Action Research - as easy as 1, 2, 3

This blog post by David Petrie looks at three simple steps involved in action research.

So here’s how action research works:

  • What do you want to know?
  • How are you going to find out?
  • What are you going to do once you find out?

Action research really is that simple. The word research often conjures up images of scientists in white lab coats, or of academics spending decades of their lives in the pursuit of the proof of their theory. The implication of research is that it is rigorous, that it takes forever, that it is difficult, and that it is a lot of hard work. Broadly speaking this is true, but it does of course depend on what kind of research you want to do.

What is Action Research?

There is a difference between educational research and action research, though there can also be some cross over between the two. Educational research is usually performed for a different purpose, perhaps as part of a course of study for a masters or doctoral degree, or to investigate a theory, and it generally seeks to inform our knowledge and understanding of an area of education. Educational research is usually performed to rigorous academic standards and will be grounded in a particular research paradigm and with a specific research methodology. The purpose, in some respects at least, is the research itself.

Action Research is different in that it is intended to be conducted by teachers, not academics, and the purpose of the research is to inform your professional practice and to help you make positive changes. It is highly context specific, because you are looking into what you do with your learners in your classroom. So while what you find out might help other people addressing similar problems in different contexts, it doesn’t really seek to have the wider applicability that educational research does.

Why do action research?

Action research is a great way of helping you to make your teaching more effective and more principled, or of simply investigating the impact of things you’ve heard about from colleagues, read about online or in print, or maybe watched in one of the many webinars from ELT organisations and publishers. It’s also a good way of helping you to overcome your own preconceptions about methods, techniques and activities and it can help you to assess, from a principled position, any policy changes that are suggested in your context. Perhaps most importantly of all, action research is a great way of driving your own professional development when you don’t have access to a structured teacher development program in your context, or where the development programme on offer doesn’t meet your needs.

How to do action research?

It does depend a bit on how much detail you want to go into, how much time you have and what you want to investigate. Action research is perhaps best viewed on a continuum from informal to formal.

Here’s an example of informal AR: In a seminar yesterday I was told about an activity called “disappearing cats”. I wasn’t sure about it, but I tried it with my learners and asked them what they thought about it and what we should do differently next time. The feedback was quite positive in terms of the activity, but some of the learners preferred robots instead of cats.

On the more formal side: With my exam classes I like to conduct a needs analysis survey to contrast areas the students identify as weak with some of their assessment and test scores. I have a questionnaire template that I adapt and tailor to each class, depending on the exam and what I know of the group’s likes and dislikes. I give that out in class and then compile the information into a spreadsheet. I then gather together all the assessment data in the different skill and language areas and I look to see where there is correspondence and contrast. For example, with one current class they all identified their listening as being strong but the test data showed poor results in some areas. Conversely they all thought their essay writing was weak, but for some students it wasn’t, which suggests that this is a confidence issue more than a systemic weakness. This then allows me to plan the classes more effectively and focus in on their needs.

Most action research is more detailed and in depth than my “informal” example, but I included it because if you aren’t sure how to go about action research, then by starting small and working up to bigger and more in depth projects can be a good way of building your confidence and of getting into the action research habit.

So to go back to our “easy as 1 – 2 – 3” questions from the start, your action research project can be as simple as answering these questions:

What do you want to know?

Have you noticed a problem in your professional practice? Something the students are doing wrong or are failing to do at all? Something you feel could be done better? Something you think you aren’t doing effectively?

Can you identify a change you want to make? How could you do something differently? What improvements could be involved?

How are you going to find out?

What planning do you need to do? Have you thought about how you want to incorporate the change into your teaching? Have you thought about how you will evaluate the change? What does doing something better look like? What outcomes do you expect to achieve?

What are you going to do once you find out?

Were your outcomes positive or not? Did the change lead to an improvement or not? Do you want to keep the change or look for another, different / better change? How do the students feel about the change? What further changes might you need to make? What further actions do you need to take?

Onwards and upwards!

Action research helps you get away from pointless speculation, vague intuition and the trial and error “stop/start” process that can lead to a disjointed and incoherent approach to your teaching. The strength of action research is, ultimately, its ability to focus on generating solutions to practical problems and the way it gives teachers the tools to engage with the research process, to reflect on their own practice from a position of principle and with an informed critical eye, to be part of providing and implementing practical solutions and to monitor those solutions for any further changes as might be necessary.

Good luck and happy researching!

About the author

David Petrie is Director of Studies at IH Santa Clara and is also a teacher trainer, writer and blogger, who wrote and tutors the International House Action Research Course. His professional interests mainly lie in teaching exam classes, action research and using technology in teaching. He blogs at

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