Writing up your action research

I’ve been doing a lot of reviewing of action research project reports recently, and it strikes me that there is so much action research work taking place across the Higher Education sector, particularly in learning and teaching related postgraduate certificates, yet much of this work is not shared. Lessons learned by practitioners in one institution can often resonate and inspire others. We should be sharing this work in a way that is digestible and accessible.

This work also reminded me of some of the common difficulties for presenting action research. I’ve pulled together 8 tips for anyone considering how to present their work: 

1. Write in the first person. Don’t use third person to make the research appear to be separate from your own practice, because it shouldn’t be. Ultimately action research is about you and your practice, so don’t shy away from this. This is not a weakness. When your research is placed in the context of other research and literature, your own position is framed and can still be scrutinised.

2. Be clear what practice based problem you are trying to solve. This will provide a thread to help structure your research story. If the problem is not well defined, it is likely that the account that follows will also be fuzzy. Having a clear statement of the problem can provide an anchor for the research which can focus the literature, guide methodological choices, and frame the conclusion.

3. Set out why the issue being researched actually matters. Why does it matter to you, to colleagues, to students, and to the wider sector. Being clear why your research matters evokes interest amongst stake holders, after all if it doesn’t matter to you, why would others be interested?

4. Know the difference between action research and thoughtful action. Action research must use research methods (though any are permitted) and must involve the collection of data. Having an idea about improving your practice, making that improvement and then making general observations about its success doesn’t constitute data. Data should seek more than a simple endorsement to a change in practice, it should dig deeper.

5. Action research is a cyclical process by definition. Define your cycles. Every piece of action research should be a part, full or multiple cycle story. Often the clarity of the cycles gets lost amongst findings and reflections. Take time out during the research process and the research write up (or presentation process) to articulate the cycle(s) and steps in your particular research. I encourage my students to draw the research as a cycle. This ensures the research remains true to the approach and it can help the researcher manage the messiness of action research by seeing how steps fit together.

6. Time goes by quickly. In my mind 2004 was two minutes ago. But much has happened in Higher Education since the early 2000’s, with marketisation, technological advances, diversification of entrance requirements, the growth of metrics and so so much more. It is therefore very important to use up to date literature. It’s easy to rely solely on classic texts, but the world moves on. It may seem to be an obvious point, but failure to attend to recent evidence weakens research.

7. Action research demands a level of reflection on process and findings. Nevertheless it is critical to show your findings and analysis. Reflection is not a substitute for research, so be transparent about what your findings were before you reflect on them. It is almost impossible for others to read research critically if there is no transparency of findings.

8. The collaborative aspects of action research are widely written about, but sometimes literature makes collaboration sound and feel grander than it need be in reality. Collaboration can take many forms including working with students to understand an issue or to sense check the possible ways forward, it might mean working with colleagues to scrutinise your research design or findings, or as co-researchers. Collaboration generates a multiplier effect as it is a vehicle for spreading and sharing ideas. Engagement with others can help moderate and challenge deeply held assumptions which would otherwise limit the possible ways forward through the challenges and problems which are at the heart of the research issue. So the 8th tip, is be open to others and draw the learning from collaboration in to both the process and the reporting of the research.

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