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Reflective Practice: Action Research


What is action research?

Action research, can be seen as a systematic, reflective study of one's actions, and the effects of these actions, in a workplace or organizational context. As such, it involves deep inquiry into one's professional practice. . . . Action researchers examine their interactions and relationships in social setting seeking opportunities for improvement. As designers and stakeholders, they work with their colleagues to propose new courses of action that help their community improve work practices." (Margaret Riel, 2017).


Four Steps of the Action Research Process: Plan, Act, Observe, ReflectIn the classroom, action research is inquiry or research designed and conducted by instructors with the goal of examining teaching and learning in their own classrooms and  improving their individual practice. Action research generally addresses a specific or immediate problem and supports the reflective process of progressive problem-solving.

The goals of action research include:

  • The improvement of professional practice through continual learning and progressive problem solving;
  • A deep understanding of practice and the development of a well specified theory of action;
  • An improvement in the community in which one's practice is embedded through participatory research.

While action research relies less on formal, prescriptive, or theory-driven research, the results nevertheless provide meaningful contributions not only to the instructor-investigators themselves, but to the larger culture of teaching and learning at the college. 

Action Research as a Methodology

Table 1. Adapted from ACRL Assessment in Action




Action Research

Investigator & Role

Objective observer who studies others

Immersion in the research setting

Studies self and others


Use hypotheses to test theories

Understand and interpret phenomena in natural settings in order to generate hypotheses

Identify and study a problem in one’s own work or instructional setting


Higher education faculty/personnel and graduate students

Higher education faculty/personnel and graduate students

Other practitioners; self


Random sample chosen from a larger population

Purposive sample that will provide desired information

Chosen based on the intentions of the study

Types of Data Collected

Measures of values or counts expressed as numbers

Artifacts, observations, interviews

Variety of sources including qualitative and quantitative data

Ways the Research Advances Knowledge

Random sample permits research to make broad generalizations

Understanding of the phenomenon under study

Improving practice


Choose Your Problem

Action research is grounded in investigating a problem or challenge within your own teaching practice. The problem should be:

  • Meaningful and significant to you
  • Possible to research with the time, resources and students you have
  • Deliberate, narrow and focused so that you can adequately answer your question

Describe the situation you want to change. Why do you want to change it?

Consider Your Question

What questions are raised by the problem you’ve identified?

Look at the problem from multiple angles and consider the following types of questions:

  • What works? Questions that seek evidence about the effectiveness of specific teaching strategies or approaches: Will students understand this concept/apply this skill more effectively if they do x, instead of the y I’ve assigned in the past? 

  • What is? Questions that seek to describe but not evaluate: What’s happening in the classroom? What are students thinking when they __? 

  • Visions of the possible: Questions related to goals for teaching and learning that have yet to be met or are new to you.

Identify the questions that need to be answered

  • I would really like to improve...
  • I am perplexed by...
  • Some people are unhappy about...
  • I’m curious about...
  • I want to learn more about...
  • An idea I would like to try out in my class is...
  • Something I think would really make a difference is...
  • Something I would like to do to change is...
  • Some areas I am particularly interested in are...

A good question is:

  • One that hasn’t already been answered
  • A higher level question that get at explanations, reasons, relationships
  • Not yes-no
  • Framed using everyday language, avoids jargon
  • Concise, not too lengthy
  • Manageable, doable in the context of your work
  • Meaningful, allows you to follow your passion
  • Close to your practice yet provides you an opportunity to stretch
  • One that leads to other questions

Based on your understanding of the problem or challenge, what are some potential research questions?

The most important feature of any plan for a classroom inquiry is that it is achievable. When designing an inquiry plan, either alone or in the context of a faculty inquiry group, consider the five following ideas:

  1. Focus first on evidence that you can gather from the course of your own teaching and everyday practice.

  2. Often, the best inquiry plan centers on being intentional with work you’re already doing. If your inquiry plan involves going outside the boundaries of your teaching, then find collaborators.

  3. Although you may have many questions about student learning, and want to focus on many aspects of a target course, stay focused on a single important issue of student learning. Everything seems important when you’re swimming in the middle of your own teaching.

  4. An important feature of any inquiry plan is the clarity of the question and match between the question and the evidence.

  5. Expect that your plan will change. Be open to surprises that will lead you in different directions.

Use the following prompts to help you formulate your plan and align your goal with your actions and the evidence that you will collect.


What changes do you want to see?


What does success look like?


What do you need to do to make your goal happen?


What information will tell you that you’ve met your goal?




How would you describe your inquiry plan to a colleague? What aspect of your plan are you least sure about?

Data Collection Checklist

  1. Based on your research question, what data might you need?
  2. What are the multiple ways you could collect that data?
  3. How might you document this data, or organize it so that it can be analyzed?
  4. What methods are most appropriate for your context and timeframe?
  5. How much time will your data collection require? How much time can you allow for?
  6. Will you need to create any data sources (e.g., interview protocol, elicitation materials)?
  7. Do your data sources all logically support the research question, and each other?
  8. Does your data collection provide for multiple perspectives?
  9. How will your data achieve triangulation in addressing the research question?
  10. Will you need more than three data sources to ensure triangulation of data?

Learn more: "Collecting Data in Your Classroom"

Adapted from Action Research by J. Spencer Clark; Suzanne Porath; Julie Thiele; and Morgan Jobe under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Data Analysis Checklist

  1. What is your positionality in regard to the data? How will it affect your analysis?
  2. How will you organize and prepare your raw data for analysis?
  3. Read and engage with all of your data.
  4. Code. What themes or categories are emerging across the data?
  5. What descriptions will you use to define and characterize your codes?
  6. Are the codes and/or themes interrelated? Are there sub-codes?
  7. How will you represent codes in the final report?
  8. What theories can you use to interpret the codes?
  9. What do your themes, codes, and descriptions mean in relation to your research question(s)?
  10. Would a Critical Friend or colleague’s review of your analysis add to the trustworthiness of the study?

Learn more: "Analyzing Data from Your Classroom"

Adapted from Action Research by J. Spencer Clark; Suzanne Porath; Julie Thiele; and Morgan Jobe under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

What changes are necessary as a result of what you’ve learned?

What’s working well and needs to be nurtured?

What are your priorities going forward?


"Assessment in Action," American Library Association, March 8, 2017. 

Badia, Giovanna. “Combining Critical Reflection and Action Research to Improve Pedagogy.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 17, no. 4 (2017): 695-720. 

Clark, J. Spencer, et al. Action Research. Manhattan, KS: New Prairie Press. 2020.

Ferrance, Eileen. Action Research. Providence, RI: Brown University. 2000. 

Riel, Margaret. “Understanding Action Research.” Center for Collaborative Action Research, Pepperdine University. 2017. 

Sagor, Richard. “What is Action Research?” Guiding School Improvement with Action Research. ASCD, 2000.


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