Action research: Definition, Design, Process & Examples

What exactly is action research? What are its advantages over other forms of research? Why should you even care about action research?

If you’re looking for answers to these questions and more, then this guide is exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Packed with in-depth explanations and real-world examples of action research in action, this article will help you develop an understanding of action research and how it can be beneficial to you and your organization on your next project or any project to come.

Action research

Action research: Definition, Design, Process & Examples

What is action research?

The definition of action research is a form of participatory inquiry that combines reflection with action to identify solutions to social and economic problems.

Action research can be performed by individuals or groups and can focus on issues in the researcher’s own workplace, community, school, or another setting.

It typically involves several phases that may include: problem identification, generation and testing of possible solutions; planning for implementing an identified solution; gathering information on the impact of the solution; assessing impacts; developing guidelines for future practice.

Like traditional research, action research studies phenomena (actions) that exist in the world (action).

Unlike traditional approaches, however, action researchers seek not just to understand but also to change these actions.

In many cases, this means generating and trying out new actions which then must be assessed as part of a learning process.

Action research can also be understood as any empirical investigation aiming at improving knowledge of interventions designed to solve practical problems and generate new knowledge through systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation.

What does an action researcher do?

Action researchers are more concerned with the process than they are with the outcome.

They want to know what works and why it works. As a result, they have one goal in mind: understanding how to implement change in order to achieve the desired end.  It’s not just about figuring out what you can do better; it’s also about discovering what you can do differently.

The result of this is actionable knowledge that organizations can put into practice right away.

So, in summary:

  • An action researcher observes an issue or problem and decides on an intervention for solving it.
  • The researcher conducts an evaluation to see whether the intervention has had any impact.
  • The researcher shares their findings so others can learn from them as well.
  • And finally, he/she does some more research based on feedback from previous studies, assesses if there was any improvement in the targeted area, and repeats until there is a success.

You might be wondering: Why go through all these steps?

Well, as mentioned before, action researchers are more interested in processes rather than results. They want to figure out what works so they can improve upon it and make positive changes happen.

The same thing applies when trying to find ways to create new solutions.

Types of Action Research

While there are several methods of doing action research, it is generally split into two categories.

The first one is participatory action research (PAR), which means that everyone involved in a given study participates in its implementation as well. This category also includes collaborative and participatory design (CPD).

These are similar to PAR, but less emphasis is placed on establishing a baseline of data before getting started.

The second type of action research is called participatory observance (PO).

PO relies solely on observational techniques such as interviews and surveys, while PAR uses both qualitative and quantitative data-gathering techniques such as interviewing, direct observations, document reviews, and online questionnaires.

Here is a detailed explanation of the two types of action research :

Participatory action research (PAR)

Participatory action research focuses on improving services through understanding issues and involving people who are directly affected. It’s a community-based approach to problem-solving.

Action researchers must rely on current resources and members of target communities to analyze problems and develop plans for improvement. However, the process can be slow and take a lot of time.

This is because research needs to be done in stages, which takes time and money.

An example of Participatory action research was used in an assessment of mental health services for ethnic minorities. This was to examine how effective existing services were and what changes should be made. As a result, there were opportunities to influence policy on ethnic minority mental health issues.

This is just one example of how action research can lead to tangible and sustainable improvements.

Another good thing about PAR is that it produces generalizable knowledge, meaning that it’s easier to apply findings and principles to other contexts. When conducting PAR, three different phases need to be considered: exploratory, formative, and summative. These phases involve activities like identifying barriers, deciding on interventions, and measuring impacts.

For example, in the exploratory phase, the researcher may be exploring what the specific issue is and what could be improved. In the formative stage, they’ll discuss what’s wrong and how it can be fixed. And in the summative phase, they’ll provide conclusions and offer recommendations. The exploration and formative stages are the most important. Without the identification of the problem, there can be no solution. This is why these two parts are necessary to achieve an action research project.

Participatory observation (PO)

Participative observance (PO) is a form of action research that concentrates on finding a problem and taking action to solve it. This method is more reliant on only using observation techniques, such as interviews and surveys. PAR, on the other hand, relies heavily on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data-gathering techniques to gather information.

Participative observance has its benefits as well, namely that it is more cost-effective and faster. Also, it allows the researcher to collect rich data in a short period of time. This is not always possible with PAR due to the number of stages that have to be completed.

A disadvantage of participatory observation is that it can’t be generalized to a wider population. You’re limited to the population that you’re studying and the research will only be useful in that context. It can’t be applied outside of this context.

The final consideration is whether or not your goal is to generate a theory or simply fix a problem.

If you’re looking to generate a theory, then PAR would be more appropriate. But if your goal is to fix a problem, PO might be better since it doesn’t require as much upfront work. Either way, both methods produce valuable and informative data.

They also have their own pros and cons.

Action Research Methodology

The purpose of action research is to solve a specific problem that’s directly affecting participants or service users. The researcher identifies barriers, plans a solution, and then implements it. Action research can be used in conjunction with any qualitative or quantitative methodology. The 3 Phases of action research are Exploratory, Formative, and Summative.

These correspond to the following steps in a research process: Exploration and Formation of the Problem, Data Collection, Analysis, Presentation of Results, and Reflection.

Action Research Process

The action research process consists of the following phases/steps.


As part of the action research methodology, this step comes before action. It involves formulating questions and issues from a stakeholder’s perspective. This is the initial phase where we brainstorm and come up with a list of all the things that we want to address.

Once we’ve done this, we evaluate each potential problem by asking ourselves Is this really an issue? and Is there something else to do about it? If the answer is yes, then we mark the item as a potential barrier. We repeat this until we’ve gone through everything on our list and come up with a prioritized list of barriers.

Formation of Problem

This stage is where we assess how severe these barriers are for the individual or organization. For example, one potential problem could be a lack of community space for meetings and events.

So now, the question becomes How important is it? and What’s causing it?

To make a decision, we use five criteria to help us decide which problems need solving first:

  • Severity -How bad is the barrier?
  • Urgency -Is it going to get worse?,
  • Opportunity -Can we take advantage of current circumstances?,
  • Impact -What kind of effect does this have on those involved?
  • Consequences -Will the consequences outweigh the risks involved?

If we think these criteria support solving the problem, then we move on to the next stage. However, if we feel that the problem isn’t a priority and there are more pressing issues that need addressing, then we set it aside and go to the next.

Data Collection

This step of the action research process involves collecting and analyzing data for action. We first plan how to do it before we carry it out. Then once we’ve finished collecting our data, we can start analyzing it to see if our questions were answered and find any patterns.

When we’re satisfied with our results, it’s time to present them to stakeholders so they know what went wrong or what needs fixing.

Finally, we reflect on the process and discuss whether anything could be improved for future iterations of the project.

Data collection methods in action research

The methods used to collect data depending on the type of research being conducted. There are four types:

  • Qualitative-focused techniques like focus groups, depth interviews, participant observation, and key informant interviews;
  • Quantitative-focused techniques like surveys and experimental designs;
  • Interpretive-focused techniques such as grounded theory or symbolic interactionism; and
  • Combined qualitative-quantitative studies such as triangulation. This way, the strengths of both research approaches (i.e., understanding the whole picture and getting a large sample size) can work together to yield better results.


This step of the action research process involves analyzing data for action. The goal is to identify patterns and make a conclusion. Data analysis can be a tricky thing to get right. You might make conclusions that are too general, or you might miss the details in favor of a broad conclusion.

The best thing to do is to talk with the data and interpret it collaboratively with other people. Sometimes, it takes someone outside of your own field of expertise to understand your findings.

Action researchers often use a method called member checking, to test the accuracy of their data. This means we take our data and ask a few members of the group we studied to give their opinion on it and ask for any suggestions or changes. This is our opportunity to spot any mistakes, errors, biases, or gaps in information that may have been missed when the research was carried out.

It’s also a good idea to look for evidence that contradicts the hypothesis and try to come up with alternative explanations. Once we’re done, it’s finally time to publish our research.

Data analysis methods in action research

The data can be analyzed in different ways. Some of the most common is by using qualitative methods, quantitative methods, or mixed methods. The data is usually analyzed to identify any patterns and draw a conclusion.

Qualitative data analysis methods used by action researchers include content analysis, discourse analysis, text mining, phenomenology, and more. Content analyses break down texts into different categories while discursive analyses analyze language forms (like metaphors). Text mining collects raw data from texts without the need for human interpretation.

Phenomenology interprets words based on an individual’s subjective experience. Mixed methods research allows us to take advantage of all three qualitative study approaches mentioned above but there is also another kind called triangulation where we compare qualitative findings with some sort of quantitative finding.

For example, we can analyze the data with qualitative methods or combine it with quantitative methods. A well-known example of this is reading diaries and then interviewing respondents about their views on the same topic.

Action Research in Education

Many educators use action research as a way to improve their teaching. Action research can be defined as the process of reflecting upon one’s practice and then doing something different in order to create change.

Action research in education

The key word in this definition is action. This is because action research requires you to take an active role in your own learning and improvement. You do not simply reflect on what you are currently doing; instead, you focus on what needs to happen next.

Action research does not always have to have a preset endpoint (e.g., come up with a new solution for X). Instead, it may require that the teacher work at improving his or her current practices over time.

For example, if teachers believe that students need more time for completing assignments but they only have so many minutes in each class period, they might experiment with dividing their class into groups and having them rotate from task to task every few minutes while still taking breaks periodically throughout each group session.

They would continue using this technique until they feel like they’ve had enough data to determine whether or not the method improved student success rates.

At that point, they would decide whether to continue trying this strategy or try another strategy altogether.

Some people may argue that there is no right answer when designing and implementing an action research project. That’s true to some degree, but the most important thing is finding the right answer for YOU. If all else fails, follow your gut instincts–they’re probably right!

Relationship Between Action Research and Applied Research

Action Research and applied research are two forms of social science that share a lot of the same characteristics. One way in which these two can be distinguished is the degree to which they focus on theory.

Action research typically does not place as much emphasis on theory and more on practical solutions for solving problems, whereas applied research places more emphasis on theory building.

However, some action research projects do take a theoretical approach.
This is different from other ways in which it differs from applied research because instead of creating a theory to test, it uses theories that already exist or theories being developed by others while conducting its own data collection or experimentation. There are also many similarities between these two types of research.

They both use observation, experimentation, and qualitative and quantitative methods to collect their data with the aim of solving problems within an organization.

The key difference is that action research tends to prioritize taking practical steps toward problem-solving right away over collecting data and analyzing it in order to build theory first. In contrast, most applied research relies on theory-building before doing any field work. It is important to note that this distinction only applies when looking at the broader categories of action research and applied research as there are many subcategories under each one.

For example, action research may still have elements of theory-building if the study includes experiments or observations and generalizes from them to make hypotheses about why things happen.

And conversely, applied research may include tasks such as working directly with clients in order to determine how well interventions are working for them.

These distinctions should not be taken too literally; rather they should serve as a guide when trying to decide whether you want to conduct an action research project or an applied research project.

Generally speaking, those who are just getting started might find it helpful to start out with an applied research project in order to get comfortable and familiarize themselves with the methodology.

Once they feel confident enough then they could explore moving into action research which allows them to put theory into practice.

Some may choose to focus primarily on action research or apply research, but whichever type you choose will require different skills and knowledge sets. Ultimately, whichever direction you choose depends largely on what your goals are and what interests you the most.

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