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Understanding Action Research
Margaret Riel
Last Edit April, 2024

Action research is not a single approach but rather represents a tension between a number of forces that lead to personal, professional, and social change. I think of action research as a process of deep inquiry into one's practices in service of moving towards an envisioned future aligned with values. Action research can be seen as a systematic, reflective study of one's actions and the effects of these actions in a workplace or organizational context. As such, it involves a deep inquiry into one's professional practice. However, it is also a collaborative process as it is done WITH people in a social context, and understanding the change means probing multiple understandings of complex social systems. And finally, as research, it implies a commitment to data sharing.

There is a range of modifiers that people use for action research and many different dimensions that can be highlighted in different ways to create what some have called a family of approaches to action research (Noffke and Somekh, 2009; McNiff, 2013; Rowell, Polush, Riel and Bruewer, 2015; Rowell, Riel & Polush, 2017, Action Research Tutorial 2). We use collaborative action research to highlight the different ways in which action research is a social process.

Action researchers examine their interactions and relationships in social settings seeking opportunities for improvement. As designers and stakeholders, they work with their colleagues to propose new courses of action that help their community improve work practices. As researchers, they seek evidence from multiple sources to help them analyze reactions to the action taken. They recognize their own view as subjective and seek to develop their understanding of the events from multiple perspectives. The action researcher uses data collected from interactions with others to characterize the forces in ways that can be shared with other practitioners. This leads to a reflective phase in which the action researchers formulate new plans for action during the next cycle.

Action research provides a path of learning from and through one's practice by working through a series of reflective stages that facilitate the development of progressive problem-solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Over time, action researchers develop a deep understanding of the ways in which a variety of social and environmental forces interact to create complex patterns. Since these forces are dynamic, action research is a process of living one's theory into practice (McNiff & Whitehead, 2010) or taking a living and learning stance towards teaching (Clive Beck, 2017). This diagram illustrates the process of action research through time.



















                                                              Figure 1: The iterative process of action research

The subject(s) of action research are the actions taken, the resulting change, and the transformation thinking, acting, and feeling by the persons enacting the change. While the design of action research may originate with an individual, the process of change is always social. Over time, the action researcher often extends the arena of change to a widening group of stakeholders. The goal is a deeper understanding of the factors of change that result in positive personal and professional change.

This form of research, then, is an iterative, cyclical process of reflecting on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action. Therefore, the research takes shape while it is being performed. Greater understanding from each cycle points to the way to improved practice (Riel and Rowell, 2016).

Action researchers differ in the weight that they put on different factors or dimensions of action research (for more discussion and examples, see Rowell, Riel and Polush, 2016). Each action researcher evolves his or her approach to doing action research as the conditions and support structures are unique. To understand how action research varies, I describe two points, A, and B, along six dimensions. When someone engages in action research, they (or others) make choices that place them at some point along the continuum for each dimension. Some will argue that side A, or B, or a perfect balance between them, is ideal, or even necessary, to call the process action research. Most will have very convincing arguments for why all action research should be done in the way they advocate. The dialogue is healthy and helps us each understand the value of the positions we take. By understanding the boundaries, we develop a deeper understanding of the process. (If you click on the continuum below, you can make your own choices and compare them with others. )

A. Practice- Emphasis on creating a transformative change in a social setting by taking purposeful action
B. Inquiry - Emphasis on rigorous methodology and methods for validating assumptions about what changed

A. Theory from Practice - Using practices to generate theories beginning with values, needs, and human interaction
B. Theory into Practice - Using social science findings to inform patterns of change

A. Inside Expertise- Action researchers are empowered to locate problems of practice and develop methods to improve them
B. Outside Expertise - Action researchers form partnerships with outside experts to guide the process

A. Individual Process - Action researchers select their own questions to investigate
B. Group Process - A group of action researchers select a common question or set of questions to investigate

A. Problem-Based Approach- Action Researchers locate problems and engage in progressive problem-solving in cycles
B. Inquiry-Based Approach - Action Researchers explore effective practices to better understand and perfect them through multiple cycles

A. Identity Change - The primary outcome of action research is changing the way the action researcher thinks, acts, and feels
B. Social Change -The primary outcomes of action research is the shift in the social context where people collectively change how they act, think and feel

A. Shared Practices - Action Researchers share what they have learned informally at their site
B. Shared Knowledge- Action Researchers share their findings in more formal contexts

Authors and professors, as well as practitioners, often have very strong views about what are the essential (and nonessential) characteristics of action research. The movement to one or the other side of each continuum represents shifts in the action research approach.

I like to think of action research as a disposition of mind as well as a research approach. It is a commitment to cycles of collective inquiry with shared reflections on the outcomes leading to new ideas. Action research forms a path towards a professional "adaptive" expertise. Hatona and Ingaki (1986) set out a contrast between efficiency expertise and adaptive expertise. I have added innovative expertise and created this chart.




                   Figure 2: The path to expertise




The yellow path can also be applied to the activist who is singled minded without researching the outcomes and consequences of action, The blue panel might be the path of researchers who do not apply their theories to change contexts. The green combines inquiry and activism to engage in action research. When you balance these two different learning approaches, you follow the green path of action research, leading to adaptive expertise and the acquisition of a deeper understanding of yourself and others.


Goals of Action Research include:
  • The improvement of professional practice through continual learning and progressive problem-solving;

  • A deep understanding of practice and the development of a well-specified theory of action;

  • An improvement in the community in which one's practice is embedded through participatory research.

Action research involves a systematic process of examining the evidence. The results of this type of research are practical, relevant, and can inform theory. Action research is different from other forms of research as there is less concern for the universality of findings, and more value is placed on the relevance of the findings to the researcher and the local collaborators. Critical reflection is at the heart of action research. When this reflection is based on careful examination of evidence from multiple perspectives, it can provide an effective strategy for improving the organization's ways of working and the whole organizational climate. It can be the process through which an organization learns.

We conceptualize action research as having three outcomes—

               1)  Professional Transformation

               2)  Organizational Theory of Change

               3)  Scholarly Identity through Sharing Research

                              Figure 3: Outcomes of Action Research  (from Riel and Lepori, 2011)


1)  Professional Transformation

At the personal level, it is a systematic set of methods for interpreting and evaluating one’s actions with the goal of improving practice. Action research is often located in schools and done by teachers, but it can also be carried out in museums, medical organizations, corporations, churches, and clubs—any setting where people are engaged in collective, goal-directed activity. Equally important, not all teacher research is action research. Teachers can do ethnographic, evaluative, or experimental research that is NOT action research. The process of doing action research involves progressive problem solving, balancing efficiency with innovation thereby developing what has been called an “adaptive” form of expertise.

 2)  Organizational Theory of Change

At the organizational level, action research is about understanding the system of interactions that define a social context. Kurt Lewin proposed action research as a method of understanding social systems or organizational learning. He claimed that the best way to test understanding was to try to effect change. Action research goes beyond self-study because actions, outcomes, goals, and assumptions are located in complex social systems. The action researcher begins with a theory of action focused on the intentional introduction of change into a social system with assumptions about the outcomes. This theory testing requires careful attention to data, and skill in interpretation and analysis. Activity theory, social network theory, system theories, and tools of evaluation such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups can help the action researcher acquire a deep understanding of change in social contexts within organizations.


                                    Figure 4. Activity Theory Model based on the work of Engeström (2004)

It is often said that action research is done with, not on, people.  This raises the question about the roles of the other people who are part of the research process?  In some cases, there will be a team of action researchers working together.  They might be studying the same action or similar actions.  For example, in one form of action research called lesson study, a teacher team collectively designs a change in the form of a lesson. All teachers study each teacher's implementation of the change--that is teach the lesson. Together evolve the lesson.  In another example, community-based action research, there are teams of people who are implementing and studying the change, but they might all have slightly different roles.  Some of them might be engaged in action research, and others might be doing something that might better be called active learning.  I adapted this figure from Mattias Elg & Per-Erik Ellström (2012) to illustrate the overlapping cycles of participants and action researcher(s).  While the action researcher(s) might take the lead in the analysis of the evidence of change, everyone is fully engaged in the process of moving from problem to action to reflection on outcomes to evolve a theory of change to guide future actions. 


3)  Scholarly Identity through Sharing Research



At the scholarly level, the action researcher produces validated findings and assumes a responsibility to share these findings with those in their setting and with the larger research community. Many people acquire expertise in their workplace, but researchers value the process of building knowledge through ongoing dialogue about the nature of their findings. Engaging in this dialogue through writing or presenting at conferences is part of the process of action research.

Action Research and Learning Circles

            Figure 5: Learning Circle Model

Developing Action Research Questions: A Guide to Progressive Inquiry

The questions asked by action researchers guide their process. A good question will inspire one to look closely and collect evidence that will help find possible answers. What are good examples of action research questions? What are questions that are less likely to promote the process of deep sustained inquiry? The best question is the one that will inspire the researcher to look at their practice deeply and to engage in cycles of continuous learning from the everyday practice of their craft. These questions come from a desire to have practice align with values and beliefs. Exploring these questions helps the researcher to be progressively more effective in attaining their personal goals and developing professional expertise.

Good questions often arise from visions of improved practice and emerging theories about the change that will move the researcher closer to the ideal state of working practices. When stated in an if/then format, they can take the shape of a research hypothesis. If I [insert the action to be taken], how will it affect [describe one or more possible consequences of the action]? We will look at two examples, one from education and one from a business setting.

Development of Action Research Questions in an Educational Context

Suppose the researcher is worried about designing the learning context to meet the needs of students who are currently not doing well in the classroom. The general inquiry question might be:

How can I personalize instruction to match the diverse needs of my students?

This forms a good overall goal which can then lead to a number of possible cycles of action research, each with a separate question. A good cycle research question has two parts: the first part describes the action to be studied, and the second part focuses on the outcome that is anticipated.

Consider this question:

If I listen to students, will I have a better understanding of them?

This question suggests action and a possible outcome but is vague in both the description of the action and the possible outcome. It is not clear what is going to be done to increase attention to students and what evidence will help evaluate the action.

Now consider:

If I set up community circle time to listen to students, describe their learning experiences in my classroom (description of the action), in what ways, if any, will the information about their learning processes lead to changes in my teaching practices (description of the outcome that will be studied)?

Now it is clear what the researcher intends to do and what a possible outcome might be. In listening to students, the researcher might discover information that will lead directly to an experiment in instructional design or might refocus the overall goal to one that was not apparent when the researcher began the inquiry.

Development of Action Research Questions in a Corporate Context

The following is another example from a business setting where people in diverse offices are working in ways that would benefit from greater coordination.

The action researcher might identify the problem as one in which poor communication results in decisions being made without attending to the issue of how a decision affects the larger system. The researcher might see a role for technology in forging a solution to this problem, such as creating a database for storing and sharing documents. The overall research question might be:

How can the development of a common location for shared knowledge and the use of interactive communication tools increase the collaborative effectiveness of team-based decision-making in our different regions?


The next step is to define the communication tool to be used and how the researcher plans to measure the collaborative effectiveness of the distant teams.

Cycle questions that might evolve should be specific with respect to the actions taken and the outcomes that will be monitored:

If I create a wiki to share documents and increase coordination, to what extent will the teams use this means of storing information to coordinate their decision-making?

A second cycle question that might follow when it is clear that other teams failed to use the wiki as effectively as the researcher had hoped:

How will making all-day support available on instant messenger for questions about the use of the wiki affect the use of the wiki to organize group work?

Recognizing Weak Action Research Questions
  • Questions with known answers where the goal is to "prove" it to others. For example, suppose a person has been holding family math night for years and sees an effect on parent participation. A weak question for action research would be: Will holding a family math night increase parent participation? This might be a useful evaluative research question where a controlled study could be set up to explore the connection. However, evaluative research is different from action research. Action research is an experiment in design and involves implementing an action to study its consequences.

  • Questions that can be answered yes or no. Generally, these are questions that will not encourage paying attention to the many nuances of the setting and social interactions. Although, like any guide, while some yes/no questions can provide direction, thinking about ways to transform the question into a different format is often helpful. For example, Will the introduction of project-based learning lead to more student engagement? The question might be reworked to, How will the introduction of project-based learning affect student engagement in my classroom? The first one, the researcher can answer the question with yes (an outcome that they might have expected). The second question guides them to look for the possible mechanism of project-based learning (maybe ownership, collaboration, or self-assessment) that has been found to be related to increased engagement.

  • Questions that can be answered by reading the literature. What does "a community of practice" mean? This might be a question that the researcher needs to answer, and can do so by reading more readily than by engaging in action research. A better formulation for action research might be: How will increasing the time for teacher collaboration in grade-level teams affect the development of a community of practice at our school?

Sharing your Action Research with Others:

One of the strongest acts of leadership can be writing—sharing knowledge and insights gained. Writing enables a contribution to the body of knowledge beyond the researcher. The final report serves the purpose of sharing the knowledge gained through action research with others in a community of practice. Action researchers will need to decide what to write and to whom to write.

A Written Report

The following is the recommended template for the Master of Arts in Learning Technologies thesis for Pepperdine students. However, an action research report may be organized in multiple ways.



The significance of the problem you are addressing. The reader needs to be invited to think about the problem at the widest level. This should answer the question—Why should I read this; why should I care about this study? This is not about the context but about the problem and how it is linked to your vision for a different future.



Once you have posed a problem at a general level, you will need to provide the context of your work. There are two parts to this. One is the local context (this section,) and the other is the professional context (literature review). These can come in whatever order makes sense to you. In your local context, you may want to describe your membership/position in your community of practice, as well as how you have previously tried to address the problem described.

LITERATURE REVIEW (research context )—
The literature is another way to set the context for your work. What previous work informs your understanding of the problem? What theories or predictions about outcomes come from past studies? How is what you plan to do similar or different from what others have tried?


The research question sets up your inquiry. The overall question is the overarching problem selected. The cycle questions are sub-questions that helped address this larger issue in different ways.

Action research takes place in cycles. Each cycle is a discrete experiment, taking action to study change. Your report needs to include a detailed report for each cycle as follows or a report of the cycles in a more summary format.

DESCRIPTION OF CYCLE ACTION: Description of what was planned and why this is an effective change. Might include some guesses about what will happen.

CYCLE RESEARCH QUESTION: A strong question describes the action and expected reactions. The first part of the question clearly states what you will do in very specific language. The second part shares your best guess at an outcome. (The reactions of others that you expect to result from your action.) Your action research is a design experiment. You are designing with an eye toward a deeper understanding of change.

DESCRIPTION OF WHAT HAPPENED: Brief description of what took place.

EVIDENCE USED TO EVALUATE THE ACTION: What evidence did you collect to tell you how others respond to your action? Where did you look for direct or indirect evidence of what happened?

EVALUATION: How will you/did you evaluate the outcomes of your action?..... (Indicate your plans for your analysis in a paragraph or two).

REFLECTION: Looking back on your action after collecting data, what thoughts come to mind? If you were to repeat the process, what would you change? What worked best for you? What most surprised you?


This is where you will take stock of your overall learning process during your action research. It might be helpful to think of a reflection as a set of connections between the past, present, and future. If this section is only a summary of events that happened, it is inadequate as a reflection. A reflection provides a deep understanding of why events occurred as they did, and how those outcomes helped you address your overarching question. At the conclusion of a good reflection, you should ideally know more than you did when you began. If you have not gained new insights about the problem and your problem-solving action, it is likely that you are only summarizing. Reflection is a powerful learning experience and an essential part of action research.


The references provide the context for your ideas. In many ways, the references indicate the community of researchers and writers that you are writing for. (See the CCAR Tutorials for detailed suggestions for each of these phases of action research.)

Publishing a Web Portfolio:

An important part of the action research process is sharing artifacts of the inquiry to enable the action researcher to continually reflect on practice so that peers may contribute to feedback and support. The Web Portfolio, then, becomes a place for both internal and external reflection.

A good action research portfolio, like a report, documents practices at each step of the inquiry. The accumulation of content provides critical mass for reflection and for recognizing the change of practice. There is no perfect template for an action research portfolio. One key idea, however, is to document each cycle and gather artifacts accordingly. That documentation process should utilize both descriptive and reflective writing.

The Center for Collaborative Action Research has collected action research portfolios that serve as effective models. The model portfolios are categorized into five groups: 


In general, your web portfolio might include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • An overview of your problem at a general level and why you (and others) see this as an important challenge and some hints about what you did to solve it- this opening page should be engaging with photos, graphics, and possibly a video or audio intro from you

  • A description of the problem that you are researching with an action to be taken

  • A detailed description of the field of action (the action context)

  • A review of literature as part of a planning process (the research context)

  • The action research question(s)

  • The action research process is described briefly

  • Cycle Reports that document the activity across multiple efforts of change including

    • data collected

    • details of the analysis process

    • cycle reflections

  • Your final reflection considers what was learned across all of the cycles about yourself, your actions, your context, and the process.

  • References 

  • Collection of any artifacts, images, and videos, or research blogs that you wish to include

  • Professional bio

This overview was designed to provide a quick answer to the question What is action research?  Perhaps a more important question to ask is Why do action research?  There are lots of answers to this question that focus on the development of expertise, issues of social justice, and mobilization of native knowledge. I think that at the fundamental level, I would say that as humans, we are problem solvers. That is what gives us joy. Learning through ongoing problem-solving makes work a source of collaborative discovery. This inquiry and discovery can result in a very productive and successful career path, but in the end, it is its own reward. 

Beck, C., (2017) Informal action research: The nature and contributions of everyday classroom inquiry. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave,ISBN 978-1-137-40523-4 (ebook) p37-48.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Engeström, Y. (2004). "New forms of learning in co-configuration work", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 16 Iss: 1/2, pp.11 - 21

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262-272). New York: Freeman.

McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research: Principals and Practice (Third Edition). New York: Routledge.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2010) You and your action research project. (3rd Edition). Abingdon: Routledge.

Riel, M. & Lepori, K. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of the Outcomes of Action Research. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association conference, April 2011, New Orleans.

Riel, M. & Rowell, L. (2017). Action research and the development of expertise: Rethinking teacher education. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave, ISBN 978-1-137-40523-4 (ebook) 667-687.

Rowell, L. Polush, E. Riel, M, & Bruewer, A. (2015) Action researchers’ perspectives about the distinguishing characteristics of action research: a Delphi and learning circles mixed-methods study. Access online at

Rowell, L., Riel, M., Polush, E. (2017). Defining action research: Situating diverse practices within varying frames of inquiry, science, and action. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave: ISBN 978-1-137-40523-4 (ebook), 85-102.


Visit the CCAR Tutorials for more information and activities on how to be an action researcher. They are provided free of charge and can be used in courses or by individuals learning on their own. There is also a Facebook group for any questions while doing the tutorial activities. 

Center for Collaborative Action Research | 
© Created 2006 Edited 2024

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Action research is conducted in the workplace with others. It is a collaborative process. But, also, the doing of action research is more effective when action researchers can benefit from the help of a community of action researchers. The Center for Collaborative Action Research is part of a process of developing the community of action researchers for each cadre. In our program, action researchers carry out their work in learning circles—a structure for organizing group interaction. Combining this collaborative structure with the action research process is an effective way to provide high levels of support for action researchers as they design their action and engage in the process of studying the outcomes.

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