (1996) New Directions in Action Research , London; Falmer Press. 266 + xii pages. A useful collection that explores principles and procedures for critical action research; problems and suggested solutions; and postmodernism and critical action research.

Action research guides

Coghlan, D. and Brannick, D. (2000) Doing Action Research in your own Organization, London: Sage. 128 pages. Popular introduction. Part one covers the basics of action research including the action research cycle, the role of the ‘insider’ action researcher and the complexities of undertaking action research within your own organisation. Part two looks at the implementation of the action research project (including managing internal politics and the ethics and politics of action research). New edition due late 2004.

Elliot, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change , Buckingham: Open University Press. 163 + x pages Collection of various articles written by Elliot in which he develops his own particular interpretation of action research as a form of teacher professional development. In some ways close to a form of ‘reflective practice’. Chapter 6, ‘A practical guide to action research’ – builds a staged model on Lewin’s work and on developments by writers such as Kemmis.

Johnson, A. P. (2007) A short guide to action research 3e. Allyn and Bacon. Popular step by step guide for master’s work.

Macintyre, C. (2002) The Art of the Action Research in the Classroom , London: David Fulton. 138 pages. Includes sections on action research, the role of literature, formulating a research question, gathering data, analysing data and writing a dissertation. Useful and readable guide for students.

McNiff, J., Whitehead, J., Lomax, P. (2003) You and Your Action Research Project , London: Routledge. Practical guidance on doing an action research project.Takes the practitioner-researcher through the various stages of a project. Each section of the book is supported by case studies

Stringer, E. T. (2007) Action Research: A handbook for practitioners 3e , Newbury Park, ca.: Sage. 304 pages. Sets community-based action research in context and develops a model. Chapters on information gathering, interpretation, resolving issues; legitimacy etc. See, also Stringer’s (2003) Action Research in Education , Prentice-Hall.

Winter, R. (1989) Learning From Experience. Principles and practice in action research , Lewes: Falmer Press. 200 + 10 pages. Introduces the idea of action research; the basic process; theoretical issues; and provides six principles for the conduct of action research. Includes examples of action research. Further chapters on from principles to practice; the learner’s experience; and research topics and personal interests.

Action research in informal education

Usher, R., Bryant, I. and Johnston, R. (1997) Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge. Learning beyond the limits , London: Routledge. 248 + xvi pages. Has some interesting chapters that relate to action research: on reflective practice; changing paradigms and traditions of research; new approaches to research; writing and learning about research.

Other references

Bogdan, R. and Biklen, S. K. (1992) Qualitative Research For Education , Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Goetschius, G. and Tash, J. (1967) Working with the Unattached , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McTaggart, R. (1996) ‘Issues for participatory action researchers’ in O. Zuber-Skerritt (ed.) New Directions in Action Research , London: Falmer Press.

McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (2003) You and Your Action Research Project 2e. London: Routledge.

Thomas, G. (2017). How to do your Research Project. A guide for students in education and applied social sciences . 3e. London: Sage.

Acknowledgements : spiral by Michèle C. | flickr ccbyncnd2 licence

How to cite this article : Smith, M. K. (1996; 2001, 2007, 2017) What is action research and how do we do it?’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ . Retrieved: insert date] .

© Mark K. Smith 1996; 2001, 2007, 2017

Last Updated on December 7, 2020 by

Frequently asked questions

What is the main purpose of action research.

Action research is focused on solving a problem or informing individual and community-based knowledge in a way that impacts teaching, learning, and other related processes. It is less focused on contributing theoretical input, instead producing actionable input.

Frequently asked questions: Methodology

Attrition refers to participants leaving a study. It always happens to some extent—for example, in randomized controlled trials for medical research.

Differential attrition occurs when attrition or dropout rates differ systematically between the intervention and the control group . As a result, the characteristics of the participants who drop out differ from the characteristics of those who stay in the study. Because of this, study results may be biased .

Action research is conducted in order to solve a particular issue immediately, while case studies are often conducted over a longer period of time and focus more on observing and analyzing a particular ongoing phenomenon.

Action research is particularly popular with educators as a form of systematic inquiry because it prioritizes reflection and bridges the gap between theory and practice. Educators are able to simultaneously investigate an issue as they solve it, and the method is very iterative and flexible.

A cycle of inquiry is another name for action research . It is usually visualized in a spiral shape following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”

To make quantitative observations , you need to use instruments that are capable of measuring the quantity you want to observe. For example, you might use a ruler to measure the length of an object or a thermometer to measure its temperature.

Criterion validity and construct validity are both types of measurement validity . In other words, they both show you how accurately a method measures something.

While construct validity is the degree to which a test or other measurement method measures what it claims to measure, criterion validity is the degree to which a test can predictively (in the future) or concurrently (in the present) measure something.

Construct validity is often considered the overarching type of measurement validity . You need to have face validity , content validity , and criterion validity in order to achieve construct validity.

Convergent validity and discriminant validity are both subtypes of construct validity . Together, they help you evaluate whether a test measures the concept it was designed to measure.

  • Convergent validity indicates whether a test that is designed to measure a particular construct correlates with other tests that assess the same or similar construct.
  • Discriminant validity indicates whether two tests that should not be highly related to each other are indeed not related. This type of validity is also called divergent validity .

You need to assess both in order to demonstrate construct validity. Neither one alone is sufficient for establishing construct validity.

  • Discriminant validity indicates whether two tests that should not be highly related to each other are indeed not related

Content validity shows you how accurately a test or other measurement method taps  into the various aspects of the specific construct you are researching.

In other words, it helps you answer the question: “does the test measure all aspects of the construct I want to measure?” If it does, then the test has high content validity.

The higher the content validity, the more accurate the measurement of the construct.

If the test fails to include parts of the construct, or irrelevant parts are included, the validity of the instrument is threatened, which brings your results into question.

Face validity and content validity are similar in that they both evaluate how suitable the content of a test is. The difference is that face validity is subjective, and assesses content at surface level.

When a test has strong face validity, anyone would agree that the test’s questions appear to measure what they are intended to measure.

For example, looking at a 4th grade math test consisting of problems in which students have to add and multiply, most people would agree that it has strong face validity (i.e., it looks like a math test).

On the other hand, content validity evaluates how well a test represents all the aspects of a topic. Assessing content validity is more systematic and relies on expert evaluation. of each question, analyzing whether each one covers the aspects that the test was designed to cover.

A 4th grade math test would have high content validity if it covered all the skills taught in that grade. Experts(in this case, math teachers), would have to evaluate the content validity by comparing the test to the learning objectives.

Snowball sampling is a non-probability sampling method . Unlike probability sampling (which involves some form of random selection ), the initial individuals selected to be studied are the ones who recruit new participants.

Because not every member of the target population has an equal chance of being recruited into the sample, selection in snowball sampling is non-random.

Snowball sampling is a non-probability sampling method , where there is not an equal chance for every member of the population to be included in the sample .

This means that you cannot use inferential statistics and make generalizations —often the goal of quantitative research . As such, a snowball sample is not representative of the target population and is usually a better fit for qualitative research .

Snowball sampling relies on the use of referrals. Here, the researcher recruits one or more initial participants, who then recruit the next ones.

Participants share similar characteristics and/or know each other. Because of this, not every member of the population has an equal chance of being included in the sample, giving rise to sampling bias .

Snowball sampling is best used in the following cases:

  • If there is no sampling frame available (e.g., people with a rare disease)
  • If the population of interest is hard to access or locate (e.g., people experiencing homelessness)
  • If the research focuses on a sensitive topic (e.g., extramarital affairs)

The reproducibility and replicability of a study can be ensured by writing a transparent, detailed method section and using clear, unambiguous language.

Reproducibility and replicability are related terms.

  • Reproducing research entails reanalyzing the existing data in the same manner.
  • Replicating (or repeating ) the research entails reconducting the entire analysis, including the collection of new data . 
  • A successful reproduction shows that the data analyses were conducted in a fair and honest manner.
  • A successful replication shows that the reliability of the results is high.

Stratified sampling and quota sampling both involve dividing the population into subgroups and selecting units from each subgroup. The purpose in both cases is to select a representative sample and/or to allow comparisons between subgroups.

The main difference is that in stratified sampling, you draw a random sample from each subgroup ( probability sampling ). In quota sampling you select a predetermined number or proportion of units, in a non-random manner ( non-probability sampling ).

Purposive and convenience sampling are both sampling methods that are typically used in qualitative data collection.

A convenience sample is drawn from a source that is conveniently accessible to the researcher. Convenience sampling does not distinguish characteristics among the participants. On the other hand, purposive sampling focuses on selecting participants possessing characteristics associated with the research study.

The findings of studies based on either convenience or purposive sampling can only be generalized to the (sub)population from which the sample is drawn, and not to the entire population.

Random sampling or probability sampling is based on random selection. This means that each unit has an equal chance (i.e., equal probability) of being included in the sample.

On the other hand, convenience sampling involves stopping people at random, which means that not everyone has an equal chance of being selected depending on the place, time, or day you are collecting your data.

Convenience sampling and quota sampling are both non-probability sampling methods. They both use non-random criteria like availability, geographical proximity, or expert knowledge to recruit study participants.

However, in convenience sampling, you continue to sample units or cases until you reach the required sample size.

In quota sampling, you first need to divide your population of interest into subgroups (strata) and estimate their proportions (quota) in the population. Then you can start your data collection, using convenience sampling to recruit participants, until the proportions in each subgroup coincide with the estimated proportions in the population.

A sampling frame is a list of every member in the entire population . It is important that the sampling frame is as complete as possible, so that your sample accurately reflects your population.

Stratified and cluster sampling may look similar, but bear in mind that groups created in cluster sampling are heterogeneous , so the individual characteristics in the cluster vary. In contrast, groups created in stratified sampling are homogeneous , as units share characteristics.

Relatedly, in cluster sampling you randomly select entire groups and include all units of each group in your sample. However, in stratified sampling, you select some units of all groups and include them in your sample. In this way, both methods can ensure that your sample is representative of the target population .

A systematic review is secondary research because it uses existing research. You don’t collect new data yourself.

The key difference between observational studies and experimental designs is that a well-done observational study does not influence the responses of participants, while experiments do have some sort of treatment condition applied to at least some participants by random assignment .

An observational study is a great choice for you if your research question is based purely on observations. If there are ethical, logistical, or practical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment , an observational study may be a good choice. In an observational study, there is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, as well as no control or treatment groups .

It’s often best to ask a variety of people to review your measurements. You can ask experts, such as other researchers, or laypeople, such as potential participants, to judge the face validity of tests.

While experts have a deep understanding of research methods , the people you’re studying can provide you with valuable insights you may have missed otherwise.

Face validity is important because it’s a simple first step to measuring the overall validity of a test or technique. It’s a relatively intuitive, quick, and easy way to start checking whether a new measure seems useful at first glance.

Good face validity means that anyone who reviews your measure says that it seems to be measuring what it’s supposed to. With poor face validity, someone reviewing your measure may be left confused about what you’re measuring and why you’re using this method.

Face validity is about whether a test appears to measure what it’s supposed to measure. This type of validity is concerned with whether a measure seems relevant and appropriate for what it’s assessing only on the surface.

Statistical analyses are often applied to test validity with data from your measures. You test convergent validity and discriminant validity with correlations to see if results from your test are positively or negatively related to those of other established tests.

You can also use regression analyses to assess whether your measure is actually predictive of outcomes that you expect it to predict theoretically. A regression analysis that supports your expectations strengthens your claim of construct validity .

When designing or evaluating a measure, construct validity helps you ensure you’re actually measuring the construct you’re interested in. If you don’t have construct validity, you may inadvertently measure unrelated or distinct constructs and lose precision in your research.

Construct validity is often considered the overarching type of measurement validity ,  because it covers all of the other types. You need to have face validity , content validity , and criterion validity to achieve construct validity.

Construct validity is about how well a test measures the concept it was designed to evaluate. It’s one of four types of measurement validity , which includes construct validity, face validity , and criterion validity.

There are two subtypes of construct validity.

  • Convergent validity : The extent to which your measure corresponds to measures of related constructs
  • Discriminant validity : The extent to which your measure is unrelated or negatively related to measures of distinct constructs

Naturalistic observation is a valuable tool because of its flexibility, external validity , and suitability for topics that can’t be studied in a lab setting.

The downsides of naturalistic observation include its lack of scientific control , ethical considerations , and potential for bias from observers and subjects.

Naturalistic observation is a qualitative research method where you record the behaviors of your research subjects in real world settings. You avoid interfering or influencing anything in a naturalistic observation.

You can think of naturalistic observation as “people watching” with a purpose.

A dependent variable is what changes as a result of the independent variable manipulation in experiments . It’s what you’re interested in measuring, and it “depends” on your independent variable.

In statistics, dependent variables are also called:

  • Response variables (they respond to a change in another variable)
  • Outcome variables (they represent the outcome you want to measure)
  • Left-hand-side variables (they appear on the left-hand side of a regression equation)

An independent variable is the variable you manipulate, control, or vary in an experimental study to explore its effects. It’s called “independent” because it’s not influenced by any other variables in the study.

Independent variables are also called:

  • Explanatory variables (they explain an event or outcome)
  • Predictor variables (they can be used to predict the value of a dependent variable)
  • Right-hand-side variables (they appear on the right-hand side of a regression equation).

As a rule of thumb, questions related to thoughts, beliefs, and feelings work well in focus groups. Take your time formulating strong questions, paying special attention to phrasing. Be careful to avoid leading questions , which can bias your responses.

Overall, your focus group questions should be:

  • Open-ended and flexible
  • Impossible to answer with “yes” or “no” (questions that start with “why” or “how” are often best)
  • Unambiguous, getting straight to the point while still stimulating discussion
  • Unbiased and neutral

A structured interview is a data collection method that relies on asking questions in a set order to collect data on a topic. They are often quantitative in nature. Structured interviews are best used when: 

  • You already have a very clear understanding of your topic. Perhaps significant research has already been conducted, or you have done some prior research yourself, but you already possess a baseline for designing strong structured questions.
  • You are constrained in terms of time or resources and need to analyze your data quickly and efficiently.
  • Your research question depends on strong parity between participants, with environmental conditions held constant.

More flexible interview options include semi-structured interviews , unstructured interviews , and focus groups .

Social desirability bias is the tendency for interview participants to give responses that will be viewed favorably by the interviewer or other participants. It occurs in all types of interviews and surveys , but is most common in semi-structured interviews , unstructured interviews , and focus groups .

Social desirability bias can be mitigated by ensuring participants feel at ease and comfortable sharing their views. Make sure to pay attention to your own body language and any physical or verbal cues, such as nodding or widening your eyes.

This type of bias can also occur in observations if the participants know they’re being observed. They might alter their behavior accordingly.

The interviewer effect is a type of bias that emerges when a characteristic of an interviewer (race, age, gender identity, etc.) influences the responses given by the interviewee.

There is a risk of an interviewer effect in all types of interviews , but it can be mitigated by writing really high-quality interview questions.

A semi-structured interview is a blend of structured and unstructured types of interviews. Semi-structured interviews are best used when:

  • You have prior interview experience. Spontaneous questions are deceptively challenging, and it’s easy to accidentally ask a leading question or make a participant uncomfortable.
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature. Participant answers can guide future research questions and help you develop a more robust knowledge base for future research.

An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview, but it is not always the best fit for your research topic.

Unstructured interviews are best used when:

  • You are an experienced interviewer and have a very strong background in your research topic, since it is challenging to ask spontaneous, colloquial questions.
  • Your research question is exploratory in nature. While you may have developed hypotheses, you are open to discovering new or shifting viewpoints through the interview process.
  • You are seeking descriptive data, and are ready to ask questions that will deepen and contextualize your initial thoughts and hypotheses.
  • Your research depends on forming connections with your participants and making them feel comfortable revealing deeper emotions, lived experiences, or thoughts.

The four most common types of interviews are:

  • Structured interviews : The questions are predetermined in both topic and order. 
  • Semi-structured interviews : A few questions are predetermined, but other questions aren’t planned.
  • Unstructured interviews : None of the questions are predetermined.
  • Focus group interviews : The questions are presented to a group instead of one individual.

Deductive reasoning is commonly used in scientific research, and it’s especially associated with quantitative research .

In research, you might have come across something called the hypothetico-deductive method . It’s the scientific method of testing hypotheses to check whether your predictions are substantiated by real-world data.

Deductive reasoning is a logical approach where you progress from general ideas to specific conclusions. It’s often contrasted with inductive reasoning , where you start with specific observations and form general conclusions.

Deductive reasoning is also called deductive logic.

There are many different types of inductive reasoning that people use formally or informally.

Here are a few common types:

  • Inductive generalization : You use observations about a sample to come to a conclusion about the population it came from.
  • Statistical generalization: You use specific numbers about samples to make statements about populations.
  • Causal reasoning: You make cause-and-effect links between different things.
  • Sign reasoning: You make a conclusion about a correlational relationship between different things.
  • Analogical reasoning: You make a conclusion about something based on its similarities to something else.

Inductive reasoning is a bottom-up approach, while deductive reasoning is top-down.

Inductive reasoning takes you from the specific to the general, while in deductive reasoning, you make inferences by going from general premises to specific conclusions.

In inductive research , you start by making observations or gathering data. Then, you take a broad scan of your data and search for patterns. Finally, you make general conclusions that you might incorporate into theories.

Inductive reasoning is a method of drawing conclusions by going from the specific to the general. It’s usually contrasted with deductive reasoning, where you proceed from general information to specific conclusions.

Inductive reasoning is also called inductive logic or bottom-up reasoning.

A hypothesis states your predictions about what your research will find. It is a tentative answer to your research question that has not yet been tested. For some research projects, you might have to write several hypotheses that address different aspects of your research question.

A hypothesis is not just a guess — it should be based on existing theories and knowledge. It also has to be testable, which means you can support or refute it through scientific research methods (such as experiments, observations and statistical analysis of data).

Triangulation can help:

  • Reduce research bias that comes from using a single method, theory, or investigator
  • Enhance validity by approaching the same topic with different tools
  • Establish credibility by giving you a complete picture of the research problem

But triangulation can also pose problems:

  • It’s time-consuming and labor-intensive, often involving an interdisciplinary team.
  • Your results may be inconsistent or even contradictory.

There are four main types of triangulation :

  • Data triangulation : Using data from different times, spaces, and people
  • Investigator triangulation : Involving multiple researchers in collecting or analyzing data
  • Theory triangulation : Using varying theoretical perspectives in your research
  • Methodological triangulation : Using different methodologies to approach the same topic

Many academic fields use peer review , largely to determine whether a manuscript is suitable for publication. Peer review enhances the credibility of the published manuscript.

However, peer review is also common in non-academic settings. The United Nations, the European Union, and many individual nations use peer review to evaluate grant applications. It is also widely used in medical and health-related fields as a teaching or quality-of-care measure. 

Peer assessment is often used in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. Both receiving feedback and providing it are thought to enhance the learning process, helping students think critically and collaboratively.

Peer review can stop obviously problematic, falsified, or otherwise untrustworthy research from being published. It also represents an excellent opportunity to get feedback from renowned experts in your field. It acts as a first defense, helping you ensure your argument is clear and that there are no gaps, vague terms, or unanswered questions for readers who weren’t involved in the research process.

Peer-reviewed articles are considered a highly credible source due to this stringent process they go through before publication.

In general, the peer review process follows the following steps: 

  • First, the author submits the manuscript to the editor.
  • Reject the manuscript and send it back to author, or 
  • Send it onward to the selected peer reviewer(s) 
  • Next, the peer review process occurs. The reviewer provides feedback, addressing any major or minor issues with the manuscript, and gives their advice regarding what edits should be made. 
  • Lastly, the edited manuscript is sent back to the author. They input the edits, and resubmit it to the editor for publication.

Exploratory research is often used when the issue you’re studying is new or when the data collection process is challenging for some reason.

You can use exploratory research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.

Exploratory research is a methodology approach that explores research questions that have not previously been studied in depth. It is often used when the issue you’re studying is new, or the data collection process is challenging in some way.

Explanatory research is used to investigate how or why a phenomenon occurs. Therefore, this type of research is often one of the first stages in the research process , serving as a jumping-off point for future research.

Exploratory research aims to explore the main aspects of an under-researched problem, while explanatory research aims to explain the causes and consequences of a well-defined problem.

Explanatory research is a research method used to investigate how or why something occurs when only a small amount of information is available pertaining to that topic. It can help you increase your understanding of a given topic.

Clean data are valid, accurate, complete, consistent, unique, and uniform. Dirty data include inconsistencies and errors.

Dirty data can come from any part of the research process, including poor research design , inappropriate measurement materials, or flawed data entry.

Data cleaning takes place between data collection and data analyses. But you can use some methods even before collecting data.

For clean data, you should start by designing measures that collect valid data. Data validation at the time of data entry or collection helps you minimize the amount of data cleaning you’ll need to do.

After data collection, you can use data standardization and data transformation to clean your data. You’ll also deal with any missing values, outliers, and duplicate values.

Every dataset requires different techniques to clean dirty data , but you need to address these issues in a systematic way. You focus on finding and resolving data points that don’t agree or fit with the rest of your dataset.

These data might be missing values, outliers, duplicate values, incorrectly formatted, or irrelevant. You’ll start with screening and diagnosing your data. Then, you’ll often standardize and accept or remove data to make your dataset consistent and valid.

Data cleaning is necessary for valid and appropriate analyses. Dirty data contain inconsistencies or errors , but cleaning your data helps you minimize or resolve these.

Without data cleaning, you could end up with a Type I or II error in your conclusion. These types of erroneous conclusions can be practically significant with important consequences, because they lead to misplaced investments or missed opportunities.

Data cleaning involves spotting and resolving potential data inconsistencies or errors to improve your data quality. An error is any value (e.g., recorded weight) that doesn’t reflect the true value (e.g., actual weight) of something that’s being measured.

In this process, you review, analyze, detect, modify, or remove “dirty” data to make your dataset “clean.” Data cleaning is also called data cleansing or data scrubbing.

Research misconduct means making up or falsifying data, manipulating data analyses, or misrepresenting results in research reports. It’s a form of academic fraud.

These actions are committed intentionally and can have serious consequences; research misconduct is not a simple mistake or a point of disagreement but a serious ethical failure.

Anonymity means you don’t know who the participants are, while confidentiality means you know who they are but remove identifying information from your research report. Both are important ethical considerations .

You can only guarantee anonymity by not collecting any personally identifying information—for example, names, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, physical characteristics, photos, or videos.

You can keep data confidential by using aggregate information in your research report, so that you only refer to groups of participants rather than individuals.

Research ethics matter for scientific integrity, human rights and dignity, and collaboration between science and society. These principles make sure that participation in studies is voluntary, informed, and safe.

Ethical considerations in research are a set of principles that guide your research designs and practices. These principles include voluntary participation, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, potential for harm, and results communication.

Scientists and researchers must always adhere to a certain code of conduct when collecting data from others .

These considerations protect the rights of research participants, enhance research validity , and maintain scientific integrity.

In multistage sampling , you can use probability or non-probability sampling methods .

For a probability sample, you have to conduct probability sampling at every stage.

You can mix it up by using simple random sampling , systematic sampling , or stratified sampling to select units at different stages, depending on what is applicable and relevant to your study.

Multistage sampling can simplify data collection when you have large, geographically spread samples, and you can obtain a probability sample without a complete sampling frame.

But multistage sampling may not lead to a representative sample, and larger samples are needed for multistage samples to achieve the statistical properties of simple random samples .

These are four of the most common mixed methods designs :

  • Convergent parallel: Quantitative and qualitative data are collected at the same time and analyzed separately. After both analyses are complete, compare your results to draw overall conclusions. 
  • Embedded: Quantitative and qualitative data are collected at the same time, but within a larger quantitative or qualitative design. One type of data is secondary to the other.
  • Explanatory sequential: Quantitative data is collected and analyzed first, followed by qualitative data. You can use this design if you think your qualitative data will explain and contextualize your quantitative findings.
  • Exploratory sequential: Qualitative data is collected and analyzed first, followed by quantitative data. You can use this design if you think the quantitative data will confirm or validate your qualitative findings.

Triangulation in research means using multiple datasets, methods, theories and/or investigators to address a research question. It’s a research strategy that can help you enhance the validity and credibility of your findings.

Triangulation is mainly used in qualitative research , but it’s also commonly applied in quantitative research . Mixed methods research always uses triangulation.

In multistage sampling , or multistage cluster sampling, you draw a sample from a population using smaller and smaller groups at each stage.

This method is often used to collect data from a large, geographically spread group of people in national surveys, for example. You take advantage of hierarchical groupings (e.g., from state to city to neighborhood) to create a sample that’s less expensive and time-consuming to collect data from.

No, the steepness or slope of the line isn’t related to the correlation coefficient value. The correlation coefficient only tells you how closely your data fit on a line, so two datasets with the same correlation coefficient can have very different slopes.

To find the slope of the line, you’ll need to perform a regression analysis .

Correlation coefficients always range between -1 and 1.

The sign of the coefficient tells you the direction of the relationship: a positive value means the variables change together in the same direction, while a negative value means they change together in opposite directions.

The absolute value of a number is equal to the number without its sign. The absolute value of a correlation coefficient tells you the magnitude of the correlation: the greater the absolute value, the stronger the correlation.

These are the assumptions your data must meet if you want to use Pearson’s r :

  • Both variables are on an interval or ratio level of measurement
  • Data from both variables follow normal distributions
  • Your data have no outliers
  • Your data is from a random or representative sample
  • You expect a linear relationship between the two variables

Quantitative research designs can be divided into two main categories:

  • Correlational and descriptive designs are used to investigate characteristics, averages, trends, and associations between variables.
  • Experimental and quasi-experimental designs are used to test causal relationships .

Qualitative research designs tend to be more flexible. Common types of qualitative design include case study , ethnography , and grounded theory designs.

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims, that you collect high-quality data, and that you use the right kind of analysis to answer your questions, utilizing credible sources . This allows you to draw valid , trustworthy conclusions.

The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:

  • Your research questions and/or hypotheses
  • Your overall approach (e.g., qualitative or quantitative )
  • The type of design you’re using (e.g., a survey , experiment , or case study )
  • Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects
  • Your data collection methods (e.g., questionnaires , observations)
  • Your data collection procedures (e.g., operationalization , timing and data management)
  • Your data analysis methods (e.g., statistical tests  or thematic analysis )

A research design is a strategy for answering your   research question . It defines your overall approach and determines how you will collect and analyze data.

Questionnaires can be self-administered or researcher-administered.

Self-administered questionnaires can be delivered online or in paper-and-pen formats, in person or through mail. All questions are standardized so that all respondents receive the same questions with identical wording.

Researcher-administered questionnaires are interviews that take place by phone, in-person, or online between researchers and respondents. You can gain deeper insights by clarifying questions for respondents or asking follow-up questions.

You can organize the questions logically, with a clear progression from simple to complex, or randomly between respondents. A logical flow helps respondents process the questionnaire easier and quicker, but it may lead to bias. Randomization can minimize the bias from order effects.

Closed-ended, or restricted-choice, questions offer respondents a fixed set of choices to select from. These questions are easier to answer quickly.

Open-ended or long-form questions allow respondents to answer in their own words. Because there are no restrictions on their choices, respondents can answer in ways that researchers may not have otherwise considered.

A questionnaire is a data collection tool or instrument, while a survey is an overarching research method that involves collecting and analyzing data from people using questionnaires.

The third variable and directionality problems are two main reasons why correlation isn’t causation .

The third variable problem means that a confounding variable affects both variables to make them seem causally related when they are not.

The directionality problem is when two variables correlate and might actually have a causal relationship, but it’s impossible to conclude which variable causes changes in the other.

Correlation describes an association between variables : when one variable changes, so does the other. A correlation is a statistical indicator of the relationship between variables.

Causation means that changes in one variable brings about changes in the other (i.e., there is a cause-and-effect relationship between variables). The two variables are correlated with each other, and there’s also a causal link between them.

While causation and correlation can exist simultaneously, correlation does not imply causation. In other words, correlation is simply a relationship where A relates to B—but A doesn’t necessarily cause B to happen (or vice versa). Mistaking correlation for causation is a common error and can lead to false cause fallacy .

Controlled experiments establish causality, whereas correlational studies only show associations between variables.

  • In an experimental design , you manipulate an independent variable and measure its effect on a dependent variable. Other variables are controlled so they can’t impact the results.
  • In a correlational design , you measure variables without manipulating any of them. You can test whether your variables change together, but you can’t be sure that one variable caused a change in another.

In general, correlational research is high in external validity while experimental research is high in internal validity .

A correlation is usually tested for two variables at a time, but you can test correlations between three or more variables.

A correlation coefficient is a single number that describes the strength and direction of the relationship between your variables.

Different types of correlation coefficients might be appropriate for your data based on their levels of measurement and distributions . The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (Pearson’s r ) is commonly used to assess a linear relationship between two quantitative variables.

A correlational research design investigates relationships between two variables (or more) without the researcher controlling or manipulating any of them. It’s a non-experimental type of quantitative research .

A correlation reflects the strength and/or direction of the association between two or more variables.

  • A positive correlation means that both variables change in the same direction.
  • A negative correlation means that the variables change in opposite directions.
  • A zero correlation means there’s no relationship between the variables.

Random error  is almost always present in scientific studies, even in highly controlled settings. While you can’t eradicate it completely, you can reduce random error by taking repeated measurements, using a large sample, and controlling extraneous variables .

You can avoid systematic error through careful design of your sampling , data collection , and analysis procedures. For example, use triangulation to measure your variables using multiple methods; regularly calibrate instruments or procedures; use random sampling and random assignment ; and apply masking (blinding) where possible.

Systematic error is generally a bigger problem in research.

With random error, multiple measurements will tend to cluster around the true value. When you’re collecting data from a large sample , the errors in different directions will cancel each other out.

Systematic errors are much more problematic because they can skew your data away from the true value. This can lead you to false conclusions ( Type I and II errors ) about the relationship between the variables you’re studying.

Random and systematic error are two types of measurement error.

Random error is a chance difference between the observed and true values of something (e.g., a researcher misreading a weighing scale records an incorrect measurement).

Systematic error is a consistent or proportional difference between the observed and true values of something (e.g., a miscalibrated scale consistently records weights as higher than they actually are).

On graphs, the explanatory variable is conventionally placed on the x-axis, while the response variable is placed on the y-axis.

  • If you have quantitative variables , use a scatterplot or a line graph.
  • If your response variable is categorical, use a scatterplot or a line graph.
  • If your explanatory variable is categorical, use a bar graph.

The term “ explanatory variable ” is sometimes preferred over “ independent variable ” because, in real world contexts, independent variables are often influenced by other variables. This means they aren’t totally independent.

Multiple independent variables may also be correlated with each other, so “explanatory variables” is a more appropriate term.

The difference between explanatory and response variables is simple:

  • An explanatory variable is the expected cause, and it explains the results.
  • A response variable is the expected effect, and it responds to other variables.

In a controlled experiment , all extraneous variables are held constant so that they can’t influence the results. Controlled experiments require:

  • A control group that receives a standard treatment, a fake treatment, or no treatment.
  • Random assignment of participants to ensure the groups are equivalent.

Depending on your study topic, there are various other methods of controlling variables .

There are 4 main types of extraneous variables :

  • Demand characteristics : environmental cues that encourage participants to conform to researchers’ expectations.
  • Experimenter effects : unintentional actions by researchers that influence study outcomes.
  • Situational variables : environmental variables that alter participants’ behaviors.
  • Participant variables : any characteristic or aspect of a participant’s background that could affect study results.

An extraneous variable is any variable that you’re not investigating that can potentially affect the dependent variable of your research study.

A confounding variable is a type of extraneous variable that not only affects the dependent variable, but is also related to the independent variable.

In a factorial design, multiple independent variables are tested.

If you test two variables, each level of one independent variable is combined with each level of the other independent variable to create different conditions.

Within-subjects designs have many potential threats to internal validity , but they are also very statistically powerful .


  • Only requires small samples
  • Statistically powerful
  • Removes the effects of individual differences on the outcomes


  • Internal validity threats reduce the likelihood of establishing a direct relationship between variables
  • Time-related effects, such as growth, can influence the outcomes
  • Carryover effects mean that the specific order of different treatments affect the outcomes

While a between-subjects design has fewer threats to internal validity , it also requires more participants for high statistical power than a within-subjects design .

  • Prevents carryover effects of learning and fatigue.
  • Shorter study duration.
  • Needs larger samples for high power.
  • Uses more resources to recruit participants, administer sessions, cover costs, etc.
  • Individual differences may be an alternative explanation for results.

Yes. Between-subjects and within-subjects designs can be combined in a single study when you have two or more independent variables (a factorial design). In a mixed factorial design, one variable is altered between subjects and another is altered within subjects.

In a between-subjects design , every participant experiences only one condition, and researchers assess group differences between participants in various conditions.

In a within-subjects design , each participant experiences all conditions, and researchers test the same participants repeatedly for differences between conditions.

The word “between” means that you’re comparing different conditions between groups, while the word “within” means you’re comparing different conditions within the same group.

Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design. In this research design, there’s usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable.

In general, you should always use random assignment in this type of experimental design when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.

To implement random assignment , assign a unique number to every member of your study’s sample .

Then, you can use a random number generator or a lottery method to randomly assign each number to a control or experimental group. You can also do so manually, by flipping a coin or rolling a dice to randomly assign participants to groups.

Random selection, or random sampling , is a way of selecting members of a population for your study’s sample.

In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample into control and experimental groups.

Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalizability of your results, while random assignment improves the internal validity of your study.

In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different groups using randomization. With this method, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group.

“Controlling for a variable” means measuring extraneous variables and accounting for them statistically to remove their effects on other variables.

Researchers often model control variable data along with independent and dependent variable data in regression analyses and ANCOVAs . That way, you can isolate the control variable’s effects from the relationship between the variables of interest.

Control variables help you establish a correlational or causal relationship between variables by enhancing internal validity .

If you don’t control relevant extraneous variables , they may influence the outcomes of your study, and you may not be able to demonstrate that your results are really an effect of your independent variable .

A control variable is any variable that’s held constant in a research study. It’s not a variable of interest in the study, but it’s controlled because it could influence the outcomes.

Including mediators and moderators in your research helps you go beyond studying a simple relationship between two variables for a fuller picture of the real world. They are important to consider when studying complex correlational or causal relationships.

Mediators are part of the causal pathway of an effect, and they tell you how or why an effect takes place. Moderators usually help you judge the external validity of your study by identifying the limitations of when the relationship between variables holds.

If something is a mediating variable :

  • It’s caused by the independent variable .
  • It influences the dependent variable
  • When it’s taken into account, the statistical correlation between the independent and dependent variables is higher than when it isn’t considered.

A confounder is a third variable that affects variables of interest and makes them seem related when they are not. In contrast, a mediator is the mechanism of a relationship between two variables: it explains the process by which they are related.

A mediator variable explains the process through which two variables are related, while a moderator variable affects the strength and direction of that relationship.

There are three key steps in systematic sampling :

  • Define and list your population , ensuring that it is not ordered in a cyclical or periodic order.
  • Decide on your sample size and calculate your interval, k , by dividing your population by your target sample size.
  • Choose every k th member of the population as your sample.

Systematic sampling is a probability sampling method where researchers select members of the population at a regular interval – for example, by selecting every 15th person on a list of the population. If the population is in a random order, this can imitate the benefits of simple random sampling .

Yes, you can create a stratified sample using multiple characteristics, but you must ensure that every participant in your study belongs to one and only one subgroup. In this case, you multiply the numbers of subgroups for each characteristic to get the total number of groups.

For example, if you were stratifying by location with three subgroups (urban, rural, or suburban) and marital status with five subgroups (single, divorced, widowed, married, or partnered), you would have 3 x 5 = 15 subgroups.

You should use stratified sampling when your sample can be divided into mutually exclusive and exhaustive subgroups that you believe will take on different mean values for the variable that you’re studying.

Using stratified sampling will allow you to obtain more precise (with lower variance ) statistical estimates of whatever you are trying to measure.

For example, say you want to investigate how income differs based on educational attainment, but you know that this relationship can vary based on race. Using stratified sampling, you can ensure you obtain a large enough sample from each racial group, allowing you to draw more precise conclusions.

In stratified sampling , researchers divide subjects into subgroups called strata based on characteristics that they share (e.g., race, gender, educational attainment).

Once divided, each subgroup is randomly sampled using another probability sampling method.

Cluster sampling is more time- and cost-efficient than other probability sampling methods , particularly when it comes to large samples spread across a wide geographical area.

However, it provides less statistical certainty than other methods, such as simple random sampling , because it is difficult to ensure that your clusters properly represent the population as a whole.

There are three types of cluster sampling : single-stage, double-stage and multi-stage clustering. In all three types, you first divide the population into clusters, then randomly select clusters for use in your sample.

  • In single-stage sampling , you collect data from every unit within the selected clusters.
  • In double-stage sampling , you select a random sample of units from within the clusters.
  • In multi-stage sampling , you repeat the procedure of randomly sampling elements from within the clusters until you have reached a manageable sample.

Cluster sampling is a probability sampling method in which you divide a population into clusters, such as districts or schools, and then randomly select some of these clusters as your sample.

The clusters should ideally each be mini-representations of the population as a whole.

If properly implemented, simple random sampling is usually the best sampling method for ensuring both internal and external validity . However, it can sometimes be impractical and expensive to implement, depending on the size of the population to be studied,

If you have a list of every member of the population and the ability to reach whichever members are selected, you can use simple random sampling.

The American Community Survey  is an example of simple random sampling . In order to collect detailed data on the population of the US, the Census Bureau officials randomly select 3.5 million households per year and use a variety of methods to convince them to fill out the survey.

Simple random sampling is a type of probability sampling in which the researcher randomly selects a subset of participants from a population . Each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected. Data is then collected from as large a percentage as possible of this random subset.

Quasi-experimental design is most useful in situations where it would be unethical or impractical to run a true experiment .

Quasi-experiments have lower internal validity than true experiments, but they often have higher external validity  as they can use real-world interventions instead of artificial laboratory settings.

A quasi-experiment is a type of research design that attempts to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. The main difference with a true experiment is that the groups are not randomly assigned.

Blinding is important to reduce research bias (e.g., observer bias , demand characteristics ) and ensure a study’s internal validity .

If participants know whether they are in a control or treatment group , they may adjust their behavior in ways that affect the outcome that researchers are trying to measure. If the people administering the treatment are aware of group assignment, they may treat participants differently and thus directly or indirectly influence the final results.

  • In a single-blind study , only the participants are blinded.
  • In a double-blind study , both participants and experimenters are blinded.
  • In a triple-blind study , the assignment is hidden not only from participants and experimenters, but also from the researchers analyzing the data.

Blinding means hiding who is assigned to the treatment group and who is assigned to the control group in an experiment .

A true experiment (a.k.a. a controlled experiment) always includes at least one control group that doesn’t receive the experimental treatment.

However, some experiments use a within-subjects design to test treatments without a control group. In these designs, you usually compare one group’s outcomes before and after a treatment (instead of comparing outcomes between different groups).

For strong internal validity , it’s usually best to include a control group if possible. Without a control group, it’s harder to be certain that the outcome was caused by the experimental treatment and not by other variables.

An experimental group, also known as a treatment group, receives the treatment whose effect researchers wish to study, whereas a control group does not. They should be identical in all other ways.

Individual Likert-type questions are generally considered ordinal data , because the items have clear rank order, but don’t have an even distribution.

Overall Likert scale scores are sometimes treated as interval data. These scores are considered to have directionality and even spacing between them.

The type of data determines what statistical tests you should use to analyze your data.

A Likert scale is a rating scale that quantitatively assesses opinions, attitudes, or behaviors. It is made up of 4 or more questions that measure a single attitude or trait when response scores are combined.

To use a Likert scale in a survey , you present participants with Likert-type questions or statements, and a continuum of items, usually with 5 or 7 possible responses, to capture their degree of agreement.

In scientific research, concepts are the abstract ideas or phenomena that are being studied (e.g., educational achievement). Variables are properties or characteristics of the concept (e.g., performance at school), while indicators are ways of measuring or quantifying variables (e.g., yearly grade reports).

The process of turning abstract concepts into measurable variables and indicators is called operationalization .

There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis , but they all share five steps in common:

  • Prepare and organize your data.
  • Review and explore your data.
  • Develop a data coding system.
  • Assign codes to the data.
  • Identify recurring themes.

The specifics of each step depend on the focus of the analysis. Some common approaches include textual analysis , thematic analysis , and discourse analysis .

There are five common approaches to qualitative research :

  • Grounded theory involves collecting data in order to develop new theories.
  • Ethnography involves immersing yourself in a group or organization to understand its culture.
  • Narrative research involves interpreting stories to understand how people make sense of their experiences and perceptions.
  • Phenomenological research involves investigating phenomena through people’s lived experiences.
  • Action research links theory and practice in several cycles to drive innovative changes.

Hypothesis testing is a formal procedure for investigating our ideas about the world using statistics. It is used by scientists to test specific predictions, called hypotheses , by calculating how likely it is that a pattern or relationship between variables could have arisen by chance.

Operationalization means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.

For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioral avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.

Before collecting data , it’s important to consider how you will operationalize the variables that you want to measure.

When conducting research, collecting original data has significant advantages:

  • You can tailor data collection to your specific research aims (e.g. understanding the needs of your consumers or user testing your website)
  • You can control and standardize the process for high reliability and validity (e.g. choosing appropriate measurements and sampling methods )

However, there are also some drawbacks: data collection can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive. In some cases, it’s more efficient to use secondary data that has already been collected by someone else, but the data might be less reliable.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.

There are several methods you can use to decrease the impact of confounding variables on your research: restriction, matching, statistical control and randomization.

In restriction , you restrict your sample by only including certain subjects that have the same values of potential confounding variables.

In matching , you match each of the subjects in your treatment group with a counterpart in the comparison group. The matched subjects have the same values on any potential confounding variables, and only differ in the independent variable .

In statistical control , you include potential confounders as variables in your regression .

In randomization , you randomly assign the treatment (or independent variable) in your study to a sufficiently large number of subjects, which allows you to control for all potential confounding variables.

A confounding variable is closely related to both the independent and dependent variables in a study. An independent variable represents the supposed cause , while the dependent variable is the supposed effect . A confounding variable is a third variable that influences both the independent and dependent variables.

Failing to account for confounding variables can cause you to wrongly estimate the relationship between your independent and dependent variables.

To ensure the internal validity of your research, you must consider the impact of confounding variables. If you fail to account for them, you might over- or underestimate the causal relationship between your independent and dependent variables , or even find a causal relationship where none exists.

Yes, but including more than one of either type requires multiple research questions .

For example, if you are interested in the effect of a diet on health, you can use multiple measures of health: blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, pulse, and many more. Each of these is its own dependent variable with its own research question.

You could also choose to look at the effect of exercise levels as well as diet, or even the additional effect of the two combined. Each of these is a separate independent variable .

To ensure the internal validity of an experiment , you should only change one independent variable at a time.

No. The value of a dependent variable depends on an independent variable, so a variable cannot be both independent and dependent at the same time. It must be either the cause or the effect, not both!

You want to find out how blood sugar levels are affected by drinking diet soda and regular soda, so you conduct an experiment .

  • The type of soda – diet or regular – is the independent variable .
  • The level of blood sugar that you measure is the dependent variable – it changes depending on the type of soda.

Determining cause and effect is one of the most important parts of scientific research. It’s essential to know which is the cause – the independent variable – and which is the effect – the dependent variable.

In non-probability sampling , the sample is selected based on non-random criteria, and not every member of the population has a chance of being included.

Common non-probability sampling methods include convenience sampling , voluntary response sampling, purposive sampling , snowball sampling, and quota sampling .

Probability sampling means that every member of the target population has a known chance of being included in the sample.

Probability sampling methods include simple random sampling , systematic sampling , stratified sampling , and cluster sampling .

Using careful research design and sampling procedures can help you avoid sampling bias . Oversampling can be used to correct undercoverage bias .

Some common types of sampling bias include self-selection bias , nonresponse bias , undercoverage bias , survivorship bias , pre-screening or advertising bias, and healthy user bias.

Sampling bias is a threat to external validity – it limits the generalizability of your findings to a broader group of people.

A sampling error is the difference between a population parameter and a sample statistic .

A statistic refers to measures about the sample , while a parameter refers to measures about the population .

Populations are used when a research question requires data from every member of the population. This is usually only feasible when the population is small and easily accessible.

Samples are used to make inferences about populations . Samples are easier to collect data from because they are practical, cost-effective, convenient, and manageable.

There are seven threats to external validity : selection bias , history, experimenter effect, Hawthorne effect , testing effect, aptitude-treatment and situation effect.

The two types of external validity are population validity (whether you can generalize to other groups of people) and ecological validity (whether you can generalize to other situations and settings).

The external validity of a study is the extent to which you can generalize your findings to different groups of people, situations, and measures.

Cross-sectional studies cannot establish a cause-and-effect relationship or analyze behavior over a period of time. To investigate cause and effect, you need to do a longitudinal study or an experimental study .

Cross-sectional studies are less expensive and time-consuming than many other types of study. They can provide useful insights into a population’s characteristics and identify correlations for further research.

Sometimes only cross-sectional data is available for analysis; other times your research question may only require a cross-sectional study to answer it.

Longitudinal studies can last anywhere from weeks to decades, although they tend to be at least a year long.

The 1970 British Cohort Study , which has collected data on the lives of 17,000 Brits since their births in 1970, is one well-known example of a longitudinal study .

Longitudinal studies are better to establish the correct sequence of events, identify changes over time, and provide insight into cause-and-effect relationships, but they also tend to be more expensive and time-consuming than other types of studies.

Longitudinal studies and cross-sectional studies are two different types of research design . In a cross-sectional study you collect data from a population at a specific point in time; in a longitudinal study you repeatedly collect data from the same sample over an extended period of time.

There are eight threats to internal validity : history, maturation, instrumentation, testing, selection bias , regression to the mean, social interaction and attrition .

Internal validity is the extent to which you can be confident that a cause-and-effect relationship established in a study cannot be explained by other factors.

In mixed methods research , you use both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis methods to answer your research question .

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods .
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.

A confounding variable , also called a confounder or confounding factor, is a third variable in a study examining a potential cause-and-effect relationship.

A confounding variable is related to both the supposed cause and the supposed effect of the study. It can be difficult to separate the true effect of the independent variable from the effect of the confounding variable.

In your research design , it’s important to identify potential confounding variables and plan how you will reduce their impact.

Discrete and continuous variables are two types of quantitative variables :

  • Discrete variables represent counts (e.g. the number of objects in a collection).
  • Continuous variables represent measurable amounts (e.g. water volume or weight).

Quantitative variables are any variables where the data represent amounts (e.g. height, weight, or age).

Categorical variables are any variables where the data represent groups. This includes rankings (e.g. finishing places in a race), classifications (e.g. brands of cereal), and binary outcomes (e.g. coin flips).

You need to know what type of variables you are working with to choose the right statistical test for your data and interpret your results .

You can think of independent and dependent variables in terms of cause and effect: an independent variable is the variable you think is the cause , while a dependent variable is the effect .

In an experiment, you manipulate the independent variable and measure the outcome in the dependent variable. For example, in an experiment about the effect of nutrients on crop growth:

  • The  independent variable  is the amount of nutrients added to the crop field.
  • The  dependent variable is the biomass of the crops at harvest time.

Defining your variables, and deciding how you will manipulate and measure them, is an important part of experimental design .

Experimental design means planning a set of procedures to investigate a relationship between variables . To design a controlled experiment, you need:

  • A testable hypothesis
  • At least one independent variable that can be precisely manipulated
  • At least one dependent variable that can be precisely measured

When designing the experiment, you decide:

  • How you will manipulate the variable(s)
  • How you will control for any potential confounding variables
  • How many subjects or samples will be included in the study
  • How subjects will be assigned to treatment levels

Experimental design is essential to the internal and external validity of your experiment.

I nternal validity is the degree of confidence that the causal relationship you are testing is not influenced by other factors or variables .

External validity is the extent to which your results can be generalized to other contexts.

The validity of your experiment depends on your experimental design .

Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:

  • Reliability refers to the  consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
  • Validity   refers to the  accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).

If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.

A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population . Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.

In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research project . It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your objectives.

Methods are the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyze data (for example, experiments, surveys , and statistical tests ).

In shorter scientific papers, where the aim is to report the findings of a specific study, you might simply describe what you did in a methods section .

In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation , you will probably include a methodology section , where you explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.

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How Teachers Can Learn Through Action Research

A look at one school’s action research project provides a blueprint for using this model of collaborative teacher learning.

Two teachers talking while looking at papers

When teachers redesign learning experiences to make school more relevant to students’ lives, they can’t ignore assessment. For many teachers, the most vexing question about real-world learning experiences such as project-based learning is: How will we know what students know and can do by the end of this project?

Teachers at the Siena School in Silver Spring, Maryland, decided to figure out the assessment question by investigating their classroom practices. As a result of their action research, they now have a much deeper understanding of authentic assessment and a renewed appreciation for the power of learning together.

Their research process offers a replicable model for other schools interested in designing their own immersive professional learning. The process began with a real-world challenge and an open-ended question, involved a deep dive into research, and ended with a public showcase of findings.

Start With an Authentic Need to Know

Siena School serves about 130 students in grades 4–12 who have mild to moderate language-based learning differences, including dyslexia. Most students are one to three grade levels behind in reading.

Teachers have introduced a variety of instructional strategies, including project-based learning, to better meet students’ learning needs and also help them develop skills like collaboration and creativity. Instead of taking tests and quizzes, students demonstrate what they know in a PBL unit by making products or generating solutions.

“We were already teaching this way,” explained Simon Kanter, Siena’s director of technology. “We needed a way to measure, was authentic assessment actually effective? Does it provide meaningful feedback? Can teachers grade it fairly?”

Focus the Research Question

Across grade levels and departments, teachers considered what they wanted to learn about authentic assessment, which the late Grant Wiggins described as engaging, multisensory, feedback-oriented, and grounded in real-world tasks. That’s a contrast to traditional tests and quizzes, which tend to focus on recall rather than application and have little in common with how experts go about their work in disciplines like math or history.

The teachers generated a big research question: Is using authentic assessment an effective and engaging way to provide meaningful feedback for teachers and students about growth and proficiency in a variety of learning objectives, including 21st-century skills?

Take Time to Plan

Next, teachers planned authentic assessments that would generate data for their study. For example, middle school science students created prototypes of genetically modified seeds and pitched their designs to a panel of potential investors. They had to not only understand the science of germination but also apply their knowledge and defend their thinking.

In other classes, teachers planned everything from mock trials to environmental stewardship projects to assess student learning and skill development. A shared rubric helped the teachers plan high-quality assessments.

Make Sense of Data

During the data-gathering phase, students were surveyed after each project about the value of authentic assessments versus more traditional tools like tests and quizzes. Teachers also reflected after each assessment.

“We collated the data, looked for trends, and presented them back to the faculty,” Kanter said.

Among the takeaways:

  • Authentic assessment generates more meaningful feedback and more opportunities for students to apply it.
  • Students consider authentic assessment more engaging, with increased opportunities to be creative, make choices, and collaborate.
  • Teachers are thinking more critically about creating assessments that allow for differentiation and that are applicable to students’ everyday lives.

To make their learning public, Siena hosted a colloquium on authentic assessment for other schools in the region. The school also submitted its research as part of an accreditation process with the Middle States Association.

Strategies to Share

For other schools interested in conducting action research, Kanter highlighted three key strategies.

  • Focus on areas of growth, not deficiency:  “This would have been less successful if we had said, ‘Our math scores are down. We need a new program to get scores up,’ Kanter said. “That puts the onus on teachers. Data collection could seem punitive. Instead, we focused on the way we already teach and thought about, how can we get more accurate feedback about how students are doing?”
  • Foster a culture of inquiry:  Encourage teachers to ask questions, conduct individual research, and share what they learn with colleagues. “Sometimes, one person attends a summer workshop and then shares the highlights in a short presentation. That might just be a conversation, or it might be the start of a school-wide initiative,” Kanter explained. In fact, that’s exactly how the focus on authentic assessment began.
  • Build structures for teacher collaboration:  Using staff meetings for shared planning and problem-solving fosters a collaborative culture. That was already in place when Siena embarked on its action research, along with informal brainstorming to support students.

For both students and staff, the deep dive into authentic assessment yielded “dramatic impact on the classroom,” Kanter added. “That’s the great part of this.”

In the past, he said, most teachers gave traditional final exams. To alleviate students’ test anxiety, teachers would support them with time for content review and strategies for study skills and test-taking.

“This year looks and feels different,” Kanter said. A week before the end of fall term, students were working hard on final products, but they weren’t cramming for exams. Teachers had time to give individual feedback to help students improve their work. “The whole climate feels way better.”

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Qualitative Research in the Post-Modern Era pp 387–439 Cite as

Action Research

  • Robert E. White   ORCID: 3 &
  • Karyn Cooper 4  
  • First Online: 29 September 2022

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Of all the methodologies that have, thus far, been discussed between the pages of this volume, perhaps none is more practical than action research. In fact, it is often referred to as “practitioner research,” “teacher research’ or “participatory action research.” Herr and Anderson (2005) claim that action researchers may occupy multiple positions, even simultaneously, as insiders and/or outsiders, depending on social or ideological constructs such as race, religion, political affiliation, social class, gender or sexual orientation. These affiliations (or exclusions) may also significantly influence the reality as captured through action research. As such, action researchers may greatly benefit from interrogating and identifying their multiple positionalites in order to understand and articulate tensions stemming from underlying roles and stances, and to “avoid the blind spots that come with unexamined beliefs” (Herr & Anderson, 2005, p. 44).

No action without research, no research without action –Kurt Lewin (1946)

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Faculty of Education, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS, Canada

Robert E. White

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Action Research in practice: Critical literacy in an urban grade three classroom

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

St. Francis Xavier University

Cooper, K. & White, R. E. (2006). Action research in practice: Critical literacy in an urban grade 3 classroom. Educational Action Research 14(1), 83-99.

This action research project on critical literacy in a high poverty area in Toronto, Canada becomes the practical backdrop for examining how critical literacy can be developed and applied in regular classroom situations. Educators identifying patterns within classrooms that prevent students from participating fully in all aspects of a democratic society may find models presented in this article useful for making curricula more inclusive.

Literacy failure leads to poor overall academic performance, immense loss of self-esteem and an accumulating lack of basic literacy skills needed for self-support and for making an economic contribution to society. While literacy can be defined in many ways in today’s society, it is reading failure that is currently the most significant issue along the literacy spectrum.

Reading failure and educational change are inextricably intertwined. In order to bolster literacy capacity, a prime place to begin is in the arena of educational reform. Education has undergone profound changes in the past few years as ministries of education, faculties of education, and school boards prepare teachers to respond to the needs of “all” children. In the province of Ontario, Canada, for example, all Grade Three students now participate in the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) Standardized tests. As well, a public school board in Ontario has compiled a Learning Opportunities Index (Toronto District School Board, 2001) which serves to indicate a “relative level of need” for over 450 elementary schools under its prevue. This Opportunities Index correlates with literacy scores from EQAO Tests and is used by the school district to profile low literacy levels for early learners from urban schools (Brown, 2001). Despite significant public expenditure on education, being part of the reading world is not a reality for many urban inner city children in lower socio-economic areas. While these learners are Ontario’s at-risk students, their situation has global parallels. Although local practices and global practices differ around the world, literacy requires a re-imaging in this era of reconstruction and development (Janks, 2000). This issue, then, is an international one: how can elementary teachers in urban schools best help at-risk learners in literacy education and thus their chances for future success in education and life?

One of those hundreds of urban elementary schools in this Canadian school board is the Sir Simon George Elementary School. This K-5 school has over 650 students, 48% female and 52 % male, with 12% born outside of Canada and 66% for whom English is not their primary language. Because Sir Simon George Elementary School scored poorly on the Board’s Learning Opportunities Index , the staff at Sir Simon George Elementary School recently has begun to come to come to grips with the issue. The staff has embraced a new vision for this school. In order to implement this vision, the school staff established several important changes in the hopes of reversing this school’s low educational ranking.

Professional development for classroom teachers on administering the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) constituted another significant change. By utilizing this assessment procedure, the school was able to obtain literacy baseline scores for all of its students. Furthermore, a school district primary literacy consultant, in concert with the school staff, designated a daily school-wide, two-hour time block for implementation of an early literacy program.

Literacy research is replete with accounts indicating that early intervention with at-risk students can effectively increase levels of literacy skills and comprehension. Such research suggests that a key to successful intervention is to provide students with programs that emphasize critical thinking strategies (Anyon, 1980; Gunning, 2000; Slavin, 1998).

Critical literacy can be separated from the notion of critical thinking in the following way. Luke (1997) notes that critical approaches to literacy involve “a shift away from psychological and individualistic models of reading and writing towards those approaches that use sociological, cultural and discourse theory to reconceptualise the literate subject, textual practices, and classroom pedagogy” (143). He goes on to state that:

Critical approaches are characterized by a commitment to reshape literacy education in the interests of marginalized groups of learners, who on the basis of gender, cultural and socioeconomic background have been excluded from access to the discourses and texts of dominant economics and cultures (Luke, 1997, p.143).

This definition of critical literacy is supported by Gee (1996) and Edelsky and Cherland (2006). Although critical literacy and critical thinking are not necessarily the same thing, Luke (1997) suggests that “shared across contemporary approaches to critical literacy is an emphasis on the need for literates to take an interventionist approach to texts and discourses of all media” (critical literacy) and also requires “a commitment to the capacity to critique, transform and reconstruct dominant modes of information” (critical thinking) (p. 150).

Teachers and researchers, therefore, need to understand the complex relationship between language and power. Research indicates that teacher-generated research provides teachers with a strong feeling of ownership of both the process and results, and increases their own professional development (Carson & Sumara; 1997; Hannay, 1989, 1995; McNiff, 1993). However, despite all the attention given to strategic skill development for at-risk learners and attention given to the ways in which teachers acquire their professional knowledge, teachers’ reflections upon the teaching and learning process has received little attention. In spite of much of the rhetoric on school reform , it is painfully apparent that we do not actively value the insights and interpretations of teachers, and it is precisely these insights and interpretations that can effectively improve not only literacy levels as well as comprehension but critical literacy strategies as well. For these reasons, the staff approached this research team for assistance in the development of a critical literacy action research project.

The critical literacy action research project

In the Fall of 2001, Sir Simon George Elementary School staff invited the research team to participate in a multi-year action research project, the focus of which was school wide literacy improvement. The research team consisted of the co-authors, a graduate research assistant, a school literacy co-ordinator and a school district primary literacy consultant. The role of this research team was to act as facilitators to work together with teachers to develop critical literacy capacity among the teachers and the entire research team. After the initial and obligatory staff meeting in which the research team was introduce and the project was addressed, the non-school based researchers worked together with teachers to design the process. From this, in conjunction with the school district primary literacy consultant, one teacher volunteered to design and incorporate lesson plans to address issues of critical literacy in her grade three classroom. This paper reports on the action research project on critical literacy that grew out of this initiative. The impact of this project on the teacher and researchers are reported on later in this paper.

The action research project reported here offers promise for on-going collaborative research into critical literacy for urban students who continue to be at a disadvantage as it pertains to literacy, comprehension and critical thinking. The purposes of this project were to:

Design a Steps to Action Plan (Mills, 2000) enabling them to effect positive educational change.

Assess the effects on student literacy levels of teaching the students critical literacy strategies,

Evaluate the effects of an action research strategy on teacher learning and professional development.

As a corollary to the purposes of the project the staff and administration, in conjunction with the research team, determined the objectives for this project as being:

To develop critical literacy strategies for both early at-risk learners and their teachers,

To improve literacy teachers’ professional judgment,

To implement, assess, and evaluate specific strategies of literacy teaching

To enhance elementary in-service teacher training to support school-wide literacy improvement, critical literacy strategies, and life-long learning.

The significance of this study lies not only in its school-initiated origins, but also in its potential to contribute to two interrelated areas:

Critical literacy strategies, by reflecting on how critical thinking and critical literacy is developed by a teacher, in concert with the research team, in an actual classroom for at-risk children;

Action research, particularly an in-depth look at one school’s effort to improve early literacy for at-risk students.

In the first year of this project much time was invested in outlining the parameters of the research project, including serious school-wide discussion, culminating in a joint initiative on the methods of literacy instruction for primary students (kindergarten through grade three) in the school. The program of research was based on the action research methodology loop, “act-reflect-revise” (Mills, 2000), with teachers and their students as they engaged in action research to select and implement suitable and appropriate practices for critical literacy, as defined by the teachers themselves.

At the school level, all research members participated in sessions to decide upon the foundations for the research project based on suitable and appropriate practices for building critical literacy capacities relating to primary urban students and their teachers (Comber, Thomson, Wells, 2001). All stages in the process were developed through consensus, with the research team acting as facilitators for the process. The teacher and the school district primary literacy consultant designed the lessons. Learning strategies such as KWL (Thompkins, 1998) and other reflective practices were included.

The “K-W-L” (what we KNOW—what we WANT to learn—what we have LEARNED) strategy for reflective thinking (Thompkins, 1998) is outlined below.

K What we KNOW (One’s preconceptions)

Based on my experience, I believe critical literacy can be described as.....

I am now thinking.....

W What we WANT to learn

I wonder.....

What would happen if.....

It’s funny how my students.....

How can I.....

L What we have LEARNED

Developing critical literacy capacities of students and teachers

Practice or strategy for developing critical literacy capacities within this component.....

When students are engaged in developing critical literacy capacities, it looks like.....

When students are engaged in developing critical literacy capacities, it sounds like.....

Perhaps (specific student) demonstrates the best response to this strategy because.....

Perhaps (specific student) demonstrates the weakest response to this strategy because...

For this student to assess his/her critical literacy capacity, what needs to happen?

The opportunity for revision (“Are revisions needed to be made to the action plan itself at this time?”) follows this reflection, which in turn produces a new action plan.

At the end of the first year of the study, the research participants reflected upon the action research project and planned for revision to the research process for the next year. The previously described K-W-L strategy provided the basis for the structure of the focus group reflections within the project. The Debbie Miller (2002) book, Reading with Meaning , was chosen by the participants in this project for its attention to establishing a framework for creating a culture and climate for critical literacy. This book is written by a teacher-researcher and reflects goals similar to the objectives of this critical action research project, providing goals both for teachers and students regarding how to think more deeply while at the same time working towards esteem-building and social agency (Luke, 1997). After the grade three teacher in the project highly endorsed the book, everyone in the project read sample chapters and agreed that it fit into an operative framework for beginning the project. The research team particularly liked the way in which Miller (2002) worked at enabling her students to become more experienced at making meaningful and thoughtful connections to the stories of their own lives so that they might become more adept at reading the broader context within which they live. Like Miller, it was the group’s belief, that the only way to develop responsibility in students is to allow them to practice it.

With the first year of the project behind them, the critical literacy action research project began in earnest. The staff felt comfortable with the planning process, and in September, the following questions were asked of the students of the grade three teacher who was part of the research team: “Why do people read?” “What do you see readers doing?” “Where do you see people reading?” These questions and other questions were used to establish connections with students’ lives and to develop a greater understanding of their own reading worlds in order to make the context of the project relevant to them.

Brainstorming with the large group and recording students’ thinking was an appropriate way to address the first question. In this way, the school district primary literacy consultant in collaboration with the grade three teacher and the research team began to outline the project with the grade three students. These questions, which framed the beginning work with students, revealed much about the children’s perspectives about reading and also assisted in the selection of relevant teaching materials.

By October, focus meetings followed the K-W-L format as previously described. For purposes of framing the discussion, one example from each KWL strategy for reflective thinking is presented below.

“K” Represents the Research Team’s Current Understanding of Critical Literacy

The collective research team realized early on that they needed to establish an understanding of the term “critical literacy”. The research team’s first discussion regarding preconceptions of what critical literacy means was timely, given Edelsky and Cherland’s (2006) concern about the popularization and appropriation of the term “critical” and the tendency to trivialize what critical literacy—and critical thinking—really means.

From the first meeting: On the meaning of critical literacy, it became clear that the research team in general was using a variety of definitions of critical literacy. The researchers referred the team to Luke (1997):

Whatever we are doing needs to be important to us and our belief structures. Otherwise, what are we doing it for? There needs to be some connection to ourselves for it to be meaningful practice.

Critical literacy is a way to view the world. It’s a key to a democratic education. It’s basic in terms of being critical oneself.

We all have different ideas of things in our own heads.... We might think that we are talking about the same thing, but we’re talking about different things altogether.

...sharing ownership and trusting...and trusting the students to be able to be responsible and to think

If teachers don’t ask themselves why, then how do they expect students to ask why? Many of the students in this particular situation are ESL students. We have had grade three students whom teachers were bringing forth as having difficulties. They were Canadian-born but were receiving ESL instruction and couldn’t be considered ESL students any more. We’re masking a problem that could be deeper than we realize.

This passage, taken from the first discussion concerning the need to define a critical literacy stance, points to the notion that “critical literacy” needs to be understood in terms of the dynamics of identity, context and teaching practices employed. Jamilla acknowledges how one’s own belief structures are connected to classroom practice. In speaking about her own identity as a young black teacher, she can begin to see traces of her identity rooted in and through her teaching practices in both explicit and implicit ways. Dianne connects this thought to the all-important roles that teachers play in helping to construct their students’ identities through the beliefs they carry about who the students are and what they believe the students are capable of. Suzanne reminds us of the need to understand the politics of the ‘local’ literacy context when she states that, “Many of our students in this particular situation are ESL students”. Suzanne speaks to the idea that the cultural and political run deep in literacy and that teachers need to be aware of these factors, particularly if they are concerned with all students, including “minority” students, gaining a chance to define themselves. Through this discussion, the team began to consider more deeply just how literacy practices used in educational settings serve to affirm or disaffirm a student’s sense of identity and ultimately a student’s chances for “success” in society.

This initial discussion reveals an important question relevant to a critical literacy stance: How do we, as teachers, learn to become more experienced so that we might learn to step outside of ourselves and our own identities to allow multiple identities in? Perhaps this entails the commitment to be continually vigilant concerning what conditions truly support literacy, particularly for children of poverty or for those who have been labeled “at-risk.” These are of course ideological considerations and cannot be dealt with in short order. However, through beginning with our own teaching practices, and acting locally, we believed that we might move from our local position to more global issues relevant in literacy education today.

At this point, it may be helpful to briefly look at how literacy has been constructed historically. The following definitions illustrate that literacy is storied according to changing economies, cultures, institutions and possible worlds.

A literate person is a person who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement on his everyday life (UNESCO, 1951).

Functional literacy is the ability to engage effectively in all those reading activities normally expected of a literate adult in his community (Hunter & Harman, 1979).

[Literacy is] using print and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential (Southam Literacy, 1987).

These definitions show that literacy is dynamic and that historical interpretations have driven and continue to drive what represents literacy. Thus what represents literacy is historically driven and both traces and influences our definitions of literacy and how we use it. As teachers/educators of literacy then, is it not incumbent upon educators to consider their role(s) in shaping the ‘construct’ of what it is that literacy embodies? Is it to ask, “Who is deemed to be a ‘literate’ individual, and by whom”, particularly in these times of a pluralistic milieu in the twenty-first century? If so, then it would seem that definitions must be chosen well. This re-evaluation of what constitutes literacy and, by extension, critical literacy, is driven by dramatic local and global change. Globalization has resulted in the domination of English (Janks, 2000) and Cummins (1995) has addressed questions raised by the cultural politics of English as an international language. The issue is at once global and local as so many of our students are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, as borne out by the number of ESL students in this study. Chambers adds another dimension to the discussion:

To inhabit the multiplicity of cultural borders, historical temporalities and hybrid identities calls for a state of knowledge, an ethics of the intellect, an aperture in politics, able to acknowledge more than itself; a state of knowledge that is prepared to suffer modification and interrogation by what it neither possesses nor can claim as its own…and permits us to lend our ears to what is unsaid in the discourses we employ (Chambers, 1996, 50).

Chambers’ term, “ a state of knowledge” suggests a growing critical awareness of the need to acknowledge multiple identities within any enclosed system, including educational systems. The Chambers quotation is particularly important when considering a critical literacy stance because it embodies key elements of identity and context while considering a state of knowledge capable of “lending our ears to what is unsaid in the discourses [or teaching practices] we employ.”

In this particular school research context, the research team felt that policy-makers do not always define the rich cultural diversity of the children and parents in their school community favourably. While on the surface, multiculturalism is touted to be beneficial to student learning; there may be issues of prejudice and discrimination still hiding in the light. Sonia Nieto (1994) points to patterns that encourage students to move beyond mere tolerance in multicultural education. A quotation from one of the team members may best express this:

With talking about what you think and see with students, particularly impoverished students like those in our multicultural school, they’re often written off for various reasons.

Another team member expressed a similar idea in the following way:

Our children are incredibly capable but there is somehow a mismatch between the school’s version of intelligence and what is occurring at home.

The dispositional nature of critical thinking was described:

I’ve had students in Special Education who are very intelligent in terms of the way they use higher order thinking or critical literacy, but it is situational. Perhaps the key is to make critical thinking more dispositional than situational, thereby developing critical learning capacities that are derived from critical literacy.

Putting critical literacy into practice takes thought and hard work and the full time teacher is the one charged with the responsibility of being, accountable, effective and efficient. Shutz (2000) places this thought in context:

...what we are led to believe about ourselves, what we learn about how we are supposed to act, the ways we are taught to frame “problems” and even the tools of reason that we use to solve these problems, do not simply represent neutral skills but are in fact ways of forming us into particular kinds of subjects. ‘Power’ in this vision does not merely suppress or restrict but actually produces actions and desires (216).

If critical literacy is to promote democracy, social justice and equity in schools, then what circumstances need to arise in schools for an increase in democracy and shared power? Banks (1999) describes a pattern of four levels of multicultural curriculum that parallel the adoption of a critical literacy curriculum. It is often referred to as a critical literacy curriculum because its definition has expanded to include all students who tend to be marginalized socially or physically. The curriculum pattern tends to become increasingly more inclusive as the approach moves through the inclusion of ethnic heroes into the existing unchanged curriculum to an approach that includes all elements of the transformative approach but also requires students to make decisions and take action related to the concept, issue, or problem they have studied.

“W” Represents the Action Research Plan: What the Research Team is Seeking to Know

The grade three teacher on the project, Jamilla, wanted to examine the provincial language arts curriculum with an eye towards understanding patterns of how critical literacy is understood, mentioned and factored into the grade three Language Arts curriculum. She began by looking at specific and “global” expectations within sections of the Ontario Language Curriculum (1997). As the following example suggests, the language curriculum document consisted mainly of decontextualized skills. In fact, it was difficult to find language directly relevant to critical literacy practices. In particular, the section under reasoning and ‘critical’ thinking was problematic because, the skills were not only decontextualized, the term “critical” had been co-opted and misapplied (Edelsky and Cherland, 2006). The term “critical” no longer meant critical in many senses of the word. The following example from the grade three Language Arts curriculum, recently in use states:

Overall Expectations – Grade 3 Reading. By the end of Grade 3, students will:

read a variety of fiction and non-fiction materials (e.g., chapter books, children’s reference books) for different purposes;

read independently, using a variety of reading strategies;

express clear responses to written materials, relating the ideas in them to their own knowledge and experience and to ideas in other materials that they have read;

select material that they need from a variety of sources;

understand the vocabulary and language structures appropriate for this grade level;

Use conventions of written materials to help them understand and use the materials.

Patterns of critical approaches to curriculum range from the encouragement of students to engage in explicit criticism of cultural, economic, and political structures to more neutral approaches which affiliate literacy with individuals’ “thinking skills” and the weighting of information (Luke and Walton, 1994). It is these “thinking skills”, rather than the “explicit criticism of cultural, economic and political structures” that tend to be emphasized in curriculum guides. In the example below, critical thinking has been largely reduced to data organization.

Expectations in Specific Areas. By the end of Grade 3, students will:

Despite this approach to literacy education, as presented in the grade three Language Arts curriculum, in practical terms the research team struggled with how the literacy curriculum might be a useful guide for students, particularly when all shared the belief that the students were capable language learners and the team wanted to honor this in their teaching practices. Is the key to using curricular documents to first be cognizant of language patterns used to structure these documents? That is to say, must one become more literate in one’s own understanding of these documents? What research does the document rest on? What belief structures are inherent in the teaching practices espoused within this document? How is language learning understood? For example, is it anchored in development stage theory? Cultural studies theory? Ultimately, what are the purposes of literacy and who gets to define these purposes? And why? Moreover, team members in the study often commented on the tension between the need for teaching explicit skill instruction and critical literacy practices:

“What kinds of things do you do when you come to a word you don’t know?” and it took me about twenty minutes to get them to say something other than “sounding out”.... So I just have to look at the problem more deeply because they don’t look at it as the “big picture”. Decoding and comprehension go together.... But they think, “If I have a problem with reading, it’s because I don’t know what that word says. It’s about that word or these lists of words that I have to know.”... This is the piece that we need to help them understand - the whole and I’m having a problem with this part here by just letting them be aware of the things they need to do to get to the next level, instead of keeping it a secret that only the teacher knows (Jamilla).
It makes sense to wrap the strategies they need to know around it, such as decoding, and to understand their thinking processes. We’d have to have an open dialogue with them whether it be direct skill instruction or crit. lit. (Dianne).

In reading this text, some readers may imagine that this is all well and good but what about teaching reading and writing skills? Of course this is a valid concern, particularly given that so many students continue to fail in school despite the concerted efforts of educators. Rather than fuel the ‘either/or’ debate over whether the central purposes of literacy education should focus on strategic reading or reading to make sense of life, perhaps a literacy model that incorporates both sides of the debate is useful. Freebody and Luke (1990) add to this discussion through their conceptualization of literate practices as involving four roles—code-breaker, meaning-maker, text user and text analyst. Being a code breaker involves understanding the sound symbol relationship and the alphabetic principles. Being text participant or “meaning-maker” calls upon the reader to draw inferences, using background knowledge to fill out unexplicated aspects of the text. Being a text user means knowing how to use a variety of texts for a variety of purposes in real life situations—For example, reading instructions on a soup can versus writing a friendly letter versus reading instructions on how to put a piece of complex equipment together. Being a text analyst means applying critical discourse analysis and asking questions about absences in texts, how gendered cultural storylines work across texts, who texts are written for, who benefits from a particular storyline and how might it have been written differently.

To return to the previous teaching event involving Jamilla’s concern regarding the teaching of explicit skills and critical literacy practices, the role of meaning-maker and text analyst were the literacy practices that were deliberately invoked. Although the role of code breaker was used earlier in the day through such literacy practices as the morning message and making words, some students spontaneously modeled the role of text-user.

Bearing this in mind, reflections on the first of a series of fifteen-minute mini-lessons with the students were also based on the “K-W-L” strategy. This was accomplished by specifically tying critical literacy into the curriculum guidelines by accessing students’ prior knowledge of what their experiences of critical literacy were like. This lesson dealt with “Looking at the Big Picture” —referring back to Jamilla’s earlier comment that the students do not see the ‘big picture’, meaning that the students do not often discuss patterns of exclusion or marginalization or understand the social context of reading—through a large-group brainstorming session with the children. Examples of priming questions were, “Why do people need to learn to read”? and “Does everyone [around the world] have the same chance to learn to read”? Responses were recorded on a wall chart.

An additional critical literacy pedagogic activity was developed around “How to chose a book for reading.” Connections were made with students by discussing books about social issues. Again brainstorming was used to identify strategies for selecting an appropriate book for independent reading. These strategies were recorded on another chart. A third theme dealt with decoding strategies, discussed earlier, through the priming question of “What do you do when you come to a word you don’t know?” Strategies were recorded on an additional chart so that the students would begin to articulate more strategies than just “sounding out.” This follows up on similar work already happening in the classroom, allowing Jamilla to find the balance that she was seeking between engaging children in critical literacy and explicit literacy skills teaching.

A further fifteen-minute mini-lesson set the routines for “Sharing and Celebrating” by recording different thinking strategies. As we worked with students on an ongoing basis, their ideas were recorded on a chart called “Strategies for Sharing Our Thinking.” Miller (2002) calls this “Making Tracks of Our Thinking.” The priming critical question for this instance of meta-cognitive thinking was “What does thinking about reading look like, sound like and feel like?” It was revealing to see the students’ thinking as we learned together throughout the project.

Mohammed, for example, suggested that the “teacher reminds us that we can use anything in our life” in order to learn. He goes on to note that TV has helped him make connections to literature and he went on to talk about how Muslims are now patterned as “the bad guys” in the “big news” story because of 9/11. Mohammed takes this personally and makes connections to patterns in the world he knows (Delpit, 1995). As an immigrant, new to Canada and a Muslim, Mohammed’s comment reveals his own feeling of insecurity on a global level, but also shows how safe he feels in being able to reveal his feelings on the local level, within his classroom.

Mohammed’s grade three teacher acknowledges that many of her students watch a lot of television. However, she attempts to help them be more critical or discerning in their choices of programs to watch and how to critique systems of domination. In other words, Jamilla recognizes that television is the foremost source of information available to many children living in poverty, and otherwise, and is working towards the development of agency in her students.

One of the dilemmas encountered by both teachers and instructors, interested in the promotion of critical literacy in teacher education programs, revolves around how to keep the dialogue hopeful when one begins to question socially patterned constructions of “the truth”. This may necessitate a curriculum for learning that allows students to understand not only the message that is presented, but also to make connections and develop patterns with their own lives and lived experiences (Cooper and White, 2004).

The following spontaneous piece of writing is an example of a poem from Erina, a grade three student. Entitled “A Poem about Hope,” this poem is dedicated to her teachers.

Verse A Poem about Hope Don’t look in the stocking’s or under the tree. The thing that we’re looking for is something we can’t see. You can’t feel it or tuch it but it will tuch you it move’s with you grow’s with you. It will always follow you. It’s deeper then snow stronger then ice. The gift that we resev is the gift of hope. – Erina (8 years of age)

By the end of this “W” phase of the K-W-L strategy for reflective thinking, in conjunction with the research team, Jamilla, the grade three teacher, had identified what she wanted to learn. She wanted the research team to help clarify her understanding of the word “critical”, what critical literacy is like in practice and how to use the curriculum document to reflect her own teaching practice. Examining underlying assumptions of the literacy curriculum was not a bad place to begin. Constructing lessons that evoked questions about student understandings about the social context of literacy followed.

Inglis and Willinsky (2006) remind us of the importance of revisiting current thinking about democracy in order to consider what constitutes democracy in action. At the heart of our actions and in those teachable moments rests the need for continuous critical reflection. The “W” in our reflection strategy, then, is useful only in as much as it provides the pattern or the framework to continually ask those difficult questions so fundamental to critical literacy and a democratic education for all students. This takes humility and desire or, perhaps as Erina suggests, hope which is deeper than snow or ice.

“L” Represents Critical Literacy: What the Research Team Learned

The research recounted above suggests a need to continue to challenge patterns that promote taken-for-granted assumptions embedded in existing orthodoxies that comprise research and teaching practice. This may be accomplished through re-framing questions to examine not only what has been offered but also what has been missing. Delpit (1998) points out that the key may be to understand the variety of meanings available for any human interaction, and not to assume that the voice of majority speaks for all. In this study about critical literacy for urban school children, the research team began to notice where students’ voices were excluded from issues that affected them in particular. For example, Suzanne reminded us of the need to understand the politics of the ‘local’ literacy context, “Many of our students in this particular situation are ESL students”, and their voices may not be able to be heard. Cultural and political patterns run deep in literacy and teachers need to be aware of this if they are to be concerned with all students, including “minority” students, gaining a chance to define themselves.

Further, in this study, Jamilla, the grade three teacher on the project, was keen to examine how the provincial language arts curriculum could be used as a document to encourage the use of critical literacy strategies. Jamilla’s questioning helped the research team to understand that, while schools have been fairly successful at teaching essential literacies, such as code-breakers and text participants (Vasquez, 2000), schools and their policy makers may not adequately support the role of text analyst, a potential critical literacy strategy, which may help all students understand how the text positions them with respect to social patterns of power that include language usage. This occurs because the pattern of curricular language appropriates and neutralizes potentially critical literacy strategies. The research team learned that perhaps the key to using curricular documents is to recognize how language patterns are used to structure these documents. To become more literate in one’s own understanding of these documents may be to ask such questions as: How is language learning understood? What belief structures are inherent in the teaching practices espoused within this document? What research does the document rest on? Is the document anchored in a specific perspective of education theory? Ultimately, what are the purposes of literacy, of education, and who gets to define these purposes? And why?

Given that an important goal of critical literacy is to give voice to critical approaches to reshape literacy education in the interests of marginalized learners excluded from access to dominant economics and cultures (Luke 1997), it is understandably difficult to ensure that the role the text analyst and other critically literate roles are valued in the classroom. Perhaps, as Heffernan and Lewison (2000) suggest, teachers are frequently discouraged from using their positions of power to persuade students to adopt certain positions. As teachers struggle to keep their opinions to themselves, they may exclude important issues, in favour of the dominant curriculum. This reluctance was evident in the research team itself. If students do not gain from mandated curriculum or policies relating to the development of critical literacy, directly or over the long term, such curricular policies may not be useful educational policies. It is incumbent upon all educators to be able and willing to develop, identify and implement curricular policies that are inclusive, for the benefit of all students.

To this end, Banks (1999) describes four levels of a curriculum that is sensitive to issues of inclusion. The first level, “The Contributions Approach” is probably the most frequently utilized form of multicultural education, and is characterized by the addition of ethnic heroes. The curriculum remains essentially unchanged. Little attention is given to the ethnic groups either before or after the event, nor is the cultural significance or history of the event explored in any depth. Social issues are ignored and this approach represents a rather shallow look at culture and inclusive practices.

The second and third levels represent the first phase of curriculum restructuring, yet issues are presented from a dominant perspective. Individuals or groups of people from marginalized groups in society are included, yet racial and cultural inequities or oppression are not necessarily addressed. A teacher might introduce a unit by studying groups who are benefiting from or being disadvantaged by the implementation of certain policies and practices, in the absence of a complete transformation of the curriculum.

The fourth approach includes elements of the previous three approach but adds components that require students to make decisions and to take action related to the concept, issue, or problem they have studied. This approach requires that students not only explore and understand the dynamics of oppression, but also commit to making decisions and changing the system through social action. The major goal of this approach is to teach students thinking and decision making skills, to empower them, and help them acquire a sense of political awareness and efficacy.

Banks’ (1999) description of these four levels may be useful for teachers who wish to benefit their students by becoming more enlightened about established patterns in which their own self-understandings prevent them from being properly or appropriately aware of social and political mechanisms.

If a central aim of education can become the critical transmission, interpretation and development of the cultural traditions of our society, there is the need for a form of research that focuses its energies and resources on the policies, processes and practices by which this aim is pursued (Carr and Kemmis, 1989). While there is still a battle raging within the field of literacy over the central goals of literacy education (For a more complete discussion, see Short, 1999), struggling literacy students are at the heart of much of what we do as literacy educators and this struggle is manifested in the following questions: What conditions truly support literacy learning in the pluralistic milieu of the twenty-first century? How do literacy practices used in educational settings serve to affirm or disaffirm a student’s own sense of identity? Why consider identity and language teaching in the same breath?

Such questions serve to flag the notion that outside pressures, a globalized society notwithstanding, are being brought to bear on curricula and programs provided by Canadian schools, and potentially, in schools world-wide. At issue is the problem of “recognizing patterns” in order to develop a critical awareness to understand what is truly important in our schools and to develop standards around such critical ideas as what it is we are doing, why we are doing it and who the major benefactors of these transactions are. There is, therefore, a need for a critical literacy capable of recognizing such patterns, asking questions about innate standards such as curriculum documents, and asking about what is important to schooling. These voices, in order to be heard must respect the notion of a democratic education not just for some citizens but for all citizens. Hopeful trends are beginning to emerge. Changes, and dare we say improvements, are being made in individual classrooms and within schools as well.

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The authors of this paper would like to acknowledge Dianne Riehl, Jamilla Arindell, Cindy Bird, Suzanne Thomson and the grade three students at “Sir Simon George” Elementary School for their assistance with this project. Pseudonyms were deemed unnecessary by the research team.

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White, R.E., Cooper, K. (2022). Action Research. In: Qualitative Research in the Post-Modern Era. Springer, Cham.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Action Research


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  • Relationship with Practitioners
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Action Research by Geoffrey Maruyama , Martin Van Boekel LAST REVIEWED: 05 November 2018 LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0149

Unlike many areas of psychology, “action research” does not possess a single definition or evoke a single meaning for all researchers. Most action research links back to work initiated by a group of researchers led by Kurt Lewin (see Lewin 1946 and Lewin 1951 , both cited under Definition ). Lewin is widely viewed as the “father” of action research. Lewin is certainly deserving of that recognition, for conceptually driven research done by Lewin and colleagues before and during World War II addressed a range of practical issues while also helping to develop theories of attitude change. The work was guided by Lewin’s field theory. Part of what makes Lewin’s work so compelling and what has led to different variations of action research is his focus on action research as a philosophy about research as a vehicle for creating social advancement and change. He viewed action research as collaborative and engaging practitioners and policymakers in sustainable partnerships that address critical societal issues. At about the time that Lewin and his group were developing their perspective on action research, similar work was being conducted by Bion and colleagues in the British Isles (see Rapoport 1970 , cited under Definition ), again tied to World War II and issues like personnel selection and emotional impacts of war and incarceration. That work led to creation of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, which has sustained a focus on action research throughout the postwar era of experimental (social) psychology. This article’s focus, however, will stay largely with Lewin and the action research traditions his writings and work created. Those include many variations of action research, most notably participatory action research and community-based participatory research. Cassell and Johnson 2006 (cited under Definition ) describe different types of action research and the epistemologies and assumptions that underlie them, which helps explain how different traditions and approaches have developed.

Lewin 1946 described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action” (p. 203), clearly engaged, change-oriented work. Lewin also went on to say, “Above all, it will have to include laboratory and field-experiments in social change” (p. 203). Post-positivist and constructivist researchers who draw their roots from Lewin should acknowledge his underlying positivist bent. They tend to focus more on his characterizing research objectives as being of two types: identifying general laws of behavior, and diagnosing specific situations. Much academic research has focused on identifying general laws and ignored the local conditions that shape outcomes, paying little attention to specific situations. In contrast, Lewin argued for the combining of “experts in theory,” researchers, with “experts in practice,” practitioners and others familiar with local conditions and how they can affect plans and theories, in order to understand the setting and to design studies likely to be effective. A fundamental part of action research that appeals to all variants of action research is building partnerships with practitioners, which Lewin 1946 described as “the delicate task of building productive, hard-hitting teams with practitioners . . .” (p. 211). These partnerships according to Lewin need to survive through several cycles of planning, action, and fact-finding. As action research has evolved and “split” into the streams mentioned in the initial section of this article, it has been interpreted in different ways, typically tied to how researchers interact with and share responsibility throughout the research process with practitioners ( Aguinis 1993 ).

Aguinis, H. 1993. Action research and scientific method: Presumed discrepancies and actual similarities. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 29.4: 416–431.

DOI: 10.1177/0021886393294003

Suggests that action research is application of the scientific method and fact-finding to applied settings, done in collaboration with partners. Views action research and the traditional scientific approaches not as discrepant as often they are made out to be. Does a good job of presenting historical development of action research, including perspectives of others contrasting action research and traditional experimental research, as well as presenting his perspective.

Cassell, C., and P. Johnson. 2006. Action research: Explaining the diversity. Human Relations 54.6: 783–814.

DOI: 10.1177/0018726706067080

This article outlines five categories of action research. Each category is discussed in terms of the underlying philosophical assumptions and the research techniques utilized. Importantly, the authors discuss the difficulties in using one set of criteria to evaluate the success of an action research approach, proposing that due to the different philosophical assumptions different criteria must be used.

Lewin, K. 1946. Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues 2:34–46.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1946.tb02295.x

This article includes Lewin’s original definition of action research listed above, as well as addressing the different research objectives, studying general laws and diagnosing specific situations. This article also appears as chapter 13 in K. Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts (New York: Harper, 1948), pp. 201–216. Resolving Social Conflicts also was republished in 1997 (reprinted 2000) by the American Psychological Association in a single volume along with Field Theory in Social Science .

Lewin, K. 1951. Field theory in social science: Collected theoretical papers . Edited by D. Cartwright. New York: Harper.

Papers in this volume rarely address action research directly, but lay the groundwork for it through field theory, which recognizes that behavior results from the interaction of individuals and environments, B = f(P, E). To explain and change behaviors, researchers need to develop and understand general laws and apply them to specific situations and individuals. The book is a compilation of his papers, with edits done by Dorwin (Doc) Cartwright after Lewin’s death.

Rapoport, R. N. 1970. Three dilemmas of action research. Human Relations 23:499–513.

Rapoport provides excellent historical background on the work of Bion and colleagues, which led to creation of the Tavistock Institute. Describes links between Lewin’s Group Dynamics center and Tavistock. Describes action research as a professional relationship and not service.

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  • What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples

What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples

Published on 27 January 2023 by Tegan George . Revised on 21 April 2023.

Action research Cycle

Table of contents

Types of action research, action research models, examples of action research, action research vs. traditional research, advantages and disadvantages of action research, frequently asked questions about action research.

There are 2 common types of action research: participatory action research and practical action research.

  • Participatory action research emphasises that participants should be members of the community being studied, empowering those directly affected by outcomes of said research. In this method, participants are effectively co-researchers, with their lived experiences considered formative to the research process.
  • Practical action research focuses more on how research is conducted and is designed to address and solve specific issues.

Both types of action research are more focused on increasing the capacity and ability of future practitioners than contributing to a theoretical body of knowledge.

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Action research is often reflected in 3 action research models: operational (sometimes called technical), collaboration, and critical reflection.

  • Operational (or technical) action research is usually visualised like a spiral following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”
  • Collaboration action research is more community-based, focused on building a network of similar individuals (e.g., college professors in a given geographic area) and compiling learnings from iterated feedback cycles.
  • Critical reflection action research serves to contextualise systemic processes that are already ongoing (e.g., working retroactively to analyse existing school systems by questioning why certain practices were put into place and developed the way they did).

Action research is often used in fields like education because of its iterative and flexible style.

After the information was collected, the students were asked where they thought ramps or other accessibility measures would be best utilised, and the suggestions were sent to school administrators. Example: Practical action research Science teachers at your city’s high school have been witnessing a year-over-year decline in standardised test scores in chemistry. In seeking the source of this issue, they studied how concepts are taught in depth, focusing on the methods, tools, and approaches used by each teacher.

Action research differs sharply from other types of research in that it seeks to produce actionable processes over the course of the research rather than contributing to existing knowledge or drawing conclusions from datasets. In this way, action research is formative , not summative , and is conducted in an ongoing, iterative way.

As such, action research is different in purpose, context, and significance and is a good fit for those seeking to implement systemic change.

Action research comes with advantages and disadvantages.

  • Action research is highly adaptable , allowing researchers to mould their analysis to their individual needs and implement practical individual-level changes.
  • Action research provides an immediate and actionable path forward for solving entrenched issues, rather than suggesting complicated, longer-term solutions rooted in complex data.
  • Done correctly, action research can be very empowering , informing social change and allowing participants to effect that change in ways meaningful to their communities.


  • Due to their flexibility, action research studies are plagued by very limited generalisability  and are very difficult to replicate . They are often not considered theoretically rigorous due to the power the researcher holds in drawing conclusions.
  • Action research can be complicated to structure in an ethical manner . Participants may feel pressured to participate or to participate in a certain way.
  • Action research is at high risk for research biases such as selection bias , social desirability bias , or other types of cognitive biases .

Action research is conducted in order to solve a particular issue immediately, while case studies are often conducted over a longer period of time and focus more on observing and analyzing a particular ongoing phenomenon.

Action research is focused on solving a problem or informing individual and community-based knowledge in a way that impacts teaching, learning, and other related processes. It is less focused on contributing theoretical input, instead producing actionable input.

Action research is particularly popular with educators as a form of systematic inquiry because it prioritizes reflection and bridges the gap between theory and practice. Educators are able to simultaneously investigate an issue as they solve it, and the method is very iterative and flexible.

A cycle of inquiry is another name for action research . It is usually visualized in a spiral shape following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

George, T. (2023, April 21). What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 25 March 2024, from
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2017). Research methods in education (8th edition). Routledge.
Naughton, G. M. (2001).  Action research (1st edition). Routledge.

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Action Research: What it is, Stages & Examples

Action research is a method often used to make the situation better. It combines activity and investigation to make change happen.

The best way to get things accomplished is to do it yourself. This statement is utilized in corporations, community projects, and national governments. These organizations are relying on action research to cope with their continuously changing and unstable environments as they function in a more interdependent world.

In practical educational contexts, this involves using systematic inquiry and reflective practice to address real-world challenges, improve teaching and learning, enhance student engagement, and drive positive changes within the educational system.

This post outlines the definition of action research, its stages, and some examples.

Content Index

What is action research?

Stages of action research, the steps to conducting action research, examples of action research, advantages and disadvantages of action research.

Action research is a strategy that tries to find realistic solutions to organizations’ difficulties and issues. It is similar to applied research.

Action research refers basically learning by doing. First, a problem is identified, then some actions are taken to address it, then how well the efforts worked are measured, and if the results are not satisfactory, the steps are applied again.

It can be put into three different groups:

  • Positivist: This type of research is also called “classical action research.” It considers research a social experiment. This research is used to test theories in the actual world.
  • Interpretive: This kind of research is called “contemporary action research.” It thinks that business reality is socially made, and when doing this research, it focuses on the details of local and organizational factors.
  • Critical: This action research cycle takes a critical reflection approach to corporate systems and tries to enhance them.

All research is about learning new things. Collaborative action research contributes knowledge based on investigations in particular and frequently useful circumstances. It starts with identifying a problem. After that, the research process is followed by the below stages:


Stage 1: Plan

For an action research project to go well, the researcher needs to plan it well. After coming up with an educational research topic or question after a research study, the first step is to develop an action plan to guide the research process. The research design aims to address the study’s question. The research strategy outlines what to undertake, when, and how.

Stage 2: Act

The next step is implementing the plan and gathering data. At this point, the researcher must select how to collect and organize research data . The researcher also needs to examine all tools and equipment before collecting data to ensure they are relevant, valid, and comprehensive.

Stage 3: Observe

Data observation is vital to any investigation. The action researcher needs to review the project’s goals and expectations before data observation. This is the final step before drawing conclusions and taking action.

Different kinds of graphs, charts, and networks can be used to represent the data. It assists in making judgments or progressing to the next stage of observing.

Stage 4: Reflect

This step involves applying a prospective solution and observing the results. It’s essential to see if the possible solution found through research can really solve the problem being studied.

The researcher must explore alternative ideas when the action research project’s solutions fail to solve the problem.

Action research is a systematic approach researchers, educators, and practitioners use to identify and address problems or challenges within a specific context. It involves a cyclical process of planning, implementing, reflecting, and adjusting actions based on the data collected. Here are the general steps involved in conducting an action research process:

Identify the action research question or problem

Clearly define the issue or problem you want to address through your research. It should be specific, actionable, and relevant to your working context.

Review existing knowledge

Conduct a literature review to understand what research has already been done on the topic. This will help you gain insights, identify gaps, and inform your research design.

Plan the research

Develop a research plan outlining your study’s objectives, methods, data collection tools, and timeline. Determine the scope of your research and the participants or stakeholders involved.

Collect data

Implement your research plan by collecting relevant data. This can involve various methods such as surveys, interviews, observations, document analysis, or focus groups. Ensure that your data collection methods align with your research objectives and allow you to gather the necessary information.

Analyze the data

Once you have collected the data, analyze it using appropriate qualitative or quantitative techniques. Look for patterns, themes, or trends in the data that can help you understand the problem better.

Reflect on the findings

Reflect on the analyzed data and interpret the results in the context of your research question. Consider the implications and possible solutions that emerge from the data analysis. This reflection phase is crucial for generating insights and understanding the underlying factors contributing to the problem.

Develop an action plan

Based on your analysis and reflection, develop an action plan that outlines the steps you will take to address the identified problem. The plan should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART goals). Consider involving relevant stakeholders in planning to ensure their buy-in and support.

Implement the action plan

Put your action plan into practice by implementing the identified strategies or interventions. This may involve making changes to existing practices, introducing new approaches, or testing alternative solutions. Document the implementation process and any modifications made along the way.

Evaluate and monitor progress

Continuously monitor and evaluate the impact of your actions. Collect additional data, assess the effectiveness of the interventions, and measure progress towards your goals. This evaluation will help you determine if your actions have the desired effects and inform any necessary adjustments.

Reflect and iterate

Reflect on the outcomes of your actions and the evaluation results. Consider what worked well, what did not, and why. Use this information to refine your approach, make necessary adjustments, and plan for the next cycle of action research if needed.

Remember that participatory action research is an iterative process, and multiple cycles may be required to achieve significant improvements or solutions to the identified problem. Each cycle builds on the insights gained from the previous one, fostering continuous learning and improvement.

Explore Insightfully Contextual Inquiry in Qualitative Research

Here are two real-life examples of action research.

Action research initiatives are frequently situation-specific. Still, other researchers can adapt the techniques. The example is from a researcher’s (Franklin, 1994) report about a project encouraging nature tourism in the Caribbean.

In 1991, this was launched to study how nature tourism may be implemented on the four Windward Islands in the Caribbean: St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent.

For environmental protection, a government-led action study determined that the consultation process needs to involve numerous stakeholders, including commercial enterprises.

First, two researchers undertook the study and held search conferences on each island. The search conferences resulted in suggestions and action plans for local community nature tourism sub-projects.

Several islands formed advisory groups and launched national awareness and community projects. Regional project meetings were held to discuss experiences, self-evaluations, and strategies. Creating a documentary about a local initiative helped build community. And the study was a success, leading to a number of changes in the area.

Lau and Hayward (1997) employed action research to analyze Internet-based collaborative work groups.

Over two years, the researchers facilitated three action research problem -solving cycles with 15 teachers, project personnel, and 25 health practitioners from diverse areas. The goal was to see how Internet-based communications might affect their virtual workgroup.

First, expectations were defined, technology was provided, and a bespoke workgroup system was developed. Participants suggested shorter, more dispersed training sessions with project-specific instructions.

The second phase saw the system’s complete deployment. The final cycle witnessed system stability and virtual group formation. The key lesson was that the learning curve was poorly misjudged, with frustrations only marginally met by phone-based technical help. According to the researchers, the absence of high-quality online material about community healthcare was harmful.

Role clarity, connection building, knowledge sharing, resource assistance, and experiential learning are vital for virtual group growth. More study is required on how group support systems might assist groups in engaging with their external environment and boost group members’ learning. 

Action research has both good and bad points.

  • It is very flexible, so researchers can change their analyses to fit their needs and make individual changes.
  • It offers a quick and easy way to solve problems that have been going on for a long time instead of complicated, long-term solutions based on complex facts.
  • If It is done right, it can be very powerful because it can lead to social change and give people the tools to make that change in ways that are important to their communities.


  • These studies have a hard time being generalized and are hard to repeat because they are so flexible. Because the researcher has the power to draw conclusions, they are often not thought to be theoretically sound.
  • Setting up an action study in an ethical way can be hard. People may feel like they have to take part or take part in a certain way.
  • It is prone to research errors like selection bias , social desirability bias, and other cognitive biases.

LEARN ABOUT: Self-Selection Bias

This post discusses how action research generates knowledge, its steps, and real-life examples. It is very applicable to the field of research and has a high level of relevance. We can only state that the purpose of this research is to comprehend an issue and find a solution to it.

At QuestionPro, we give researchers tools for collecting data, like our survey software, and a library of insights for any long-term study. Go to the Insight Hub if you want to see a demo or learn more about it.


Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ’s)

Action research is a systematic approach to inquiry that involves identifying a problem or challenge in a practical context, implementing interventions or changes, collecting and analyzing data, and using the findings to inform decision-making and drive positive change.

Action research can be conducted by various individuals or groups, including teachers, administrators, researchers, and educational practitioners. It is often carried out by those directly involved in the educational setting where the research takes place.

The steps of action research typically include identifying a problem, reviewing relevant literature, designing interventions or changes, collecting and analyzing data, reflecting on findings, and implementing improvements based on the results.


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11.3 Action research

Learning objectives.

  • Define and provide at least one example of action research
  • Describe the role of stakeholders in action research

Action research is defined as research that is conducted for the purpose of creating social change. When conducting action research, scholars collaborate with community stakeholders at all stages of the research process with the aim of producing results that will be usable in the community and by scientists. Stakeholders are individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of your study. Social workers who engage in action research never just go it alone; instead, they collaborate with the people who are affected by the research at each stage in the process. In action research, stakeholders, particularly those with the least power, are consulted on the purpose of the research project, research questions, design, and reporting of results.

does action research work

Action research also distinguishes itself from other research in that its purpose is to create change on an individual and community level. Kristin Esterberg (2002) puts it quite eloquently when she says, “At heart, all action researchers are concerned that research not simply contribute to knowledge but also lead to positive changes in people’s lives” (p. 137).  As you might imagine, action research is consistent with the assumptions of the critical paradigm, which focuses on liberating people from oppressive structures. Action research has multiple origins across the globe, including Kurt Lewin’s psychological experiments in the United States and Paulo Friere’s literacy and education programs (Adelman, 1993; Reason, 1994). Over the years, action research has become increasingly popular among scholars who wish for their work to have tangible outcomes that benefit the groups they study.

Action research does not bring any new methodological tricks or terms, but it uses the processes of science in a different way from traditional research. What topics are important to study in a neighborhood or with a target population? A traditional scientist might look at the literature or use their practice wisdom to formulate a research question. An action researcher, on the other hand, would consult with the target population itself to see what they thought were the most pressing issues and best solutions. In this way, action research flips traditional research on its head. Scientists are more like consultants who provide the tools and resources necessary for a target population to achieve their goals and address social problems.

According to Healy (2001), the assumptions of participatory-action research are that (a) oppression is caused by macro-level structures such as patriarchy and capitalism; (b) research should expose and confront the powerful; (c) researcher and participant relationships should be equal, with equitable distribution of research tasks and roles; and (d) research should result in consciousness-raising and collective action. Coherent with social work values, action research supports the self-determination of oppressed groups and privileges their voice and understanding through the conceptualization, design, data collection, data analysis, and dissemination processes of research.

There are many excellent examples of action research. Some of them focus solely on arriving at useful outcomes for the communities upon which and with whom research is conducted. Other action research projects result in some new knowledge that has a practical application and purpose in addition to the creation of knowledge for basic scientific purposes.

One example of action research can be seen in Fred Piercy and colleagues’ (Piercy, Franz, Donaldson, & Richard, 2011) work with farmers in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Together with farmers in these states, the researchers conducted focus groups to understand how farmers learn new information about farming. Ultimately, the aim of this study was to “develop more meaningful ways to communicate information to farmers about sustainable agriculture” (p. 820). This improved communication, the researchers and farmers believed, would benefit not just researchers interested in the topic but also farmers and their communities. Farmers and researchers were both involved in all aspects of the research, from designing the project and determining focus group questions to conducting the focus groups and finally to analyzing data and disseminating findings.

Perhaps one of the most unique and rewarding aspects of action research is that it is often interdisciplinary. Action research projects might bring together researchers from any number of disciplines, from the social sciences, such as sociology, political science, and psychology; to an assortment of physical and natural sciences, such as biology and chemistry; to engineering, philosophy, and history (to name just a few).

Anyone interested in social change can benefit from having some understanding of social scientific research methods. The knowledge you’ve gained from your methods course can be put to good use even if you don’t have an interest in pursuing a career in research. As a member of a community, perhaps you will find that the opportunity to engage in action research presents itself to you one day. Your background in research methodology will no doubt assist you in making life better for yourself and those who share your interests, circumstances, or geographic region.

Spotlight on UTA School of Social Work

Dr. maxine davis shares experiences with action research.

There are various types of action research. Although the degree to which stakeholders are involved may vary across different stages of the research and dissemination process, each type is valuable and aims to accomplish shared decision-making, responsibility, and power between the researcher and the researched. I will share with you a few examples of recent research that I have had the pleasure of being involved in.

Case 1 (St. Louis, MO) Community based participatory research (CBPR)

Photo of Community and Academic Researchers

As a community organizer, activist, and Missionary, Ms. Johnson is well connected to her community in North St. Louis city. She has worked in partnership with a number of clergy members throughout St. Louis on improving the overall well-being of African-Americans for a number of years. From education to political engagement, she has her pulse on the many issues of local residents and a wide network of clergy and ministers who trust her. In 2014, I partnered with Ms. Johnson to explore clergy perceptions on religious or spiritual (R/S) related abuse within intimate partner violence (IPV). Ms. Johnson conducted more than half of the interviews (many of which occurred only because of the trust clergy members had with her, not due to my recruitment efforts). We coded the data independently and analyzed it as a team. As a result, Ms. Johnson gained the skills to conduct basic qualitative data analysis that may be applicable to her other work. The study results revealed that R/S abuse in IPV was a serious issue that Black clergy often faced in ministry. Furthermore, they desired training to help them to better prepare in responding to this problem. The project did not end at manuscript development, rather the efforts to address this issue continue as we develop and plan to implement R/S specific IPV training for Black clergy in St. Louis.

Case 2 (Chicago, IL) Community-engaged research using a Community Collaborative/Advisory Board (CCB)

Community Researcher and Dr. Maxine Davis

A colleague who knew of my interest in the intersection of religious faith and IPV connected me with a priest at St. Pius V parish who was looking for someone to evaluate a portion of the church’s domestic violence program.  The project combined evaluation research and action research. I sought and obtained funding tosupport the first step of a multi-phase project involving process evaluation in preparation for a longitudinal impact (i.e. outcome) evaluation. I convened a collaborative board of relevant stakeholders from different organizations and relocated to Chicago (Pilsen neighborhood) to embark upon the research. Over the course of one year, I lived in the community and collected various types of data from a variety of sources while the CCB and I developed an evaluation plan that would meet the organization’s needs. The primary research questions explored were: “What is The Men’s Group (TMG)?” and “Why do participants attend and remain engaged in TMG?” We discovered that TMG was a trauma-informed, culturally-tailored (to Latino men), spirituality and group based partner abuse intervention program (PAIP) aiming to stop violence perpetration and help participants become self-aware. Men remained engaged in the PAIP because they were met with respect by staff/facilitators, reported gaining benefits because of participation, and connected with other group members through a brotherhood. A quasi-experimental design using quantitative data is currently underway.

Case 3 (Grand Prairie, TX) Youth-led CBPR

does action research work

The Grand Prairie Storm Track & Field Association (GP Storm) reached out to me after their founders saw me present on the potential of hip-hop music influencing public perceptions about IPV. Our shared interest on increasing Black/African-American representation in health-related research careers brought us together. I invited high school students who were affiliated with the program to join me in examining this area, but also encouraged them to develop a set of their own research questions that they were excited to explore. We met weekly over the course of 3 months in the summer of 2019 and analyzed the lyrics of 7 hip-hop songs. The youth-led research team consisted of six Black/Multiracial young women (5 high school; 1 middle school), the organization founder/director, a PhD student, and myself. The findings revealed that hip-hop music brings awareness to IPV/A by discussing Death, Denial, Freedom, and Physical violence/various types of consequences. Partnering with the GP Storm and affiliated students (the community researchers) allowed the research team to examine research questions that were of interest to a wider audience and do so by drawing on multiple perspectives, thereby improving the rigor of the study. The research did not end here; rather next steps involve hosting a listening party as an intervention to reduce violence and acceptability thereof amongst youth and adults.

Lessons learned

I have learned a few lessons through conducting community-engaged research that I think are worth sharing. It is imperative that you are comfortable openly discussing race and diversity if you plan on engaging in action research with communities of color. This applies, regardless of your own identity, but is especially relevant for those who are an “outsider” in terms of gender or race/ethnicity. The second lesson is that trust need not be earned once, rather you must continuously build and maintain trust in order to conduct sound research. You must also plan to nurture and intend to maintain these relationships in a humanistic manner, beyond that of “a research product.” If your intentions are genuine and you are honest with any trepidations, that plus meaningful project delivery will carry you far.

Refer to following articles for more exploration into this research:

Davis, M., ^Johnson, M., Bowland, S. (In Draft) “I hate it…but it’s real”: Black Clergy Perspectives on Intimate Partner Violence related Religious/Spiritual Abuse

Davis, M., ^Dahm, C., Jonson-Reid, M., Stoops, C., Sabri, B. (Revisions Submitted-Awaiting Final Decision). “The Men’s Group” at St. Pius V: A Case Study of a Parish-Based Voluntary Partner Abuse Intervention Program.

^denotes community partners

Key Takeaways

  • Action research is conducted by researchers who wish to create some form of social change.
  • Stakeholders are true collaborators in action research.
  • Action research is often conducted by teams of interdisciplinary researchers.
  • Action research- research that is conducted for the purpose of creating some form of social change in collaboration with stakeholders
  • Stakeholders – individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of your study

Image attributions

protest by BruceEmmerling CC-0

Maxine Johnson and Maxine Davis by Maxine Davis CC BY-NC-ND

Community Researchers in Partnership by Maxine Davis CC BY-NC-ND

GP Storm by Maxine Davis CC BY-NC-ND

Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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4 Preparing for Action Research in the Classroom: Practical Issues


  • What sort of considerations are necessary to take action in your educational context?
  • How do you facilitate an action plan without disrupting your teaching?
  • How do you respond when the unplanned happens during data collection?

An action research project is a practical endeavor that will ultimately be shaped by your educational context and practice. Now that you have developed a literature review, you are ready to revise your initial plans and begin to plan your project. This chapter will provide some advice about your considerations when undertaking an action research project in your classroom.

Maintain Focus

Hopefully, you found a lot a research on your topic. If so, you will now have a better understanding of how it fits into your area and field of educational research. Even though the topic and area you are researching may not be small, your study itself should clearly focus on one aspect of the topic in your classroom. It is important to maintain clarity about what you are investigating because a lot will be going on simultaneously during the research process and you do not want to spend precious time on erroneous aspects that are irrelevant to your research.

Even though you may view your practice as research, and vice versa, you might want to consider your research project as a projection or megaphone for your work that will bring attention to the small decisions that make a difference in your educational context. From experience, our concern is that you will find that researching one aspect of your practice will reveal other interconnected aspects that you may find interesting, and you will disorient yourself researching in a confluence of interests, commitments, and purposes. We simply want to emphasize – don’t try to research everything at once. Stay focused on your topic, and focus on exploring it in depth, instead of its many related aspects. Once you feel you have made progress in one aspect, you can then progress to other related areas, as new research projects that continue the research cycle.

Identify a Clear Research Question

Your literature review should have exposed you to an array of research questions related to your topic. More importantly, your review should have helped identify which research questions we have addressed as a field, and which ones still need to be addressed . More than likely your research questions will resemble ones from your literature review, while also being distinguishable based upon your own educational context and the unexplored areas of research on your topic.

Regardless of how your research question took shape, it is important to be clear about what you are researching in your educational context. Action research questions typically begin in ways related to “How does … ?” or “How do I/we … ?”, for example:

Research Question Examples

  • How does a semi-structured morning meeting improve my classroom community?
  • How does historical fiction help students think about people’s agency in the past?
  • How do I improve student punctuation use through acting out sentences?
  • How do we increase student responsibility for their own learning as a team of teachers?

I particularly favor questions with I or we, because they emphasize that you, the actor and researcher, will be clearly taking action to improve your practice. While this may seem rather easy, you need to be aware of asking the right kind of question. One issue is asking a too pointed and closed question that limits the possibility for analysis. These questions tend to rely on quantitative answers, or yes/no answers. For example, “How many students got a 90% or higher on the exam, after reviewing the material three times?

Another issue is asking a question that is too broad, or that considers too many variables. For example, “How does room temperature affect students’ time-on-task?” These are obviously researchable questions, but the aim is a cause-and-effect relationship between variables that has little or no value to your daily practice.

I also want to point out that your research question will potentially change as the research develops. If you consider the question:

As you do an activity, you may find that students are more comfortable and engaged by acting sentences out in small groups, instead of the whole class. Therefore, your question may shift to:

  • How do I improve student punctuation use through acting out sentences, in small groups ?

By simply engaging in the research process and asking questions, you will open your thinking to new possibilities and you will develop new understandings about yourself and the problematic aspects of your educational context.

Understand Your Capabilities and Know that Change Happens Slowly

Similar to your research question, it is important to have a clear and realistic understanding of what is possible to research in your specific educational context. For example, would you be able to address unsatisfactory structures (policies and systems) within your educational context? Probably not immediately, but over time you potentially could. It is much more feasible to think of change happening in smaller increments, from within your own classroom or context, with you as one change agent. For example, you might find it particularly problematic that your school or district places a heavy emphasis on traditional grades, believing that these grades are often not reflective of the skills students have or have not mastered. Instead of attempting to research grading practices across your school or district, your research might instead focus on determining how to provide more meaningful feedback to students and parents about progress in your course. While this project identifies and addresses a structural issue that is part of your school and district context, to keep things manageable, your research project would focus the outcomes on your classroom. The more research you do related to the structure of your educational context the more likely modifications will emerge. The more you understand these modifications in relation to the structural issues you identify within your own context, the more you can influence others by sharing your work and enabling others to understand the modification and address structural issues within their contexts. Throughout your project, you might determine that modifying your grades to be standards-based is more effective than traditional grades, and in turn, that sharing your research outcomes with colleagues at an in-service presentation prompts many to adopt a similar model in their own classrooms. It can be defeating to expect the world to change immediately, but you can provide the spark that ignites coordinated changes. In this way, action research is a powerful methodology for enacting social change. Action research enables individuals to change their own lives, while linking communities of like-minded practitioners who work towards action.

Plan Thoughtfully

Planning thoughtfully involves having a path in mind, but not necessarily having specific objectives. Due to your experience with students and your educational context, the research process will often develop in ways as you expected, but at times it may develop a little differently, which may require you to shift the research focus and change your research question. I will suggest a couple methods to help facilitate this potential shift. First, you may want to develop criteria for gauging the effectiveness of your research process. You may need to refine and modify your criteria and your thinking as you go. For example, we often ask ourselves if action research is encouraging depth of analysis beyond my typical daily pedagogical reflection. You can think about this as you are developing data collection methods and even when you are collecting data. The key distinction is whether the data you will be collecting allows for nuance among the participants or variables. This does not mean that you will have nuance, but it should allow for the possibility. Second, criteria are shaped by our values and develop into standards of judgement. If we identify criteria such as teacher empowerment, then we will use that standard to think about the action contained in our research process. Our values inform our work; therefore, our work should be judged in relation to the relevance of our values in our pedagogy and practice.

Does Your Timeline Work?

While action research is situated in the temporal span that is your life, your research project is short-term, bounded, and related to the socially mediated practices within your educational context. The timeline is important for bounding, or setting limits to your research project, while also making sure you provide the right amount of time for the data to emerge from the process.

For example, if you are thinking about examining the use of math diaries in your classroom, you probably do not want to look at a whole semester of entries because that would be a lot of data, with entries related to a wide range of topics. This would create a huge data analysis endeavor. Therefore, you may want to look at entries from one chapter or unit of study. Also, in terms of timelines, you want to make sure participants have enough time to develop the data you collect. Using the same math example, you would probably want students to have plenty of time to write in the journals, and also space out the entries over the span of the chapter or unit.

In relation to the examples, we think it is an important mind shift to not think of research timelines in terms of deadlines. It is vitally important to provide time and space for the data to emerge from the participants. Therefore, it would be potentially counterproductive to rush a 50-minute data collection into 20 minutes – like all good educators, be flexible in the research process.

Involve Others

It is important to not isolate yourself when doing research. Many educators are already isolated when it comes to practice in their classroom. The research process should be an opportunity to engage with colleagues and open up your classroom to discuss issues that are potentially impacting your entire educational context. Think about the following relationships:

Research participants

You may invite a variety of individuals in your educational context, many with whom you are in a shared situation (e.g. colleagues, administrators). These participants may be part of a collaborative study, they may simply help you develop data collection instruments or intervention items, or they may help to analyze and make sense of the data. While the primary research focus will be you and your learning, you will also appreciate how your learning is potentially influencing the quality of others’ learning.

We always tell educators to be public about your research, or anything exciting that is happening in your educational context, for that matter. In terms of research, you do not want it to seem mysterious to any stakeholder in the educational context. Invite others to visit your setting and observe your research process, and then ask for their formal feedback. Inviting others to your classroom will engage and connect you with other stakeholders, while also showing that your research was established in an ethic of respect for multiple perspectives.

Critical friends or validators

Using critical friends is one way to involve colleagues and also validate your findings and conclusions. While your positionality will shape the research process and subsequently your interpretations of the data, it is important to make sure that others see similar logic in your process and conclusions. Critical friends or validators provide some level of certification that the frameworks you use to develop your research project and make sense of your data are appropriate for your educational context. Your critical friends and validators’ suggestions will be useful if you develop a report or share your findings, but most importantly will provide you confidence moving forward.

Potential researchers

As an educational researcher, you are involved in ongoing improvement plans and district or systemic change. The flexibility of action research allows it to be used in a variety of ways, and your initial research can spark others in your context to engage in research either individually for their own purposes, or collaboratively as a grade level, team, or school. Collaborative inquiry with other educators is an emerging form of professional learning and development for schools with school improvement plans. While they call it collaborative inquiry, these schools are often using an action research model. It is good to think of all of your colleagues as potential research collaborators in the future.

Prioritize Ethical Practice

Try to always be cognizant of your own positionality during the action research process, its relation to your educational context, and any associated power relation to your positionality. Furthermore, you want to make sure that you are not coercing or engaging participants into harmful practices. While this may seem obvious, you may not even realize you are harming your participants because you believe the action is necessary for the research process.

For example, commonly teachers want to try out an intervention that will potentially positively impact their students. When the teacher sets up the action research study, they may have a control group and an experimental group. There is potential to impair the learning of one of these groups if the intervention is either highly impactful or exceedingly worse than the typical instruction. Therefore, teachers can sometimes overlook the potential harm to students in pursuing an experimental method of exploring an intervention.

If you are working with a university researcher, ethical concerns will be covered by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). If not, your school or district may have a process or form that you would need to complete, so it would beneficial to check your district policies before starting. Other widely accepted aspects of doing ethically informed research, include:

Confirm Awareness of Study and Negotiate Access – with authorities, participants and parents, guardians, caregivers and supervisors (with IRB this is done with Informed Consent).

  • Promise to Uphold Confidentiality – Uphold confidentiality, to your fullest ability, to protect information, identity and data. You can identify people if they indicate they want to be recognized for their contributions.
  • Ensure participants’ rights to withdraw from the study at any point .
  • Make sure data is secured, either on password protected computer or lock drawer .

Prepare to Problematize your Thinking

Educational researchers who are more philosophically-natured emphasize that research is not about finding solutions, but instead is about creating and asking new and more precise questions. This is represented in the action research process shown in the diagrams in Chapter 1, as Collingwood (1939) notes the aim in human interaction is always to keep the conversation open, while Edward Said (1997) emphasized that there is no end because whatever we consider an end is actually the beginning of something entirely new. These reflections have perspective in evaluating the quality in research and signifying what is “good” in “good pedagogy” and “good research”. If we consider that action research is about studying and reflecting on one’s learning and how that learning influences practice to improve it, there is nothing to stop your line of inquiry as long as you relate it to improving practice. This is why it is necessary to problematize and scrutinize our practices.

Ethical Dilemmas for Educator-Researchers

Classroom teachers are increasingly expected to demonstrate a disposition of reflection and inquiry into their own practice. Many advocate for schools to become research centers, and to produce their own research studies, which is an important advancement in acknowledging and addressing the complexity in today’s schools. When schools conduct their own research studies without outside involvement, they bypass outside controls over their studies. Schools shift power away from the oversight of outside experts and ethical research responsibilities are shifted to those conducting the formal research within their educational context. Ethics firmly grounded and established in school policies and procedures for teaching, becomes multifaceted when teaching practice and research occur simultaneously. When educators conduct research in their classrooms, are they doing so as teachers or as researchers, and if they are researchers, at what point does the teaching role change to research? Although the notion of objectivity is a key element in traditional research paradigms, educator-based research acknowledges a subjective perspective as the educator-researcher is not viewed separately from the research. In action research, unlike traditional research, the educator as researcher gains access to the research site by the nature of the work they are paid and expected to perform. The educator is never detached from the research and remains at the research site both before and after the study. Because studying one’s practice comprises working with other people, ethical deliberations are inevitable. Educator-researchers confront role conflict and ambiguity regarding ethical issues such as informed consent from participants, protecting subjects (students) from harm, and ensuring confidentiality. They must demonstrate a commitment toward fully understanding ethical dilemmas that present themselves within the unique set of circumstances of the educational context. Questions about research ethics can feel exceedingly complex and in specific situations, educator- researchers require guidance from others.

Think about it this way. As a part-time historian and former history teacher I often problematized who we regard as good and bad people in history. I (Clark) grew up minutes from Jesse James’ childhood farm. Jesse James is a well-documented thief, and possibly by today’s standards, a terrorist. He is famous for daylight bank robberies, as well as the sheer number of successful robberies. When Jesse James was assassinated, by a trusted associate none-the-less, his body travelled the country for people to see, while his assailant and assailant’s brother reenacted the assassination over 1,200 times in theaters across the country. Still today in my hometown, they reenact Jesse James’ daylight bank robbery each year at the Fall Festival, immortalizing this thief and terrorist from our past. This demonstrates how some people saw him as somewhat of hero, or champion of some sort of resistance, both historically and in the present. I find this curious and ripe for further inquiry, but primarily it is problematic for how we think about people as good or bad in the past. Whatever we may individually or collectively think about Jesse James as a “good” or “bad” person in history, it is vitally important to problematize our thinking about him. Talking about Jesse James may seem strange, but it is relevant to the field of action research. If we tell people that we are engaging in important and “good” actions, we should be prepared to justify why it is “good” and provide a theoretical, epistemological, or ontological rationale if possible. Experience is never enough, you need to justify why you act in certain ways and not others, and this includes thinking critically about your own thinking.

Educators who view inquiry and research as a facet of their professional identity must think critically about how to design and conduct research in educational settings to address respect, justice, and beneficence to minimize harm to participants. This chapter emphasized the due diligence involved in ethically planning the collection of data, and in considering the challenges faced by educator-researchers in educational contexts.

Planning Action

After the thinking about the considerations above, you are now at the stage of having selected a topic and reflected on different aspects of that topic. You have undertaken a literature review and have done some reading which has enriched your understanding of your topic. As a result of your reading and further thinking, you may have changed or fine-tuned the topic you are exploring. Now it is time for action. In the last section of this chapter, we will address some practical issues of carrying out action research, drawing on both personal experiences of supervising educator-researchers in different settings and from reading and hearing about action research projects carried out by other researchers.

Engaging in an action research can be a rewarding experience, but a beneficial action research project does not happen by accident – it requires careful planning, a flexible approach, and continuous educator-researcher reflection. Although action research does not have to go through a pre-determined set of steps, it is useful here for you to be aware of the progression which we presented in Chapter 2. The sequence of activities we suggested then could be looked on as a checklist for you to consider before planning the practical aspects of your project.

We also want to provide some questions for you to think about as you are about to begin.

  • Have you identified a topic for study?
  • What is the specific context for the study? (It may be a personal project for you or for a group of researchers of which you are a member.)
  • Have you read a sufficient amount of the relevant literature?
  • Have you developed your research question(s)?
  • Have you assessed the resource needed to complete the research?

As you start your project, it is worth writing down:

  • a working title for your project, which you may need to refine later;
  • the background of the study , both in terms of your professional context and personal motivation;
  • the aims of the project;
  • the specific outcomes you are hoping for.

Although most of the models of action research presented in Chapter 1 suggest action taking place in some pre-defined order, they also allow us the possibility of refining our ideas and action in the light of our experiences and reflections. Changes may need to be made in response to your evaluation and your reflections on how the project is progressing. For example, you might have to make adjustments, taking into account the students’ responses, your observations and any observations of your colleagues. All this is very useful and, in fact, it is one of the features that makes action research suitable for educational research.

Action research planning sheet

In the past, we have provided action researchers with the following planning list that incorporates all of these considerations. Again, like we have said many times, this is in no way definitive, or lock-in-step procedure you need to follow, but instead guidance based on our perspective to help you engage in the action research process. The left column is the simplified version, and the right column offers more specific advice if need.

Figure 4.1 Planning Sheet for Action Research

Action Research Copyright © by J. Spencer Clark; Suzanne Porath; Julie Thiele; and Morgan Jobe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Action research: what, why and how?


Action research is a form of research that enables practitioners to investigate and evaluate their own work. It is increasingly used in health care research; it is a research strategy in which the researcher and practitioners from the setting under study work together in projects aimed at generating new knowledge and simultaneously improving practice. This article gives an overview of the theoretical background of action research, its international historical development and explanations of its varied forms and related practical applications. Ethical problems are discussed as are questions of rigour The article shows that action research can be used to bridge the gap between theory and practice by generating knowledge fitting the particular circumstances in the practical setting, thereby avoiding problems of implementation of research findings due to lack of fit or lack of motivation. Action research lastingly increases the capacities of practitioners to solve problems encountered in practice.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Diffusion of Innovation*
  • Health Services Research / ethics
  • Health Services Research / history
  • Health Services Research / methods*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • International Cooperation

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Work and mental health

On this page, mentally healthy work and why it matters, what influences mental health at work, building a mentally healthy workplace, your mental health at work, supporting someone at work, rights and obligations.

  • Protect against risks to mental health. Mentally healthy work prevents harm to your mental health. Among other things, this means fair workloads. Fair work practices. And a safe environment.
  • Promote wellbeing and the positive aspects of work . Mentally healthy work means things such as fairness, inclusion, and employee development. Good culture thrives from good work.
  • Support people with poor mental health. In a mentally healthy workplace, your mental health is prioritised. Awareness, capability, commitment, and meaningful support exist. To help workers feel better, earlier.

Key facts - mental health at work

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people experience poor mental health each year. Nearly half of us will experience poor mental health during our lives.
  • Many people spend a third of their lives at work.
  • Poor mental health costs the Australian economy from $12.2 to 22.5 billion each year (according to the Australian Government Productivity Commission).
  • Work is a key setting to improve and support mental health.
  • improves productivity
  • improves commercial outcomes
  • helps attract and retain staff.

Research has shown that investment in mental health has a positive return on investment. This can range from an average of $2.30 upwards for each dollar invested. Learn more about this research on the Mentally Healthy Workpla  ces website

  • clarity on what you’re doing
  • the effort required (job demands)
  • fair treatment
  • good support
  • how work is recognised and rewarded
  • your environment
  • your relationships and dealings with people (including clients or the public)
  • having the training, skills and tools to perform your work
  • communication and change at work
  • exposure to traumatic events or information.

Good work design

Practical tools to improve mental health at work, the key to change.

  • commitment from leadership
  • participation for everyone
  • ongoing communication.

Practical tools to stay well at work

Check your mental health.

In Australia, there are protections and responsibilities relating to mental health in discrimination, privacy, and work health and safety laws.

Work health and safety

Workplace health and safety (WHS) laws require work to be reasonably safe for all. This includes measuring and managing risks to mental health. Learn more about WHS and mental health on the SafeWork Australia website . You can find links to your local Work Health and Safety Regulator at the bottom of this page.


Disability discrimination laws make it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. Discrimination includes both direct and indirect actions. So not making reasonable adjustments to support your needs can be a type of discrimination. Find information about the Disability Discrimination Act on the Australian Human Right Commission website . Learn about reasonable adjustments. The Fair Work Act prohibits an employer from taking action against a worker for discriminatory reasons. Learn more about protection from discrimination at work on the Fair Work Ombudsman website . ​

Under Australian privacy law, a worker’s personal information is generally protected and can only be shared in certain circumstances. This includes information about your mental health. Find information about workplace privacy on the Fair Work Ombudsman website

Further resources

Staying well at work.

  • Mindspot – for free online personalised mental health care.
  • Headgear – a free smartphone app by Black Dog Institute which guides you through a 30–day mental fitness challenge.
  • Smiling Mind – providing free and accessible tools to support healthy minds.

Building mentally healthy work

  • The National Workplace Initiative: Mentally Healthy Workplaces
  • SafeWork Australia – information on mental health
  • People at Work – a free and validated Australian Psychosocial Risk Assessment Survey.
  • Thrive at work – designing work that helps people, organisations and industry to thrive.
  • Black Dog Institute: Workplace mental health and wellbeing

Work health and safety regulators

  • Australian Commonwealth
  • Australian Capital Territory
  • New South Wales
  • Northern Territory
  • South Australia
  • Western Australia

Illustration of two people in a hot air balloon

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  1. What Is Action Research?

    Action research is a research method that aims to simultaneously investigate and solve an issue. In other words, as its name suggests, action research conducts research and takes action at the same time. It was first coined as a term in 1944 by MIT professor Kurt Lewin.A highly interactive method, action research is often used in the social sciences, particularly in educational settings.

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    t. e. Action research is a philosophy and methodology of research generally applied in the social sciences. It seeks transformative change through the simultaneous process of taking action and doing research, which are linked together by critical reflection. Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term "action research" in 1944.

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  14. Action Research

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  15. What Is Action Research?

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    Does Your Timeline Work? While action research is situated in the temporal span that is your life, your research project is short-term, bounded, and related to the socially mediated practices within your educational context. The timeline is important for bounding, or setting limits to your research project, while also making sure you provide ...

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