What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples

Action research is a research method that aims to simultaneously investigate and solve an issue. In other words, as its name suggests, action research conducts research and takes action at the same time. It was first coined as a term in 1944 by MIT professor Kurt Lewin.A highly interactive method, action research is often used in the social sciences, particularly in educational settings. Particularly popular with educators as a form of systematic inquiry, it prioritizes reflection and bridges the gap between theory and practice. Due to the nature of the research, it is also sometimes called a cycle of action or a cycle of inquiry.

Action research Cycle

Types of action research

There are 2 common types of action research: participatory action research and practical action research.

  • Participatory action research emphasizes that participants should be members of the community being studied, empowering those directly affected by outcomes of said research. In this method, participants are effectively co-researchers, with their lived experiences considered formative to the research process.
  • Practical action research focuses more on how research is conducted and is designed to address and solve specific issues.

Both types of action research are more focused on increasing the capacity and ability of future practitioners than contributing to a theoretical body of knowledge.

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Action research models

Action research is often reflected in 3 action research models: operational (sometimes called technical), collaboration, and critical reflection.

  • Operational (or technical) action research is usually visualized like a spiral following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”
  • Collaboration action research is more community-based, focused on building a network of similar individuals (e.g., college professors in a given geographic area) and compiling learnings from iterated feedback cycles.
  • Critical reflection action research serves to contextualize systemic processes that are already ongoing (e.g., working retroactively to analyze existing school systems by questioning why certain practices were put into place and developed the way they did).

Examples of action research

Action research is often used in fields like education because of its iterative and flexible style.

Example: Participatory action research
As part of an ongoing commitment to improve school facilities for students with disabilities, an action research plan asked students using wheelchairs to time how long it took them to get to and from various points on school grounds.

After the information was collected, the students were asked where they thought ramps or other accessibility measures would be best utilized, and the suggestions were sent to school administrators.

Example: Practical action research
Science teachers at your city’s high school have been witnessing a year-over-year decline in standardized test scores in chemistry. In seeking the source of this issue, they studied how concepts are taught in depth, focusing on the methods, tools, and approaches used by each teacher.

They found that there had been no change in how chemistry was taught in the last decade—with no incorporation of more modernized teaching approaches or useful online tools. Teachers resolved to implement more modern techniques in their teaching to see if that could improve scores.

Action research vs. traditional research

Action research differs sharply from other types of research in that it seeks to produce actionable processes over the course of the research rather than contributing to existing knowledge or drawing conclusions from datasets. In this way, action research is formative, not summative, and is conducted in an ongoing, iterative way.

Action research Traditional research
Purpose
  • Solve immediate problems
  • Improve existing systems
Context
  • Reactive, derived from surroundings
  • Usually not theoretical in nature
Significance
  • Practical
  • Statistical

As such, action research is different in purpose, context, and significance and is a good fit for those seeking to implement systemic change.

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Advantages and disadvantages of action research

Action research comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  • Action research is highly adaptable, allowing researchers to mold their analysis to their individual needs and implement practical individual-level changes.
  • Action research provides an immediate and actionable path forward for solving entrenched issues, rather than suggesting complicated, longer-term solutions rooted in complex data.
  • Done correctly, action research can be very empowering, informing social change and allowing participants to effect that change in ways meaningful to their communities.

Disadvantages

  • Due to their flexibility, action research studies are plagued by very limited generalizability and are very difficult to replicate. They are often not considered theoretically rigorous due to the power the researcher holds in drawing conclusions.
  • Action research can be complicated to structure in an ethical manner. Participants may feel pressured to participate or to participate in a certain way.
  • Action research is at high risk for research biases such as selection bias, social desirability bias, or other types of cognitive biases.

Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about statistics, methodology, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions about action research

What’s the difference between action research and a case study?

Action research is conducted in order to solve a particular issue immediately, while case studies are often conducted over a longer period of time and focus more on observing and analyzing a particular ongoing phenomenon.

What is the main purpose of action research?

Action research is focused on solving a problem or informing individual and community-based knowledge in a way that impacts teaching, learning, and other related processes. It is less focused on contributing theoretical input, instead producing actionable input.

How is action research used in education?

Action research is particularly popular with educators as a form of systematic inquiry because it prioritizes reflection and bridges the gap between theory and practice. Educators are able to simultaneously investigate an issue as they solve it, and the method is very iterative and flexible.

What is a cycle of inquiry?

A cycle of inquiry is another name for action research. It is usually visualized in a spiral shape following a series of steps, such as “planning → acting → observing → reflecting.”

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

George, T. (2024, January 12). What Is Action Research? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/action-research/

Sources

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2017). Research methods in education (8th edition). Routledge.

Naughton, G. M. (2001). Action research (1st edition). Routledge.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.