In schools, action research refers to a wide variety of evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses—whether organizational, academic, or instructional—and help educators develop practical solutions to address them quickly and efficiently. Action research may also be applied to programs or educational techniques that are not necessarily experiencing any problems, but that educators simply want to learn more about and improve. The general goal is to create a simple, practical, repeatable process of iterative learning, evaluation, and improvement that leads to increasingly better results for schools, teachers, or programs.
Action research may also be called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry, since it typically follows a predefined process that is repeated over time. A simple illustrative example:
- Identify a problem to be studied
- Collect data on the problem
- Organize, analyze, and interpret the data
- Develop a plan to address the problem
- Implement the plan
- Evaluate the results of the actions taken
- Identify a new problem
- Repeat the process
Unlike more formal research studies, such as those conducted by universities and published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, action research is typically conducted by the educators working in the district or school being studied—the participants—rather than by independent, impartial observers from outside organizations. Less formal, prescriptive, or theory-driven research methods are typically used when conducting action research, since the goal is to address practical problems in a specific school or classroom, rather than produce independently validated and reproducible findings that others, outside of the context being studied, can use to guide their future actions or inform the design of their academic programs. That said, while action research is typically focused on solving a specific problem (high rates of student absenteeism, for example) or answer a specific question (Why are so many of our ninth graders failing math?), action research can also make meaningful contributions to the larger body of knowledge and understanding in the field of education, particularly within a relatively closed system such as school, district, or network of connected organizations.
The term “action research” was coined in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, a German-American social psychologist who is widely considered to be the founder of his field. The basic principles of action research that were described by Lewin are still in use to this day.
Educators typically conduct action research as an extension of a particular school-improvement plan, project, or goal—i.e., action research is nearly always a school-reform strategy. The object of action research could be almost anything related to educational performance or improvement, from the effectiveness of certain teaching strategies and lesson designs to the influence that family background has on student performance to the results achieved by a particular academic support strategy or learning program—to list just a small sampling.