Action Research – What and how?

Action Research – What and how?

Many schemes of professional development for teachers, as well as advanced teaching certificates, include an element of ‘Action Research’ (AR). In my work as a team leader of EFL tutors, I’ve come to see just how important AR is for teachers to continue to develop and professionalise their teaching practices. And I’m so enthusiastic about teachers doing research that I want to share some introductory thoughts with a wider audience – with you, my dear blog readers! I hope I can inspire you to start your own AR projects, and would love to hear what you get up to!

So what is ‘Action Research’ for teachers? Basically,  AR is any small scale research conducted by a practising teacher which looks at any aspect of how a class is run, and is particularly aimed at answering a question or addressing a difficult or controversial issue. The results of the research can then be used by the teacher (and colleagues if the results are shared) to inform future practice and to suggest solutions to any problems or puzzles caused by the controversial issues/questions.

With this definition, ‘action research’ can be broken down into the following concrete phases: 

  1. formulation of research question, 
  2. background reading (optional), 
  3. developing (and maybe piloting, or evaluating with colleagues) a method of data collection, 
  4. data collection,
  5. collating & analysing data, 
  6. reflection & drawing conclusions. 

Once conclusions have been drawn, these can lead to the formulation of a consequent action plan or changes in teaching practice, and/or the dissemination of the research findings.

These phases may make AR sound like a very time-consuming and serious experimental endeavour, but it really isn’t!! An AR project can be as large and time-consuming, or as quick and small, as the teacher wants it to be. Most of the time, you can ‘research’ whilst teaching. You start with something you’d like to find out, change something minor in your teaching, and reflect on the outcome. The research question could focus on a local issue connected to one specific class or school, such as getting shy learners to speak more, dealing with unruly behaviour, encouraging more engagement with homework tasks, or trialling things like project-based learning, peer-review etc. You could trial a new technique to investigate possible & necessary adaptations for particular teaching contexts. You might also want to try combining ideas from published sources and developing a new technique which could then be shared with others. Often, I’ve found informal staffroom chats highlight potential AR topics, so just keep your ears open!

The ‘how’ question can seem a big deal, especially if calling it ‘data collection’ reminds you of big scientific investigations! But in AR, you can choose any way to gather information that is relevant to your research question. It could be as straightforward as keeping a journal of your lessons and your reflections on them, or maybe asking to sit in on a colleague’s lesson to see how they approach a certain issue, or even asking your students to give you their opinions on certain aspects of the classroom/lesson setup. The key thing is reflecting on what you find out and how you can apply it to your teaching!

If you are approaching AR for the first time, you might like to talk through your ideas with a colleague who’s done some AR before, or collaborate with another colleague to emphasise the reflective nature of AR. I would also love to hear about your AR projects and can mentor you through the process, if you wish – just comment below or send me a message on Twitter, I’m @Clare2ELT.

What I really love about AR is that it can open up dialogue among teachers! That’s why I’d love for you to get in touch, and would also encourage any teacher who has conduced AR to share their findings publicly, e.g. on a blog or in a teaching magazine or newsletter.

Here are some other links and blog posts that are worth a look, if you’re interesting in finding out more about AR:

British Council: Exploring our own classroom practice.

Nellie Mueller: Action Research Projects


4 thoughts on “Action Research – What and how?

  1. Hi Nice to read your post about Action Research. I work for an adult community learning service that sub-contracts provision through a number of small organisation, and my role is in developing quality of T&L. I’ve tried to promote action research, trying to keep the model as simple as possible, but have had very little take-up. Any tips on how to get tutors enthused??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Clare – great name by the way 🙂
      Thanks for reading my blog – maybe you would like to share the post with your tutors? It is hard to get people into AR, since teachers are just in general really busy. It helps if the schedule allows time for it for a start! Maybe you could have an informal meeting and discuss my blog post, or another article on a topic that you think it would be good to tackle, and try to get everyone on board that way. Maybe start with small things that everyone works on together – showing just how small an AR project can be! (Sometimes the name ‘research’ makes it seem like a big cumbersome task!) How about getting them to mark students work in different colours (red for mistakes, green for positive comments, and blue for any other notes that need to be made, for example), and then encouraging them all to keep a reflective journal each week or so to keep track on how well they think it’s working, and then another meeting to discuss ‘findings’? Do you maybe also have a newsletter that people could write a little text for, about their experiences? That might also encourage others to join in. Or start a blog and encourage them to post on that? I think interacting with other teachers about what they’re doing would be quite motivating. Let me know how you get on!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, will have a think about some of these ideas and let you know how I get on, will definitely share your post for a start, then maybe think of a little project that I can ask everyone to have a go at…looking forward to September!! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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