Action Research Skill Development in Education

What characterises the move from ‘evaluation’ to ‘research’ in a teaching and learning context? It is spirals of action in which educators add degrees of rigour and discernment to the evaluative process.

When this move is made by an individual or a group of educators, with students in their immediate care, this is Action Research. I define Action Research in education as:

‘The process when educator(s) directly responsible for students evaluate and improve initiatives that effect those students.’

This definition sets the parameters of Action Research (AR) as:

1) Intended improvement of learning of students in one’s care

2) Spirals of evaluated action

3) Each spiral must add rigour and discernment to the whoe process

Much Higher Education research, as well as an increasing proportion of Secondary and Primary Education research, falls into this categorisation of AR, however is frequently not reported as such. This is to a large extent because AR is disparaged for its more subjective orientation. However, not labelling research as AR doesn’t make it more rigorous. I suggest a more appropriate characterisation by those reporting research with students under their care as AR, while requiring communication of the ways they have added rigour and discernment to spirals of research, will provide teaching and learning communities with deeper and more fundamental understanding of educational initiatives.

One way of adding rigour is by having a clear conceptualisation of the processes within each cycle, so that one knows what to add rigour to. The Research Skill Development framework (RSD www.rsd.edu.au) delineates six facets of a cycle of research; these are represented below in a seemingly linear fashion, however the process is in reality more recursive and messier.

A. Embark and clarify: This includes elements such as

Identify educational problem

Clarify a new idea

Consider emerging education initiatives and select one

Re-embarking and re-clarifying is necessary throughout the research process

B. Find and generate:

Imagine a solution

Locate potential solutions from sources eg colleagues, literature

Subsequently generate will frequently involve generation of evaluative data, whether of personal reflections, student results, student perspectives or colleagues’ accounts.

Subsequent finding will relate to locating relevant literature, whether for improved solutions or comparisons to emerging findings.

c. Evaluate and reflect:

Determine pros and cons of potential solutions

Consider fit-to-context

Propose or find evaluation strategies

Subsequent evaluate will relate to the data, for example whether to include or exclude outlying data points. To reflect on the whole AR process is essential to be discerning, for example, about biases in your approach or limitations in the published literature.

d. organise and manage:

Determine how evaluative data will be organised during collection

Establish timelines, determine materials whether hard-copy or online and other resources.

Subsequent management may consider how students and other colleagues may be involved in the whole process. Often analysis of data will necessitate a reorganisation of data into more appropriate ways, as one example of the many ways that these are interdependent facets, not separate, linear steps.

e. Analyse and synthesise

Determine how evaluative data will be represented e.g. prose, frequencies, graphs, tables

First-time through synthesis: what is a more precise research question? Or project aim? If you clarify this, then every other facet will be able to be fine-tuned. However, clarification may well take place after one or more spirals.

Subsequent synthesis will probably concern pulling together the evaluative data. It will also involve further clarification of research question- providing the next point of embarking; this may be better informed by gaps in the literature that you were unaware of in the beginning. This is another example of interdependent facets, where synthesis frequently gives new or clarified points of embarking.

f. Communicate and apply in ethically, socially and culturally aware ways

Talk with students about ideas

Discuss with colleagues

Apply mini-versions of strategies with individual students/small groups

Consider ethical issues, social inclusion as well as facilitating team work rather than just requiring it, culturally diverse groups.

Do you need ethics approval if you want to publish this?

Subsequent communication may involve strategies for listening to critique and response to feedback, considering more deeply the intended audience for outputs as well as appropriate outlets (school/department/conference presentation; newsletter; report; peer reviewed paper) and their requirements. Often the ‘final’ product is a communicative document that incorporates all the above facets.

Just to reiterate, this is not a linear process, but rather recursive, often a little messy when we do not know what our action research will throw up! It may take many spirals and pilots before we have a more streamlined strategy. We do need, however to formulate over time strategies so there is a movement from ‘loose’ to ‘systematic’; as you work through these facets of the research process, you will need to make conscious effort to add degrees of rigour and discernment to make this genuinely action research. Action research can begin in sloppy, unconscious and/or haphazard ways- and that is a great thing- it is easy to begin, and then proceed in a more systematic way to improve our students’ learning. However, once the process becomes consciously Action Research, strategies to increase rigour and discernment include moving from:

  1. Imagined solutions to published solutions to well-evidenced published solutions.
  2. Strategies involving one student to whole class to multiple classes
  3. Strategies involving yourself to another educator to multiple educators
  4. Strategies that are for one lesson to multiple lessons to multiple term/semesters/years. (One consideration here is to report cycles of ‘educationally significant timeframes’. This varies from context to context: in a university course it may mean one full semester, in Academic Language and Learning it may mean one student encounter.)
  5. Evaluation that involves anecdotal/ reflective self to student perspectives and outcomes to colleagues perspective in peer review.
  6. Analysis that involves your perspective to a conceptual framework to multiple perspectives.
  7. Communication with students to peers to newsletter to peer reviewed publications
One further consideration is that the use of a framework in common, such as the RSD enables the individual reporting of Action Research to be more readily reviewed and synthesised, and so more likely to build a shared body of knowledge in a field of study. Please give your perspective of the relevance of this perspective of AR to your T&L context in the one-question poll below.

Author: johnwillison

Senior Leturer, Discipline of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Adelaide.

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