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What Is Action Research in Education? Research Based Practices

Updated on April 24, 2013

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Action Research in Education

Action research is a key buzzword in 21st century education, but what, exactly, is it?

If you do not understand action research, you are not alone. Though the concept has existed for over 70 years, it only became popular in the early 2000s after the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004. Both of these laws mandated the implementation of evidence-based classroom practices. Today, all teachers are supposed to conduct action research in their schools, and all education students are supposed to study and practice action research so they can enter the profession as 'highly-qualified teachers.'

Before understanding action research, you must understand traditional research methods and the research process. Only then can you fully grasp the unique, composite nature of action research. Both quantitative and qualitative research are used to study a wide variety of subjects, not just people. However, action research deals with people, so I have chosen to frame my discussion of all research in terms of human subjects. This does not mean that quantitative and qualitative methods are limited to research on humans.

Quantitative researchers believe the world can be observed objectively and quantified.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is probably what you imagine when you think of scientific research. Researchers formulate their hypothesis and then conduct an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Researchers generally set up an experiment with a control group and an experimental group. Both groups consist of a random sampling of individuals that, hopefully, are fairly representative of the population as a whole. By using a diverse group, the researchers hope to replicate the population at large so study findings can be generalized and applied to the general population. Quantitative researchers believe the world is objective and that data can be collected, quantified, and understood. Reality is fixed and measurable to a quantitative researcher.

For a quantitative experiment, researchers might randomly select 500 9th grade students from New York City schools to conduct an experiment on sleep deprivation and test performance. The researchers might hypothesize that students who slept less than six hours would not perform as well on the next day's test as students who slept eight hours or more. The 500 students would be selected randomly to represent the various ethnic groups, genders, and typical academic performance of students in the district. For the most accurate results, the researchers would need to isolate the variable. In other words, they would try to make the amount of sleep each student received The only thing different about their evenings. If they had the facilities, the researchers could contain all 500 students in a laboratory setting, feed them all the same supper, let them watch the same TV shows, etc. before ensuring half of them (the control group) went to sleep at least two hours before the other half (the experimental group). The next morning, all students would take a standardized test and the researchers could determine if the sleep deprived students did or did not, on average, score lower than the control group of students.

Qualitative researchers believe the world is too complex to be broken into chunks and processed. Instead, they try to observe the world holistically.

Qualitative Research and Inductivism

Qualitative research is basically quantitative research's inverse. Qualitative researchers believe the world is far too complex to be broken into chunks and understood. Instead of trying to isolate one variable and control it, qualitative researchers accept the world as a complex system and observe it as a whole. Qualitative researchers do not formulate a theory first. Instead, they purposefully choose specific subjects, observe the subjects in their natural environment, and then attempt to make observations and draw conclusions from the gathered data. For example, a qualitative researcher might observe a student with a behavioral problem to see if there are any particular events or triggers that make it more likely the child will have an outburst.

The action research process
The action research process | Source


Action Research

Action research can use both quantitative and qualitative methods, but it is more self-reflective than either. Action research is any research conducted systematically by practitioners to address an immediate problem. Action research can deal with instructional methods, social issues within the educational environment, colleague collaboration, the education of future educators, or other school practices. It can be conducted by any practitioners. In this context, a practitioner is anyone tied to the educational system, including teachers, counselors, coaches, administrators, librarians, and university researchers.

Action research is typically broken into three categories:

Collaborative action research involves multiple researchers. Students, teachers, administrators, and university researchers can work together to address a specific issue. For a great example of collaborative action research, visit the SafeMeasures Collaborative Action Research Program. This student-led project unites students and teachers to improve schools.

Classroom action research is conducted by teachers in their own classrooms. It helps teachers improve their practices and places emphases on collecting and interpreting data and observations from that classroom. Classroom action research can occur in collaboration with other classroom teachers, but it is frequently a solo research project. To see an example of classroom action research, visit the Madison Metropolitan School District classroom action research website.

Participatory action research is a social, collaborative type of action research. This form of action research attempts to affect real change. Instead of just addressing how to present a history lesson for better student retention, a participatory action research project might attempt to reduce high school drop out rates. Reducing drop outs is a major goal of a Chicago project called Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). This project is a collaboration between students and the community that hopes to improve the school climate by addressing drop outs, misplaced spending, and unnecessarily harsh disciplinary measures that neither improve school safety nor student performance.

When it comes to action research, the boundaries between types of action research, quantitative research, and qualitative research blur. The only hard and fast rule is that action research is undertaken by people with a stake in the educational system in order to improve it. Poorly-implemented, action research is just another throwaway buzzword. When used correctly, it is a way for teachers to regain control of the classroom and, hopefully, mitigate some of the top-down approach to education that has dominated recent years. Partnerships between truly reflective practitioners and self-effective students have the ability to change American education for the better.


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    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you, Angela Michelle.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      7 years ago from United States

      This will be very useful for mom's who homeschool, or even teachers that are trying to educate themselves. This is very useful, great job!

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! I am working on an action research project, myself, so I thought 'why not write a hub about it?' Thanks for stopping by!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      Coming from a marketing background, I love research within the educational arena. Your explanation of this method is excellent and really interesting. Thanks for the share and voted up.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      What amazes me is that many people insist on keeping quantitative, qualitative, and action research separate from each other. I don't personally see the need to push action research into a corner and label it.

      Thanks for stopping by and voting!

    • lilalollie profile image


      7 years ago from The Netherlands

      Interesting hub, I myself participate in action research with multiple researchers and beginning teachers.

      Voted up!


    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      I think action research can be a valuable tool, but sometimes it turns into a can't see the forest for the trees type enterprise with too many folks standing around talking about keywords and not doing stuff. But that's the way anything in life can be!

    • chrissieklinger profile image


      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      We did action research projects in PA for adult and family literacy and it was a lot of work, but we learned a lot from it, so in the end I think it was worthwhile!

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      And those are only three main categories! Some people argue there is a difference between personal, professional, and political action research, too! It's all kind of confusing and somewhat overwhelming.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Oh yes. Before action research is was 'reflective teachers.' But then they went and wrote action research into laws, so it's been buzzing about now for the better part of a decade. I agree, a good teacher doesn't need buzzwords, but society doesn't trust teachers to do their jobs and demands numbers and things to look at.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Oh my goodness! Reading this comprehensive description on the different types of 'action' research is both very interesting and totally informative (thank you) but makes me so sorry for the teachers. It adds so much more 'paper work' onto the teaching profession, no matter how cleverly worded the program of research. And with so much debate about which system is the most effective - oh it's so hard!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Yep, I learned about it, went to the classes about it, and then like most buzzwords, promptly forgot about it. This came during that period when there was seemingly a new buzzword and theory every six months and it was exhausting and didn't help me one iota. :) Give me a good teacher with common sense and toss all the buzzwords outta here!

      Good job of explaining this!


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