Adult student making notes in class.

Action research can make you a "student of teaching" (John Dewey). 

  • What is action research?
  • Why should teachers do action research?
  • What are the steps in the action research process?
  • Where can your research question come from?
  • What evidence can you collect to see whether your solution has worked or not?

What is action research?

It is a process in which teachers investigate teaching and learning so as to improve their own and their students' learning.Why should teachers do action research?

  • To help them notice what they and their students really do, rather than what they think they do.
  • To get feedback as to the success or failure of what they are doing.
  • To help them tailor teaching and learning to their learners and their settings.
  • So that they are able to justify the teaching and learning choices they make.
  • To increase their knowledge of learning and teaching and become authorities on teaching.
  • To become less dependent on decisions made by people who are far away from their learning and teaching sites, people like textbook writers and school administrators.
  • To ensure that they don't become bored with teaching.

What are the steps in the action research process?

Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg (1990) suggest four steps: plan, teach / act, observe and reflect. Here are some guidelines for each step.Plan

  • Identify the problem area.
  • Narrow it down so that it is manageable.
  • Investigate the problem. When does it happen? Who does it affect?
  • Where does it happen?
  • Think about what might be causing the problem. Talk to other teachers and/or read to get more ideas about this.
  • Think about a solution and how to implement it.
  • Think about what evidence you will collect to decide whether your action is successful or not. How will you collect it? How will you analyse it?

Teach / Act

  • Implement your solution.


  • Gather evidence which you will analyse to decide whether your solution was successful or not.


  • Analyse the evidence you gathered. Has the problem been solved? If not, what step will you try next? If yes, what problem will you try to solve now?

Where can your research question come from?

Research questions can come from:

  • A problem/difficulty which you or your students are experiencing. For example, you might notice that only a few students take part in group work activities. Before looking for a solution, investigate the problem.
    • Do students know how to give and support their ideas, disagree with others, ask questions etc. in the language they must use in group work activities?
    • Do students know that they should take different roles in groups? Group activities usually need a facilitator, a recorder, a reporter and a time-keeper.
    • Are the activities suitable for group work or could the students do them on their own? Once you have a better understanding of the problem, plan what solution you will try.
  • Observing the teaching and learning processes in your classroom.For example, you could observe how you use questions in your classroom. Record a lesson and then listen to find answers to the following questions:
    • How many questions do I ask my students?
    • What type of questions do I ask them? (Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?)
    • How long do I wait for students to answer?
  • Something you have read.For example, you may have read an article in which the author said that letting students use their Mother Tongue in group work improves the quality of their feedback. You might want to test this idea and so set yourself the question, "How does allowing students to use their Mother Tongue in group work activities affect the length of their feedback? The number of ideas presented in their feedback? The accuracy of the language they use in their feedback? The level of language they use in their feedback?  
  • Previous research.For example, a South African teacher, Rosh Pillay, started doing action research in an attempt to solve the following problem: My students don't know how to structure an argument essay. While working on this problem she discovered that her students didn't know how to analyse essay questions. She then carried out a second cycle of action research in which she tried to answer the question, "Will the quality of my students' essays improve if I teach them how to analyse the essay question?"

What evidence can you collect to see whether your solution has worked or not?

You can collect many types of evidence. For example:-

  • Students' exercises, essays, assignments, tests etc.
  • Other documents like your lesson plans, notes to students' parents, minutes of meetings etc.
  • Personal notes. Write short notes as you observe your students.
  • Observation schedules. Draw up a list of behaviours and language to look for while students are working in groups, reading aloud, doing a report back, performing a role play etc.
  • Peer observations. Ask a colleague to observe you while you teach.
  • Ask him/her to look for particular behaviours, language use etc.
  • Audio recordings
  • Video recordings
  • Interviews of learners, their parents, teachers, administrators etc.
  • Questionnaires
  • Student journals
  • Teacher journals

If you have never done action research before, start small. Ensure that the problem you try to solve is manageable. And don't be afraid of making mistakes. As all teachers know, we learn through our mistakes.

Cheron Verster, teacher trainer and materials developer, South Africa


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