Understanding Action Research
Action research is a process of deep inquiry into one's practices in service of moving towards an envisioned future, aligned with values. Action Research is the systematic, reflective study of one's actions, and the effects of these actions, in a workplace context. As such, it involves deep inquiry into one's professional practice. The researchers examine their work and seek opportunities for improvement. As designers and stakeholders, they work with colleagues to propose new courses of action that help their community improve work practices. As researchers, they seek evidence from multiple sources to help them analyze reactions to the action taken. They recognize their own view as subjective, and seek to develop their understanding of the events from multiple perspectives. The researcher uses data collected to characterize the forces in ways that can be shared with practitioners. This leads to a reflective phase in which the designer formulates new plans for action during the next cycle.
Action Research is a way of learning from and through one's practice by working through a series of reflective stages that facilitate the development of a form of "adaptive" expertise. Over time, action researchers develop a deep understanding of the ways in which a variety of social and environmental forces interact to create complex patterns. Since these forces are dynamic, action research is a process of living one's theory into practice.

The subject of action research is the actions taken, the resulting change, and the theory of change that is held by the persons enacting the change. While the design of action research may originate with an individual, social actions taken without the collaborative participation are often less effective. Over time, the action researchers often extends the arena of to change to a continually widening group of stakeholders. The goal is a deeper understanding of the factors of change which result in positive personal and professional change.
This form of research then is an iterative, cyclical process of reflecting on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action. Therefore, the research takes shape while it is being performed. Greater understanding from each cycle points the way to improved actions.
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 your practice is embedded through participatory research.
Action research as a method is scientific in which the effects of an action are observed through a systematic process of examining the evidence. The results of this type of research are practical, relevant, and can inform theory. Action Research is different than other forms of research as there is less concern for universality of findings, and more value is placed on the relevance of the findings to the researcher and the local collaborators. Critical reflection is at the heart of Action Research and when this reflection is based on careful examination of evidence from multiple perspectives, it can provide an effective strategy for improving the organization's ways of working and the whole organizational climate. It can be the process through which an organization learns.
Developing Action Research Questions: A Guide to Progressive Inquiry
The questions asked by action researchers guide their process. A good question will inspire one to look closely and collect evidence that will help find possible answers. What are good examples of action research questions? What are questions that are less likely to promote the process of deep sustained inquiry? The best question is the one that will inspire the researcher to look at their practice deeply and to engage in cycles of continuous learning from their everyday practice of their craft. These questions come from a desire to have to have practice align with values and beliefs. Exploring these questions helps the researcher to be progressively more effective in attaining their personal goals and developing professional expertise.
Good questions often arise from visions of improved practice and emerging theories about the change that will move the researcher closer to the ideal state of working practices. When stated in an if/then format, they can take the shape of a research hypothesis. If I [insert the action to be taken], how will it affect [describe one or more possible consequences of the action]? We will look at two examples, one from education and one from a business setting.
Development of Action Research Questions in an Educational Context
Suppose the researcher is worried about designing the learning context to meet the needs of students who are currently not doing well in the classroom. The general question might be:
How can I personalize instruction to match the diverse needs of my students?
This forms a good overall goal which can then lead to a number of possible cycles of action research, each with a separate question.
Consider this question:
If I listen to students, will I have better understanding of them?
This question suggests an action and possible outcome but is vague in both in the description of the action and in the possible outcome.
Now consider:
If I set up community circle time to listen to students describe their learning experiences in my classroom, in what ways, if any, will the information about their learning processes help me redesign the way I teach?
Now it is clear what the researcher intends to do and what a possible outcome might be. In listening to students, the researcher might discover information that will lead directly to an experiment in instructional design or might refocus the overall goal to one that was not apparent when the researcher the inquiry began.
Development of Action Research Questions in an Corporate Context
The following is another example, from a business setting where people in diverse offices are working in ways that would benefit from greater coordination.
The action researcher might identify the problem as one which poor communication results in decisions being made without attending to the issue of how a decision affects the larger system. The researcher might see a role for technology in forging a solution to this problem, such as creating a database for storing and sharing documents. The overall research question might be:
How can the development of a common location for shared knowledge and the use of interactive communication tools increase the collaborative effectiveness of team-based decision-making in our different regions?
The next step is to define what kind of communication tool will be used and how the researcher plans to measure collaborative effectiveness of the distant teams.
Cycle questions that might evolve should be specific with respect to the actions taken and the outcomes that will be monitored:
If I create a wiki to share documents and increase coordination, to what extent will the teams use this means of storing information to coordinate their decision-making?
A second cycle question that might follow when it is clear that other teams failed to use the wiki as effectively as the researcher had hoped:
How will making all day support available on instant messenger for questions about the use of the wiki affect the use of the wiki to organize group work?
Recognizing Weak Action Research Questions
  • Questions with known answers where the goal is to "prove" it to others. For example, suppose a person has been holding family math night for years and sees an effect on parent participation. A weak question for action research would be: Will holding a family math night increase parent participation? This might be a useful evaluative research question where a controlled study could be set up to explore the connection. But evaluative research is different than action research. Action research is an experiment in design, and involves implementing an action to study its consequences
  • Questions that can be answered yes or no. Generally these are questions that will not encourage paying attention to the many nuances of the setting and the social interactions. Although, like any guide, while some yes/no questions can provide direction, it is often helpful to think about ways to transform the question into a different format. For example: Will the introduction of project-based learning lead to more student engagement? might be reworked to How will the introduction of project-based learning affect student engagement in my classroom? The first one, the researcher can answer the question with yes (an outcome that they might have expected). The second question guides them to look for the possible mechanism of project-based learning (maybe ownership, collaboration, or self-assessment) that have been found to be related to increased engagement.
  • Questions that can be answered by reading the literature. What does community of practice mean? This might be a question that the researcher needs to answer, and can do so by reading more readily than by engaging in action research. A better formulation for action research might be: How will increasing the time for teacher collaboration in grade level teams affect the development of a community of practice at our school?"
Sharing your Action Research with Others:
One of the strongest acts of leadership can be the act of writing—of sharing knowledge and insights gained. Writing enables contribution to the body of knowledge that exists beyond the researcher. The final report serves the purpose of sharing the knowledge gained through action research with others in a community of practice. Action Researchers will need to decide what to write and to whom to write.
A Written Report
The following is the recommended template for the Master of Arts Thesis for Pepperdine students. However, there are multiple ways that an action research report may be organized.
The significance of the problem you are addressing. The reader needs to be invited to think about the problem at the widest level. This should answer the question --Why should I read this; why should I care about this study? This is not about the context but about the problem and how it is linked to your vision for a different future

Once you have a posed a problem at a general level, you will need to provide the context of your work. There are two parts to this. One is the local context (this section) and the other is the professional context (review of literature). These can come in whatever order makes sense to you. In your local context, you may want to describe your membership/position in your community of practice, as well how you have previously tried to address the problem described

The literature is another way to set the context for your work. What previous work informs your understanding of the problem? What theories or predictions about outcomes come from past studies? How is what you plan to do similar or different from what others have tried?

The research question sets up your inquiry. The overall question is the overarching problem selected. The cycles questions are sub questions that helped address this larger issue in different ways.

Action research takes place in cycles. Each cycles is a discrete experiment--taking action as a way of studying change. Your report needs to include --either a detailed report for each cycle as follows or a report of the cycles in a more summary format.

CYCLE RESEARCH QUESTION: A strong question sets out both the action and expected reactions. The first part of the question clearly states what you will do in very specific language. The second part shares your best guess at an outcome. (The reactions of others that you expect to result from your action.) Your action research is a design experiment. You are designing with an eye toward deeper understanding of change.

EVIDENCE USED TO EVALUATE THE ACTION: What evidence will you collect to tell you how others respond to your action? Where will you look for direct or indirect evidence of what happened?

EVALUATION: How will you/did you evaluate the outcomes of your action?.....(Indicate your plans for your analysis in a paragraph or two).

REFLECTION: Looking back on your action after collecting data, what thoughts come to mind? If you were to repeat the process, what would you change? What worked best for you? What most surprised you?

This is where you will take stock of your overall learning process during your action research. It might be helpful to think of a reflection as a set of connections between the past, present and future. If this section is only a summary of events that happened, it be inadequate as a reflection. A reflection provides a deep understanding of why events occurred as they did, and how those outcomes helped you address your overarching question. At the conclusion of a good reflection, you should ideally know more than you did when you began it. If you have not gained new insights about the problem and your problem-solving action, it is likely that you are only summarizing. Reflection is a powerful learning experience, and an essential part of action research.
The references provide the context for your ideas. In many ways, the references indicated the community of researchers and writers that you are writing for. (See the CCAR wiki for detailed suggestions for each of these phases of action research).
Publishing on the Web in Portfolio:
An important part of the Action Research process is sharing artifacts of the inquiry, to enable the action researcher to continually reflect on practice and so that peers may contribute feedback and support. The Web Portfolio, then, becomes a place for both internal and external reflection.
A good action research portfolio, like a report, documents practices at each step of the inquiry. The accumulation of content provides critical mass for reflection and for recognizing change of practice. There is no perfect template for an Action Research Portfolio. One key idea, however, is to be sure to document each cycle and gather artifacts accordingly. That documentation process should utilize both descriptive and reflective writing.
The Center for Collaborative Action Research has collected Action Research Portfolios that serve as effective models. The model portfolios are categorized in two groups: School Action Research for projects that help improve instructional practices and Community Action Research for projects in University, Corporate, and other Community settings.
In general, your portfolio might include, but is not limited to the following:
· A overview of your problem at a general level and why you (and others) see this as an important challenge
· A description of the problem that you are researching with action
· A detailed description of the field of action, (the context)
· A review of literature as part of a planning process
· The action research question(s) and perhaps some reflection on how they changed over the process
· The plan and timeline for your research
· Cycles reports that document the activity in each
· Data collected and details of the analysis process
· Collection of your artifacts, images, and videos
· Research blogs
· Your final reflection
Citation: Riel, M. (2010) Understanding Action Research, Center For Collaborative Action Research.Pepperdine Univerity. Accessed online on [28-01-2011] from http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html