Defining Action Research

In action research, as with all research, the first step is to determine what is to be investigated. Your focus should be on your own practice, involve something within your locus of control, be about something you feel passionate about, and provide answers to something you would like to change or improve.


We discuss problem areas in five categories applicable in educational contexts. These include both classroom-based problems and problems beyond the classroom.

First are problems arising from a desire to improve student learning. Questions asked by the researcher could revolve around perceived needs, such as improving the physical classroom environment for learning, improving the interpersonal interactions among students, or developing students’ capacity to reflect. Questions might focus on helping an individual child or group of children or on understanding the teaching and learning context. For example, how might I best organize my first-grade classroom to promote the use of reading materials?

Second are problems arising from a desire to improve curriculum. Questions asked by the researcher could arise from such things as how to integrate subjects, how to best construct the curriculum, or how to embed technology use in the curriculum. Questions might focus on enriching the curricula or on developing content knowledge. For example, how can Excel (a popular computer program) be used to teach mathematics concepts?

Third, problems might arise from a desire to adapt instructional or assessment strategies. Questions might deal with fostering active learning, guiding student self-evaluation, or implementing a specific instructional approach. The researcher might want to experiment with new teaching strategies or techniques. For example, if I use the triarchic model of teaching—focused on analytic, creative, and practical thinking—will students’ problem-solving abilities improve?

Fourth are problems arising out of a desire for one’s own professional development or to search for connections and meaning in one’s work. Questions might deal with analyzing one’s own beliefs or personal style of teaching or gaining understanding about who or what influenced you in the development of your practice. The researcher may feel a desire to explore the relationship between beliefs and classroom practices or to examine the intersection of personal and professional identities. For example, what is my primary curriculum ideology and how is my instructional practice informed by it?

Fifth are problems arising from issues in the larger school or community context. Questions might deal with schoolwide program development, implementation, or evaluation; ways to engage families and community members in the school; or approaches to resolving tensions between groups in the school or community that impact the functioning of the school.

These five areas in which problems or focus areas may be identified in education are not necessarily discrete. They may intersect and overlap in many ways. In the classroom context, action research may be focused on the student, the teacher, the curriculum, the instructional practices, or the intersections of these areas.


A problem indicates a discrepancy between what is and what you would like it to be. So how do you identify the specific problem in your context? Several strategies have been recommended


Reflection is one strategy for identifying problems. Think about your own setting and consider what is working well and what might need improvement. Think about what intrigues you about your teaching? What would you like to know more about? What values do you hold? What are your understandings of theories that impact practice? How did you arrive at your beliefs about teaching? Some recommend keeping a daily reflective journal to see if trends emerge. Others recommend conducting a reflective interview in which teachers talk through their concerns with one another. These reflective dialogues can be conducted face to face or using technology. “What if” questions may be asked as part of the reflection process and may help elicit images of what could be. For example, what if I begin teaching the English-speaking children in my first-grade class some basic Spanish words? Would that reduce the anxiety I sense in my English language learners?

Reflective journals can be kept in notebooks, diaries, or electronic form. Hendricks (2009) suggests several reflective journaling techniques that can assist in the reflection process:

Write information or jot notes as soon as you can to help jog your memory later. Even writing a word or two can help you remember important thoughts or concerns later.

Set aside time each day to write and review and to expand the detail.

Use prompts to jumpstart your writing.

Include information about the context.

Document actions you might consider taking or outcomes you might like to see

Review the journal regularly to help you see themes or patterns.

Use technology in collaborative reflection activities (audio, video, e-mail, listservs, and chat rooms) so that there is a record that can be retrieved and reviewed.


Description is another strategy for determining and focusing on the problem to be investigated. Insights can be gained by describing the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a situation. These descriptions come from observations. Begin by describing the situation you wish to change or improve, describing the evidence you have that there is a problem, and describing critical factors you believe affect the situation. Other options include listing incidents or intriguing observations you have had; describing experiences; examining textbooks, curriculum documents, and lesson plans; examining demographics of students and perhaps recording observations about one subset of students; and comparing your own instructional delivery with best teaching practices advocated by leading national organizations. For example, you might keep a journal for 1 week about the interactions you observe between English-speaking children and English language learners in your class, describing the type of interactions that occur such as asking for assistance, who is engaged in the interactions (Joe and Danilo), when and where the interactions occur (during free reading time in the language center at the computer station), and your interpretation of the situation. (Danilo appears frustrated as Joe does not understand his questions about how to start the computer program.) Mertler (2009, p. 50) uses description as a way to limit the focus of study. For example, he asks

• What evidence exists that what you perceive as a problem really is a problem?

• Who are the students or groups affected by the problem?

• How or how often is the material, concept, or skill currently taught?

• How is mastery of the material, concept, or skill currently assessed?

• Where is the material tight in the scope and sequence of the course?

• When during the year is the material taught?


Explanation is a third strategy for trying to determine a specific problem for investigation. This strategy involves hypothesizing about how and why critical factors affect a situation. Sagor (2000) suggests using a technique called the “ priority pie” as a mechanism to help identify variables you believe are most relevant to an issue and to help clarify personal beliefs about the relative importance of those variables. Drawing a pictorial representation or graphic representation helps to illustrate the relationships between the variables. Once a pictorial representation is developed, ask two questions: Is this relationship meaningful? and Are you uncertain about it? If the relationship is not meaningful or you are already certain, do not waste your time investigating it. For example, Mr. Rodriguez might think that several things contribute to poor student engagement in his social studies class. He may believe that some of these factors are a greater problem than others, and he could assign percentages to determine the ones on which he really wants to focus. He might identify the following: previous failure in social studies (10 percent), no support from home (5 percent), poor reading ability (15 percent), peer pressure/culture (30 percent), intrinsic interest (15 percent), extrinsic rewards (5 percent), and few opportunities to engage in active learning (20 percent). These could be represented in an illustration (Figure 18.2).

Literature Review

Conducting a limited literature review can also help in developing your explanation and clarifying the research question. Reviewing the literature helps in assessing what, if anything, other researchers have found out about the topic and what theoretical perspectives relate to the topic, as well as providing promising practices. Most people gather information from relevant sources, for example, before making a major family purchase such as a home. In action research, this review is generally more limited than that considered appropriate for more formal studies.

There are a variety of sources of literature that might be reviewed in preliminary phases of action research or later in the process as the work evolves. (See Chapter 4.) Primary sources are direct reports of original research. Secondary sources summarize primary materials. Professional literature provides perspectives from experienced professionals. Practice literature advocates particular approaches to practice. Institutional reports are done by government or other agencies. Informal reports may come from a variety of institutions (school district, clubs, committees, etc.). Media materials may also provide background information (videos, televised documentaries, and websites). In reviewing a source of literature, Hendricks (2009) recommends considering its relevance (Does it provide information that can help inform my study?), credibility (Do the conclusions appear to be supported by the data?), and similarity (Is there similarity with my setting or my participants?).


Johnson (2008) advises that if all else fails, simply brainstorm by drawing a line down the center of a blank sheet of paper and listing on the left side any topics of interest that come to mind. Then talk to others about some of these ideas and continue to develop the list. Once you have the topic list, on the right side begin to list specific questions for each topic.


As a first step in action research, the researcher must determine the focus or problem and may also at this stage identify a specific research question. A research quest ion can help identify the variables under consideration and determine the type of data that will need to be collected. Often, the problem or focus that the researcher identifies can lead to several different research questions. For example, Principal Talbot was concerned that so few Hispanic/Latino parents attended school functions. One research question might be, “What are the factors that Hispanic/Latino parents indicate prevent them from attending school functions?” A different research question related to the same problem might be “Does sending Spanish-translated invitations directly to the home (rather than the typically English notes sent home with the students) result in an increase in Hispanic/Latino parent attendance at school functions?” In action research, the research “questions” are not always worded as actual questions.

As you develop specific research questions, you should consider several factors as suggested by Hendricks (2009): Are there potential political or personal pitfalls that could be associated with my investigation of this question? Am I interested in something specific (a particular intervention) or more general? Who will be involved in developing the research questions; just me or will others be included? Am I asking insider questions or outsider questions? Although most believe only insider questions should be asked in action research, there are some questions driven by external factors (e.g., state or federal government) that could be considered. Finally, you should ask questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no” answers, that can be answered with data, and that can be answered within your limitations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *