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.

Action research and its link to UK PSF

How does action research link to UK PSF?

Action research can be a useful strand within a learning and teaching staff development strategy.

How specifically though does this type of practitioner research link to UK PSF?

This is useful to articulate so that

i) Staff developers can be conscious of how to advise colleagues
ii) Those undertaking action research can link their work to the national recognition framework
iii) Colleagues undertaking action research may use the links with UK PSF to further enhance their reflections.

The ways in which I think action research and UK PSF are linked are as follows:
1. A self-review using the Dimensions of Practice can help to inspire topics for focus in an action research project. Effectively the framework can help identify areas of practice or understanding that could be usefully progressed. While self-development is a potential motivator for action research, care must be taken that this aim does not trump the needs of students.
2. Areas of Activity (A1-A4) can be directly enhanced through action research (and with direct benefit to students) e.g. a project to develop inclusive online learning spaces (A4)
3. The act of action research can be a way of contributing to professional development (A5) – although this does require a degree of openness in the outlook of the researcher. Without this open mindedness the project simply becomes a problem solving exercise, rather than something that really impacts individuals and their development.
4. Knowledge ‘about’ practice can be developed through reconnaissance phase of the action research project. This stage is the initial scoping research that helps determine an effective course of action once an issue is identified. It may involve a literature review, collegial discussion and student engagement.
5. If action research is collaborative, as ideally it should be, then the process can facilitate a better understanding of the needs of individual students (V1); this can ultimately challenge personal beliefs about what we think our students like or need.
6. Action research is a direct contributor to ‘V3’ which relates to pedagogic research and scholarship.
7. Sharing action research can start to contribute to the process of influencing others, as is a requirement of Senior Fellowship. This might be through internal institutional events, papers, or other forums (although if you do this, don’t forget to gather evidence of impact as you go … what effect did your research have on others?).
8. Given the link between theory and practice in action research, this form of scholarship is one way to demonstrate point V on Descriptor 2 (Fellowship) and Descriptor 3 (Senior Fellowship).
9. The exploration of ethical dilemmas related to action research can relate the research to the wider context (V4). For example questions about data usage and data protection have origins and implications beyond a practitioner research project.
10. Action research can assist with progression in UK PSF. Themes and issues that might be considered in a small project can be built up in to a bigger body of work with more impact and influence. A small project can sow seeds for something greater.

Living scholarship

During a workshop on teaching recognition at Harper Adams University, I was involved in discussion with colleagues about ‘what is scholarship in the context of teaching and supporting learning?’ This discussion is not new of course. Boyer’s four types of scholarship provide a common reference point to answer this recurring question. Locating types of scholarship seemed not to fully capture our group’s perceptions of their own scholarship though; what about the informal, the discursive, the self-review and inquiring mind? What about the underpinning, hard to quantify, desire to enhance and learn? What about growing and using social capital or networks to respond to events emerging (something akin to collective reflection in action)? What about scholarship as routine, habit or modus operandi? What about scholarship as critical and thoughtful engagement. All of this is very tricky to measure or locate. It is more wrapped together as a package we called ‘living scholarship’. Although with some danger of being self congratulatory about finding a label for scholarship as being, I rather liked it 🙂

Living Scholarship: Combining aspects of scholarship, with a persistent, passionate and committed search for enhanced practice; Scholarship which can be sensed as well as seen; Scholarship which is private as well as public, natural rather than additional, not always necessarily explicit, and which is underpinned by thoughtfulness and self awareness.



Action research for higher education practitioners: Booklet

I have formed a short guide to action research particularly to support colleagues in higher education who may be undertaking action research for the first time. This is absolutely not intended to be a substitute for literature but it is offered as a ‘first stop’ for anyone contemplating this methodology. It offers practical ideas and tips and seeks to answer some of the key questions that I understand new action researchers to have. As ever, any feedback, additional inclusions or suggestions for revision would be welcome.


Download the booklet here: Action Research Introductory Resource

Empathetic validity and action research in educational development

As part of my doctoral studies I have recently undertaken an action research project relating to strengthening approaches to feedback practice. Informal reconnaissance led me to believe that feedback practice is very siloed. At the same time in the planning process I encountered a paper by Ball  (2009) who showed that collaborative practitioner centred action research  in itself can bring about the questioning of ones own practice, put simply, discussing the feedback practice of others shines a light on the way that each of us works and we then ask questions of ourselves and review how we might act differently.

Informed by this, my action hunch was that the development of an electronic sharing resource for good practice could be a mechanism for modelling good practice and bringing about transparency. Influenced by Ball, I envisaged that ensuring ownership of this resource by those who would use and populate it could act as a catalyst for critical dialogue around practice.

In seeking exemplary practice to populate the resource it became clear that there were some issues to address first. The project got messy in the way described by Cook (2009).  The intended action therefore was put on hold, and became a second project phase. This was clearly emergent work in progress.

The action research methodology permits these off-piste directions and in my search for good practice to populate the resource, I generated four spin off cycles to explore what is good feedback in this context? How can feedback practice be developed?  What are the barriers to developing good feedback practice? What conditions might be needed for the benefits of practitioner sharing to be realised?

I have take away learning about all of these points but by far the greatest learning from this research has been  the development of empathy with those engaged in the process. I have a much better sense of their experience and in staff development terms this is important for productive ways forward. My data was not vast and my conclusions didn’t add a lot to the already overflowing pool of literature on this topic, but it felt valuable. Trying to justify your research in terms couched in feelings is something that even I, as a self-confessed navel gazer, am not used to doing. In reading around this I was drawn to the work of  Dadds  who described a phenomenon called empathetic validity which refers to “the potential of the research in its processes and outcomes to transform the emotional dispositions of people towards each other, such that more positive feelings are created between them in the form of greater empathy” (2008, p208)

Whether empathy can really be incorporated a project aim I am not clear, I imagine it either happens or it doesn’t, but its benefit for me has trumped any of the the intended consequences of this project.

Ball, E. (2009). A participatory action research study on handwritten annotation feedback and its impact on staff and students. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 22(2), 111-124. doi: 10.1007/s11213-008-9116-6

Cook, T. (2009). The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigour though a messy turn. Educational Action Research, 17(2), 277-291. doi: 10.1080/09650790902914241

Dadds, M. (2008). Empathetic validity in practitioner research. Educational Action Research, 16(2), 279-290. doi: 10.1080/09650790802011973

Action research and fuzzy research

As part of any undergraduate action research planning or learning negotiation, the work-based learners on the BA Learning Technology Research, are asked to consider the ethical issues of their intentions. More often this is simple and straightforward, the different value systems of research and employing organisation, are harmonized. In reality this means balancing the learners research plans, with university expectations and with standards within the work-place. Where alignment is not immediately possible, redesign of research is called for. This is a practical approach to ethics in work-based learning.

When considering the ethical dimensions of action research it may be difficult to define where practice ends and where research begins. The blurring of practice and research is a key strength of the methodology, but for the purpose of ensuring ethics are attended to, it presents dilemmas.

For example, here it is difficult to say conclusively which parts of this research must be subject to research standards and which fall under the domain of practice: For his action research project a teaching practitioner creates a change to his practice to improve his teaching methods. But, he maintains that the change would have been made, with or without formally applying action research methods to evaluate that change. He collects interview data from the pupils about the sessions, as well as using observation and student evaluation data (which would have been collected despite of the research).

If the evaluation data were to be collected anyway, must it conform to the HEI’s ethical framework? Or should the HEI research standard (assuming it may be different, though not assuming superiority) only be applied to additional activity, over and above anything that would not occur in normal practice?

And what of the action itself: If the action taken is natural to practice it would be in keeping with the native value structure of the organisation … do the ethics of university research then subsume an organisation’s regular practices and so demand new standards be applied to the action, or, does action research respect existing organisational norms and only act on elements which are additional to ‘normal’ practice?

And why does any of this matter? Ultimately research ethics are in place to protect both the researcher and the researched, it is necessary for all parties in this tri-party learning arrangement to understand and accept their responsibilities. Action research is unlike other forms of research since it overlaps, by definition, with practice, and because of this it requires it’s own ethical protocols.

Reading joy and action research


A short article in The Telegraph points out the importance of developing a love for books if children are to read well – it goes on to point to some  classic books for children. Particularly handy for me (with a six year old) is the guide for the middle years – the stage when perhaps wide eyed toddlers lose the joy of books as they turn from bright and seductive picture books to text heavy volume.

This reminded me that a number of the BA LTR researchers  have undertaken inquiries in to reading strategies; developing approaches to teaching practice that inject passion and joy and motivation in to reading. A worthy cause. A recent graduate on the BA LTR course who acted to motivate young readers as part of her final year research, reported how her action research lives on beyond her time on the course …. “the kids are really excited. teachers from downstairs are commenting that every time they come upstairs children are reading – walking along the corridor reading, books under their arms when they go downstairs to monitor etc … They get so excited when a delivery of books comes in too”.

This is a tribute to how action research can be used to develop an individual’s practice which then in turn influences others. A ripple effect. Action research can be done without enrolling on an undergraduate degree of course, but this researcher found the course to be an effective route to change.

“I would probably have had all these ideas without [the course], but I would never have had the confidence to action them. Indeed I might not have found the opportunity to get these kids “into”  books”.

It is a real joy when undergraduates can action real change – developing their own skills, their own knowledge and the practice of both themselves and others.