Action Research


Action research is a relatively new field of research, often falling within the field of critical and emancipatory theory. It has been practised worldwide and is especially useful for social settings and where change is desired. Developments within the field have resulted in it coming to mean slightly different things to different people. Carr and Kemmis (1986) emphasise the ‘critical’ action research model, while Elliott (1991) emphasises a’ reflective practice’ model – a model often used in educational institutions for curriculum and teacher practice research. (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, (2000, 231).

A comprehensive summary of the field of action research can be found in chapter 13 of Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2000). This should be regarded as essential reading.

By the end of this element you should:

  • have a clearer understanding of the action research approach
  • understand the limitations and strengths of the approach
  • be able to make informed choices with respect to the kind of approach you would like to apply in your own research.

Recommended reading

Brown, S. & McIntyre, D. (1981). An action-research approach to innovation in centralised educational systems. European Journal of Science Education, 3(3), 243-258.

Bell, J. (1999). Doing Your Research Project. A guide for first-time researchers in education and social science. Open University Press, Buckingham, Philadelphia.

Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1994). Research Methods in Education, 4th Edition. Routledge Falmer, London and New York.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2000). Research Methods in Education, 5th Edition. Routledge Falmer, London and New York.

Denscombe, M. (2003). The Good Research Guide (2nd Ed). Open University Press, Maidenhead, Philadelphia.

Kemmis, S. & McTaggert, R.(1981). The Action Research Planner. Deakin University Press, Geelong Victoria.

Qualter, A. & Dean K. (1999). Learning abourt teaching through research in practice. Education 3 to 13. June, 36-41.

Robson, C. (2002). Real World Research, 2nd Edition. Blackwell, Malden USA.

Seale, J. & Barnard, S. (1998). Therapy Research. Processes and Practicalities. Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford.

Weiler, J. (2001). Promoting the dialogue: Role of action research at Belvedere Technical Teachers' College, Zimbabwe. Educational Action Research, 9(3). 413-436.

Electronic resources.

Action Research International -

Bob Dick – You want to do an Action Research thesis?

Bowes, A.M. (1996). 'Evaluating an Empowering Research Strategy: Reflections on Action-Research with South Asian Women', Sociological Research Online, vol. 1, no. 1,

Humphries, B. (1997). 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action: Contradictory Research Goals?' Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1,

Useful links to AR sites from Queens University, Ontario
The Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN)

Section 1: An overview of Action Research

Action research is a popular research approach for researchers who are interested in making change. It is flexible and can be used “in almost any setting where a problem involving people, tasks and procedures cries out for solution, or where some change of feature results in a more desirable outcome.” (Cohen, 2000:226). Robson (2002:215) notes that “the promotion of change” adds to the traditional research purposes of  “description, understanding and explanation.”  Action research is usually interpretive but sometimes critical. Denscombe (2003:73) states that action research has always involved with "practical issues - the kind of issues and problems, concerns and needs, that arose as a routine part of activity 'in the real world.' " The basic belief underpinning action research is that research "should not only be used to gain a better understanding of problems which arise in everyday practice, but actually set out to alter things - to do so as part and parcel of the research process rather than to tag it on as an afterthought which follows the conclusion of the research."

Action research can be small or large scale, and can be run by individuals or groups of researchers. It has been used widely for analysing and improving organisations and by educationists looking at improving their institutions, teaching and learning. Some would go so far as to say that good teachers are engaged in action research all the time, given that they are always looking for ways of improving their teaching and the learning of their students. Seale and Barnard (1998:20) point out that while action research began with an external change agents helping organisations to plan and implement change, this is seldom the case today. Organisations now tend to carry out their own research when they feel the need to change aspects of their management and practice.

Kurt Lewin is the founder of the action research method. Lewin worked for change amongst disadvantaged groups in the years following the Second World War and looking at improving housing, employment, socialisation and training and at eliminating prejudice. Lewin saw action research “as a way of learning about organisations through trying to change them.” (Robson, 2002:216). His approach of action and research, aimed at interpreting and changing the world, enabled him to make meaningful improvements in the area in which he worked.

 The action research method has attracted a variety of researchers across a range of disciplines. Robson (2002:215) has suggested that improvement and involvement are central tenants of action research. These involve improvement of practice, improvement of understanding of the practice by its practitioners and the improvement of the situation in which the practice takes place. Robson suggests further that because the method is discernible in terms of its purpose to influence or change some aspect of whatever is the focus of the research, it falls into the category of emancipatory research. Zuber-Skerrit (1996:3) makes the important point that emancipatory action research ultimately changes the system itself. Another important aspect of this kind of Action research is that it involves communication, (dialogical, interpersonal) and wide ranging participation, with participants equal players. (Cohen, Manion & Morrison. 2000:232). 

Bob Dick ( accessed 13/12/2002) adds this interesting observation which emphasises the importance of intent and reflection as essential aspects of the action research process.

Many practitioners have said to me, after hearing about action research, "I already do that". Further conversation reveals that in their normal practice they almost all omit deliberate and conscious reflection, and sceptical challenging of interpretations. To my mind, these are crucial features of effective action research (and, for that matter, of effective learning). (Emphasis mine)

Other descriptions of action research include that by Cohen & Manion (1994, 4th edition, 192). They call it

 “essentially an on-the-spot procedure designed to deal with a concrete problem located in an immediate situation. This means that ideally, the step-by-step process of constantly monitored over varying periods of time and by a variety of mechanisms (questionnaires, diaries, interviews and case studies for example) so that the ensuing feedback may be translated into modifications, adjustments, directional changes, redefinitions, as necessary, so as to bring about lasting benefit to the ongoing process itself rather than to some future occasion…”

Carr and Kemmis (1986) regard action research as a form of ‘self-reflective inquiry’ by participants, undertaken in order to improve understanding of their practices in context with a view to maximising social justice. (Cohen 2000:227).

Grundy (1987:142) sees it as concerned with improving ‘social conditions of existence’.

For Kemmis and McTaggert (1992) action research is concerned equally with changing individuals and the culture of groups, institutions and the societies to which they belong.

According to Cohen (2000:227) action research “is designed to bridge the gap between research and practice… striving to overcome the perceived failure of research to impact on , or improve practice.”

Stenhouse (1979) suggests that it should contribute to both the practice and theory of education of education and teaching which is accessible to other teachers, making educational practice more reflective. (Cohen 2000:227).

Brown and McIntyre (1981:246) used action research for curriculum innovation in Scottish schools. They emphasise the principle of deriving hypothesis from practice.

“The research questions arise from an analysis of problems of the practitioners in the situation and the immediate aim then becomes that of understanding the problems. The researcher/actor, at an early stage, formulates speculative, tentative, general principles in relation to the problems that have been identified; from these principles hypotheses may then be generated about what action is likely to lead to the desired improvements in practice. Such action will then be tried out and data on its effects collected; these data are used to revise the earlier hypotheses and identify more appropriate action that reflects a modification of the general principles. Collection of data on the effects of this new action may then generate further hypotheses and modification principles, and so on as we move towards a greater understanding and improvement of practice. This implies a continuous process of research and the worth of the work is judged by the understanding of, and desirable change in, the practice that is achieved.”

Action research is often participatory, with the researcher working with and often within the organisation being researched. It is believed that practitioners are more likely to make effective decisions and engage in more effective practices if they are active participants rather than simple observers. Action research therefore de-emphasises the role of the external researcher. Many action researchers see this as “an embodiment of democratic principles in research” (Robson, 2002:216). Action research has been used by a number of activist groups and for fighting oppression and social injustice. (Robson, 2002:216).

Kemmis and McTaggert (1988:5) go further, seeing action research as ‘a form of collective self-reflective inquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social and educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out… The approach is only action research if it is collaborative, though it is important to realize that the action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined action of individual group members (Cohen 2000:227).

The emphasis would seem, therefore, to be democratic, participatory research aimed at changing the area being researched for the better.

The Action Research Process

Action research is viewed as a spiral or cyclical process, which involves a series of repeated processes starting with the planning of change, applying the change process, observation of what happens following the change, reflection and evaluation on the process, and the planning of  planning further action, and so on. This approach was popularised by researchers like Kemmis & McTaggert. (1981).

Bassey’s stages of action research (Robson, 2002:218)



Define the Inquiry

What is the issue causing concern? What research questions are we asking? Who will be involved? Where and when will it happen


Describe the situation

What are we required to do here? What are we trying to do here? What thinking underpins what we are doing?


Collect evaluative data and analyse it

What is happening in this situation now as understood by the various participants? Using research methods, what can we find out about it?


Review the data and look for contradictions

What contradictions are there between what we would like to happen and what seems to happen?


Tackle a contradiction by introducing change

By reflecting critically and creatively on contradictions, what change can we introduce which we think will be beneficial?


Monitor the change

What happens day by day when the change is introduced?


Analyse evaluative data about change

What is happening in this situation now – as understood by the various participants – as a result of the changes introduced? Using research methods, what can we find out about it?


Review the change and decide what to do next

Was the change worthwhile? Are we going to continue in the future? What are we going to do next? Is the change sufficient?

Task 1

Read Chapter 13 of Cohen, Manion and Morrison (226 – 241) and Robson (215-221),

Why do you think Action research is popular in organisations like schools?

Write down, in point form, the essential characteristics of Action research.

Feedback on Task 1

Action Research – research for CHANGE

Cyclical in nature – plan, apply, observe, evaluate / analyse / reflect, plan for further change etc.

Popular because relatively easy to do

Democratic, open, participatory

Good for developing reflective and analytical skills

“The essentially practical problem solving nature of Action research makes the approach attractive to practitioner-researchers who have identified a problem during the course of their work and see the merit of investigating it and, if possible, improving practice. There is nothing new about practitioners operating as researchers, and the ‘teacher as researcher’ model has been extensively discussed.” (Bartholomew 1971, Cope and Gray 1979, Raven and Parker 1981 as cited by Bell, 1999:9)

Section 2. Getting involved.

Cohen (2000:226) have suggested that action research is good for addressing changes in

Teaching methods – replacing a traditional method by a discovery method

Learning strategies – adopting an integrated approach to learning as opposed to a single subject approach

Evaluation procedures – improving methods of continuous assessment

Attitudes and values – encouraging more positive attitudes to work, or modifying pupils’ value systems with regard to some aspect of life

Continuous professional development of teachers – improving subject knowledge, skills, developing new methods of learning, increasing powers of analysis, heightening self-awareness

Management and control – gradual introduction on of the techniques of behaviour modification

Administration – increasing the efficiency of some aspect of the administrative side of school life.

Task 2

Get into groups of 4 and discuss the extent to which Action research could help to improve your own working environment.

Think of problem areas, and of ways in which these could be addressed.

What particular areas need change?

How would you go about setting up an action research project to make changes in this environment?

Who would have to be involved, and what steps would you take to ensure that everyone involved was ‘on board’?

Would your intervention be likely to produce the required result immediately? If not, why not?

What would you do to get closer to your goal?

What are some of the main limitations of the Action research method?

Task 3

Read Brown & McIntyre’s description of their attempt to make the learning of science more effective in Scottish schools.

To what extent do you think their approach fits the Action research model?

What problem were they attempting to address?

What changes were planned?

What were their first set of observations and reflections?

What second set of actions for change was planned?

What specific problems faced in this set of research?

Can you suggest ways that these might have been overcome?

Task 4

Read Qualter and Dean.

How does this activity qualify as action research?

How complicated is this as a piece of research?

What does this tell us about the action research paradigm?

Task 5

Read Weiler.

What classic action research processes are used in this description? Make a list.

How complicated was this piece of research?

Task 6

Read Denscombe, page 73 and make a note of the four defining characteristics of Action Research. Are these any different to what other authors have mentioned?

Cohen, Manion & Morrison

Seale & Barnard


Educational Action Research

Henning, Gravett & Van Rensburg