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Section 2

What is Action Research?

Action research is a qualitative method that focuses on solving problems in social systems, such as schools and other organizations. The emphasis is on solving the presenting problem by generating knowledge and taking action within the social system in which the problem is located. The goal is to generate shared knowledge of how to address the problem by bridging the theory-practice gap (Bourner & Brook, 2019). A general definition of action research is the following: “Action research brings together action and reflection, as well as theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern” (Bradbury, 2015, p. 1). Johnson (2019) defines action research in the field of education as “the process of studying a school, classroom, or teacher-learning situation with the purpose of understanding and improving the quality of actions or instruction” (p.255).

Origins of Action Research

Kurt Lewin is typically credited with being the primary developer of Action Research in the 1940s. Lewin stated that action research can “transform…unrelated individuals, frequently opposed in their outlook and their interests, into cooperative teams, not on the basis of sweetness but on the basis of readiness to face difficulties realistically, to apply honest fact-finding, and to work together to overcome them” (1946, p.211).

Sample Action Research Topics

Some sample action research topics might be the following:

  • Examining how classroom teachers perceive and implement new strategies in the classroom--How is the strategy being used? How do students respond to the strategy? How does the strategy inform and change classroom practices? Does the new skill improve test scores? Do classroom teachers perceive the strategy as effective for student learning?
  • Examining how students are learning a particular content or objectives--What seems to be effective in enhancing student learning? What skills need to be reinforced? How do students respond to the new content? What is the ability of students to understand the new content?
  • Examining how education stakeholders (administrator, parents, teachers, students, etc.) make decisions as members of the school’s improvement team--How are different stakeholders encouraged to participate? How is power distributed? How is equity demonstrated? How is each voice valued? How are priorities and initiatives determined? How does the team evaluate its processes to determine effectiveness?
  • Examining the actions that school staff take to create an inclusive and welcoming school climate--Who makes and implements the actions taken to create the school climate? Do members of the school community (teachers, staff, students) view the school climate as inclusive? Do members of the school community feel welcome in the school? How are members of the school community encouraged to become involved in school activities? What actions can school staff take to help others feel a part of the school community?
  • Examining the perceptions of teachers with regard to the learning strategies that are more effective with special populations, such as special education students, English Language Learners, etc.—What strategies are perceived to be more effective? How do teachers plan instructionally for unique learners such as special education students or English Language Learners? How do teachers deal with the challenges presented by unique learners such as special education students or English Language Learners? What supports do teachers need (e.g., professional development, training, coaching) to more effectively deliver instruction to unique learners such as special education students or English Language Learners?

Remember—The goal of action research is to find out how individuals perceive and act in a situation so the researcher can develop a plan of action to improve the educational organization. While these topics listed here can be explored using other research designs, action research is the design to use if the outcome is to develop a plan of action for addressing and improving upon a situation in the educational organization.


Considerations for Determining Whether to Use Action Research in an Applied Dissertation
  • When considering action research, first determine the problem and the change that needs to occur as a result of addressing the problem (i.e., research problem and research purpose). Remember, the goal of action research is to change how individuals address a particular problem or situation in a way that results in improved practices.
  • If the study will be conducted at a school site or educational organization, you may need site permission. Determine whether site permission will be given to conduct the study.
  • Consider the individuals who will be part of the data collection (e.g., teachers, administrators, parents, other school staff, etc.). Will there be a representative sample willing to participate in the research?
  • If students will be part of the study, does parent consent and student assent need to be obtained?
  • As you develop your data collection plan, also consider the timeline for data collection. Is it feasible? For example, if you will be collecting data in a school, consider winter and summer breaks, school events, testing schedules, etc.
  • As you develop your data collection plan, consult with your dissertation chair, Subject Matter Expert, NU Academic Success Center, and the NU IRB for resources and guidance.
  • Action research is not an experimental design, so you are not trying to accept or reject a hypothesis. There are no independent or dependent variables. It is not generalizable to a larger setting. The goal is to understand what is occurring in the educational setting so that a plan of action can be developed for improved practices.
Considerations for Action Research

Below are some things to consider when developing your applied dissertation proposal using Action Research (adapted from Johnson, 2019):

  • Research Topic and Research Problem-- Decide the topic to be studied and then identify the problem by defining the issue in the learning environment. Use references from current peer-reviewed literature for support.
  • Purpose of the Study—What need to be different or improved as a result of the study?
  • Research Questions—The questions developed should focus on “how” or “what” and explore individuals’ experiences, beliefs, and perceptions.
  • Theoretical Framework-- What are the existing theories (theoretical framework) or concepts (conceptual framework) that can be used to support the research. How does existing theory link to what is happening in the educational environment with regard to the topic? What theories have been used to support similar topics in previous research?
  • Literature Review -- Examine the literature, focusing on peer-reviewed studies published in journal within the last five years, with the exception of seminal works. What about the topic has already been explored and examined? What were the findings, implications, and limitations of previous research? What is missing from the literature on the topic?  How will your proposed research address the gap in the literature?
  • Data Collection—Who will be part of the sample for data collection? What data will be collected from the individuals in the study (e.g., semi-structured interviews, surveys, etc.)? What are the educational artifacts and documents that need to be collected (e.g., teacher less plans, student portfolios, student grades, etc.)? How will they be collected and during what timeframe? (Note--A list of sample data collection methods appears under the heading of “Sample Instrumentation.”)
  • Data Analysis—Determine how the data will be analyzed. Some types of analyses that are frequently used for action research include thematic analysis and content analysis.
  • Implications—What conclusions can be drawn based upon the findings? How do the findings relate to the existing literature and inform theory in the field of education?
  • Recommendations for Practice--Create a Plan of Action—This is a critical step in action research. A plan of action is created based upon the data analysis, findings, and implications. In the Applied Dissertation, this Plan of Action is included with the Recommendations for Practice. The includes specific steps that individuals should take to change practices; recommendations for how those changes will occur (e.g., professional development, training, school improvement planning, committees to develop guidelines and policies, curriculum review committee, etc.); and methods to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness.
  • Recommendations for Research—What should future research focus on? What type of studies need to be conducted to build upon or further explore your findings.
  • Professional Presentation or Defense—This is where the findings will be presented in a professional presentation or defense as the culmination of your research.

Adapted from Johnson (2019).

Considerations for Sampling and Data Collection

Below are some tips for sampling, sample size, data collection, and instrumentation for Action Research:

Sampling and Sample Size

Action research uses non-probability sampling. This is most commonly means a purposive sampling method that includes specific inclusion and exclusion criteria. However, convenience sampling can also be used (e.g., a teacher’s classroom).

Critical Concepts in Data Collection

Triangulation-- Dosemagen and Schwalbach (2019) discussed the importance of triangulation in Action Research which enhances the trustworthiness by providing multiple sources of data to analyze and confirm evidence for findings.

Trustworthiness—Trustworthiness assures that research findings are fulfill four critical elements—credibility, dependability, transferability, and confirmability. Reflect on the following: Are there multiple sources of data? How have you ensured credibility, dependability, transferability, and confirmability? Have the assumptions, limitations, and delimitations of the study been identified and explained? Was the sample a representative sample for the study? Did any individuals leave the study before it ended? How have you controlled researcher biases and beliefs? Are you drawing conclusions that are not supported by data? Have all possible themes been considered? Have you identified other studies with similar results?

Sample Instrumentation

Below are some of the possible methods for collecting action research data:

  • Pre- and Post-Surveys for students and/or staff
  • Staff Perception Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Semi-Structured Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Observations
  • Document analysis
  • Student work samples
  • Classroom artifacts, such as teacher lesson plans, rubrics, checklists, etc.
  • Attendance records
  • Discipline data
  • Journals from students and/or staff
  • Portfolios from students and/or staff

Creating a Plan of Action

A benefit of Action Research is its potential to influence educational practice. Many educators are, by nature of the profession, reflective, inquisitive, and action-oriented. The ultimate outcome of Action Research is to create a plan of action using the research findings to inform future educational practice. A Plan of Action is not meant to be a one-size fits all plan. Instead, it is mean to include specific data-driven and research-based recommendations that result from a detailed analysis of the data, the study findings, and implications of the Action Research study. An effective Plan of Action includes an evaluation component and opportunities for professional educator reflection that allows for authentic discussion aimed at continuous improvement.

When developing a Plan of Action, the following should be considered:

  • How can this situation be approached differently in the future?
  • What should change in terms of practice?
  • What are the specific steps that individuals should take to change practices?
  • What is needed to implement the changes being recommended (professional development, training, materials, resources, planning committees, school improvement planning, etc.)?
  • How will the effectiveness of the implemented changes be evaluated?
  • How will opportunities for professional educator reflection be built into the Action Plan?


Sample Action Research Studies

Anderson, A. J. (2020). A qualitative systematic review of youth participatory action research implementation in U.S. high schools. American Journal of Community Psychology, 65(1/2), 242–257.

Ayvaz, Ü., & Durmuş, S.(2021). Fostering mathematical creativity with problem posing activities: An action research with gifted students. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 40.

Bellino, M. J. (2018). Closing information gaps in Kakuma Refugee Camp: A youth participatory action research study. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(3/4), 492–507.

Beneyto, M., Castillo, J., Collet-Sabé, J., & Tort, A. (2019). Can schools become an inclusive space shared by all families? Learnings and debates from an action research project in Catalonia. Educational Action Research, 27(2), 210–226.

Bilican, K., Senler, B., & Karısan, D. (2021). Fostering teacher educators’ professional development through collaborative action research. International Journal of Progressive Education, 17(2), 459–472.

Black, G. L. (2021). Implementing action research in a teacher preparation program: Opportunities and limitations. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 21(2), 47–71.

Bozkuş, K., & Bayrak, C. (2019). The Application of the dynamic teacher professional development through experimental action research. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 11(4), 335–352.

Christ, T. W. (2018). Mixed methods action research in special education: An overview of a grant-funded model demonstration project. Research in the Schools, 25(2), 77–88.

Jakhelln, R., & Pörn, M. (2019). Challenges in supporting and assessing bachelor’s theses based on action research in initial teacher education. Educational Action Research, 27(5), 726–741.

Klima Ronen, I. (2020). Action research as a methodology for professional development in leading an educational process. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 64.

Messiou, K. (2019). Collaborative action research: facilitating inclusion in schools. Educational Action Research, 27(2), 197–209.

Mitchell, D. E. (2018). Say it loud: An action research project examining the afrivisual and africology, Looking for alternative African American community college teaching strategies. Journal of Pan African Studies, 12(4), 364–487.

Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2018). Action research as a tool for professional development in the K-12 ELT classroom. TESL Canada Journal, 35(2), 128–139.

Rodriguez, R., Macias, R. L., Perez-Garcia, R., Landeros, G., & Martinez, A. (2018). Action research at the intersection of structural and family violence in an immigrant Latino community: a youth-led study. Journal of Family Violence, 33(8), 587–596.

Vaughan, M., Boerum, C., & Whitehead, L. (2019). Action research in doctoral coursework: Perceptions of independent research experiences. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13.

Sample Journals for Action Research

Educational Action Research

Canadian Journal of Action Research

Sample Resource Videos

Call-Cummings, M. (2017). Researching racism in schools using participatory action research [Video]. Sage Research Methods

Fine, M. (2016). Michelle Fine discusses community based participatory action research [Video]. Sage Knowledge.

Getz, C., Yamamura, E., & Tillapaugh. (2017). Action Research in Education. [Video]. You Tube.


Bradbury, H. (Ed.). (2015). The handbook of action research (3rd edition). Sage.

Bradbury, H., Lewis, R. & Embury, D.C. (2019). Education action research: With and for the next generation. In C.A. Mertler (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of action research in education (1st edition). John Wiley and Sons.

Bourner, T., & Brook, C. (2019). Comparing and contrasting action research and action learning. In C.A. Mertler (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of action research in education (1st edition). John Wiley and Sons.

Bradbury, H. (2015). The Sage handbook of action research. Sage.

Dosemagen, D.M. & Schwalback, E.M. (2019). Legitimacy of and value in action research. In C.A. Mertler (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of action research in education (1st edition). John Wiley and Sons.

Johnson, A. (2019). Action research for teacher professional development. In C.A. Mertler (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of action research in education (1st edition). John Wiley and Sons.

Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. In G.W. Lewin (Ed.), Resolving social conflicts: Selected papers on group dynamics (compiled in 1948). Harper and Row.

Mertler, C. A. (Ed.). (2019). The Wiley handbook of action research in education. John Wiley and Sons.