Action Research in Teaching and Learning

Action Research is an iterative or cyclical process of inquiry, change and evaluation that aims at incremental improvement to the object or activity it is applied to. It involves both formal and informal evaluations or judgements that lead to choices made in the process of improving the object of inquiry. Problem solving, collaboration, feedback, and reflective practice are essential components to the Action Research cycle.

This probably sounds familiar. "Don't I already do that?" you might ask. And, well, yes. Action Research is the systematic application of a suite of skills and practices that we already engage with on a daily basis, albeit in discontinuous ways.

Action Research, as a method, is common in the social sciences, health sciences, education, and--of particular importance here--it is a research method used in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and Higher Education Research.

Even if you don't intend on publishing research related to your academic teaching, Action Research as a method is considered good practice for quality enhancement of teaching and learning in higher education, and provides a framework for gathering evidence of innovation and impact for your teaching practice.

Action Research can be represented in diagram form in a variety of ways. Below is a simple representation that focuses on the "actions" at different points of the cycle.

Action Research Diagram

Action Research Diagram

But where do I start?

The diagram above is a bit of an oversimplification, but its emphasis on the actions involved is illustrative.

To break this down into simple steps, you might consider the following:

  1. Identify a problem or issue you want to focus on;
  2. Consider what interventions are appropriate;
  3. Plan your intervention;
  4. Implement your intervention;
  5. Observe your intervention;
  6. Evaluate your intervention;
  7. Reflect on your intervention;
  8. Share the outcomes of your intervention.

Your Action Research approach might focus on the impact of certain classroom activities, levels of student engagement, or the effects of changes to your asynchronous learning environment. It might also involve embedding pedagogical approaches into your teaching and learning--social constructivism, partnership pedagogy or community of inquiry pedagogies, for instance--and evaluating the impact of those changes.

If you are interested to learn more about implementing an Action Research approach or just want further context, have a look at the following book chapters:

Links to the library holdings for the above book chapters can be found in the reading list below.

If you are interested in exploring research opportunities, please visit the How to Research your Teaching(opens in a new window) web page. This page has links to a number of "umbrella ethics applications" available via Learning Futures. You might also wish to visit Getting Started with Data in Teaching and Learning (opens in a new window) for additional ideas on how to use some of your Subject data!

You should also reach out to your Associate Dean, Learning and Teaching, to ask about what support there is for SoTL research in your School.

Reading List

Efron, S. E., & Ravid, R. (2019). Action research in education, second edition : A practical guide. Guilford Publications. Proquest Ebook Central(opens in a new window)
Gibbs, et al. (2017). Literature review on the use of action research in higher education. Educational Action Research, 25(1), 3–22. Taylor & Francis Online(opens in a new window)
Harvey, & Jones, S. (2021). Enabling leadership capacity for higher education scholarship in learning and teaching (SOTL) through action research. Educational Action Research, 29(2), 173–190. Taylor & Francis Online(opens in a new window)
Kember, Douglas, T., Muir, T., & Salter, S. (2019). Umbrella action research projects as a mechanism for learning and teaching quality enhancement. Higher Education Research and Development, 38(6), 1285–1298. Taylor & Francis Online(opens in a new window)
Levin, M., & Greenwood, D. J. (2016). Creating a new public university and reviving democracy : Action research in higher education. Berghahn Books, Incorporated. Proquest Ebook Central(opens in a new window)
Niemi. (2019). Five approaches to pedagogical action research. Educational Action Research, 27(5), 651–666. Taylor & Francis Online(opens in a new window)
Norton, L. (2018). Action research in teaching and learning : A practical guide to conducting pedagogical research in universities. Taylor & Francis Group. Proquest Ebook Central(opens in a new window)
Rowell, L. L., Bruce, C. D., Shosh, J. M., & Riel, M. M. (Eds.). (2016). The palgrave international handbook of action research. Palgrave Macmillan US. Proquest Ebook Central(opens in a new window)
Simmons, McDermott, M., Eaton, S. E., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2021). Reflection as pedagogy in action research. Educational Action Research, 29(2), 245–258. Taylor & Francis Online(opens in a new window)