Action Research in Education

Holly Elmore
Holly Elmore
Elementary School Principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
A man holding an open binder talking to a woman.

What is Action Research?

Professional learning through practice is the simplest way to define action research. Often used in the educational setting, practitioners use investigation and analysis to solve practical problems that intersect student achievement, professional practice, and non-cognitive barriers, evaluating solutions in real time when researching through action. Traditional research is founded in theory and ideal scenarios rarely experienced in conventional classrooms.

While the significance of informational research remains, a more practical methodology for educators includes the implementation of practices within your own classroom, determining the effectiveness of intentionally identified strategies, operating within your own boundaries, daily barriers intact. Action Research removes the ideation of “this could never happen in my classroom with these students.”  This approach to research gives educators the permission to fail forward through trial and adjustment — no errors, just shifts to best meet the needs of hungry students.

Types of Action Research

Action research is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on who is doing the work determines the type of research.

  • Individual action research
  • Team action research
  • Schoolwide action research

Individual Action Research

As a teacher, there are times when you run across a strategy or feel like you need to try something different for a student because nothing is working. In individual teacher research, only a single teacher within her own classroom is involved. Educational practitioners are in a unique situation because our “clients” are different from every other profession due to age and stages of development; however, we are striving for every student to reach a certain performance level. The task can be maddening, so we find ourselves intricately studying the solutions that have evidence solidifying their success for populations that are similar to those we are facing. Since every child and classroom is varied, teachers will employ new tactics and study their effectiveness.

Individual Action Research in Practice

My second-grade students enter my classroom after break, and I can tell that we are not responsive to the behavioral expectations like before. Like all teachers do, I was reading about a new approach to behavior management on my time off and I found that Class Dojo motivates students to make the right choices through positive rewards. When my students come back, I set up the system for my students. We talk about how they will be able to shop in the Class Dojo store with the points they earn. Then the implementation begins. All of a sudden, John is not slamming his locker door, there are no loud voices in the hallway, transitions are a blip in the wind, and reading logs are being submitted on time because everyone wants to earn the dojo points. I have found a strategy that works for my students. This information satisfies my need as a teacher and my students are successful due to having a well-managed learning environment.

Team Action Research

There are times when a teacher needs more than just herself. She and a partner or another paraprofessional may take on a problem that she is experiencing in her classroom. Like in the individual action research, this still affects the school at a classroom level; however, there may be multiple educators involved. External agencies may be involved and serve as experts in certain areas of implementation. As the research team analyzes results, there are usually opportunities for them to share their learning beyond the local agency.

Team Action Research in Practice

I am a teacher who has a student with autism in my classroom for the first time. My expertise only extends so far. I know very little about individualized scheduling, conditional charts, and highly structured classroom behaviors, but that is necessary for this student to be successful. Consequently, I reach out to a special education teacher, a behavior therapist, an autism specialist, or a local pediatrician to find out ways to support this student’s learning in my classroom. In doing so, I try different approaches to see what works. Once I have been successful, I will have opportunities to share what I have learned with others. It may be that I just share with his teacher in the upcoming year or I might present to my colleagues on strategies that have proven to be successful for students with autism in my practice. 

Schoolwide Action Research

Systemic challenges sometimes need to be addressed within a school or district. A way to do that is through schoolwide action research. This type of action research is used within a school system and the entire team is working together towards a solution to an underlying issue. Have you ever been part of a district-wide book study or researched a specific method as a whole group? This could be a result of schoolwide action research if a team of administrators, teachers, and freestanding professionals are working together to implement new practices across the system.

Schoolwide Action Research in Practice

From our test scores, we feel there is a curriculum and instruction issue. The district has determined the best way to address our concerns is to have each SBDM council establish their problem of practice they will address. The council analyzes the school’s data, identifies the problem, researches possible solutions, creates a theory of action, develops a timeline of implementation, and collects and analyzes data. The final result will need to be a guaranteed, viable curriculum aligned to the standards.

My school decides that our assessments are not aligned to the standards. Teachers then begin studying assessment questions, how to best assess students, and standard alignment. Through the work teachers do, we develop a set of common assessments that all teachers in a specific grade level will share. Student performance on each of these common assessments will be analyzed in Professional Learning Communities, and we build a cycle of collaboration and reflection around curriculum and instruction. At the end, we report to the school board on the results of our work. The district determines who was effective and how to replicate that model in all schools. 

Action Research as a Process

In any decent science course, you learned the scientific method. Action Research is a specialized format to fit the needs of educators.  Here are the steps:

  • Identify the problem.
  • Research possible solutions.
  • Develop a plan.
  • Implement the plan and collect data.
  • Adjust the plan as needed.
  • Share your results.

The most effective practitioners are constantly employing action research through professional learning communities. Best practice for educators is to research strategies and plan for implementation, then evaluate the impact. Make action research a part of your practice as an educator and you will never go stagnant.

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