Action research and evaluation on line
Session 1: Applications
This is Session 1 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a free public service by ALARA (Action Learning Action Research Assn. Inc. and Bob Dick.
...in which some typical applications of action research and related methodologies are discussed, and typical action research processes are briefly described
Think for a moment about the various activities you do in the course of a day. As you read through the examples below, watch out for similarities to your own activities. Perhaps you can describe what you are doing as action research ...
... and, having done that, perhaps you can use action research processes and concepts to improve and understand what you are doing and how you are doing it
In this session:
- Some brief examples of action-research-like activities
- A brief description of an action research process
- Archived resources
I've briefly explained in the orientation, and in abstract terms, my understanding of action research. But what is it in practical terms?
Consider the following examples...
You are a practitioner working in a community. You are isolated from most of your profession. Strongly committed to your professional development, you find few opportunities for it. You wish to improve your practice.
You decide that the conventional opportunities in your area are not promising. You adopt a regular practice, each evening, of spending 15 minutes in critical reflection. First you recall, in as much detail as you can, the events of the day. In particular, you note those events which did not work out as well as you would like.
You identify what you have learnt from each experience. Then you review the likely events on the following day. You look for opportunities to apply the learning from the previous day.
You could call what you are doing "experiential learning". If that sounds a bit fancy, you could call it "professional development". You could also describe it as action research. 1
You are a member of a small rural community. In recent years the local government has made several decisions which disadvantage you. When you complain, you are ignored.
You decide to study the situation, so that you can act with better understanding. You also decide that you will try to build closer relationships with the local politicians who seem not to understand your situation. If they don't understand you, you reason, at least you can begin to understand them.
Through these activities you learn more about your own situation, and the situation of the politicians and other interest groups. You are eventually able to have more influence in local decision making.
This might be called "social activism". Or "conscientisation". Or (done in certain ways) "action research".
You work as an experienced practitioner in a large public sector organisation. Your boss is pressuring you to upgrade your qualifications. With the increased workload in your job, though, you don't think you have the time to seek further qualifications.
Because of your experience, you are often given the more demanding assignments. This, too, militates against study.
An idea occurs to you. Perhaps you can use your work as a vehicle for research for a higher degree. You enrol at a university which provides supervision for applied qualitative research.
You identify a number of forthcoming work assignments which are related. In each, you work participatively with those most affected to develop an effective approach. With their help, you document and review your process.
You also reflect upon and document your individual experience regularly. In time, you submit it as a thesis.
You could call this "study" or "upgrading your qualifications". You could also describe it as action research.
You are chief executive officer of a medium sized organisation. The organisation, faced with unexpected change in the market, suffers from low profits. There is high turnover amongst key staff. You would like to do something about it.
With your management team, you plan to meet weekly to improve what you are doing. A member of the team suggests that you don't always learn effectively from each other, or from your own experience. You believe this is true, and wish to take it into account.
Each week, the team reviews the progress of the previous week. As chief executive, you make a point of giving praise to those subordinates who have experienced problems and learned from them. Over time, the openness of the group increases.
You have now reached a stage where the managerial skills of the team have visibly improved. Learning is more effective. You attribute this to the willingness to be open, to learn from past experience, and to apply what you have learned.
You could call this "good team management" or "organisational learning". You could also describe it as action research.
At the end of each meeting, you review that meeting. You and your colleagues identify the strengths and weaknesses of the way the meeting was conducted. You then plan changes to your meeting procedures in the light of this review.
This might be called "group facilitation", or "improving meeting procedures". Here, too, you could describe it as action research.
The four situations above vary on a range of dimensions: the number of people directly involved; their motivations; the activities which are being improved; the uses made of what is learned; and so on.
Some of them also pick up other themes in current literature -- I've identified experiential learning and the learning organisation, among others.
But that's to be expected. Human activity systems, as Peter Checkland calls them, are complex. They don't fit easily into just one or two (or twenty) clear categories.
How many of these resemble activities which you could easily combine with your daily work and life?
The examples above could be labelled as action research. Activities like them frequently are.
There has been enough bad research labelled as "action research". I'd prefer not to add to that. Unless they use a cyclic process which alternates action and critical reflection they don't fit my preferred definition.
What would you have to do to make your reflection systematic and critical enough that you could have faith in your conclusions?
Or consider these...
You are a teacher or an academic with a busy teaching schedule. You would like to improve your teaching. At the same time, you think it would enhance your chances of promotion if you could also publish more.
You institute a number of procedures to satisfy both of these wishes. You reach agreement with your classes that they will provide regular, evidence-based and thoughtful feedback to you. In return you offer to implement as many of their suggestions as you can. You also offer to explain when and why you can't follow their suggestions.
This leads to immediate improvement from week to week. As well, you conduct a major evaluation at the end of each class. This leads to improvement from semester to semester.
You publish your experiences in a journal for higher education.
There are many ways of describing what you are doing, including "student centred learning" and "reflective teaching" and "publishing". And action research.
You work as a consultant in private practice. You specialise in providing help with strategic planning for voluntary organisations.
You have begun working with one of these organisations. After some weeks the director approaches you with a request that you document your experience. Your assistance has been very useful. The director would like other organisations to benefit from the processes you use.
You are interested. But you would like to be assured that the material you document is of sufficient quality. You ask the director if the organisation is willing to help you critique and refine the processes you use.
You have been working closely with a small working party from within the organisation. At your request they agree that you will document your planning meetings in such a way that you can track the relative successes and failures of your planning.
They also agree to help you validate and refine your processes by interviewing other organisational members about the strengths and weaknesses of the strategic planning.
You prepare a draft. The working party members critique it for you. They help you make it more suitable for your target audience. You publish it as joint editors.
Again there are many labels you could apply to this, most prominently "education" or "publication". You could also describe it as action research
Local people from a poor community approach you. They ask you to help them solve some specific problems with their housing.
You believe that the housing problems are symptoms of their general disadvantage. You suspect that they do not understood the ways in which the wider society acts unwittingly to disadvantage them. If they did realise this, you think they could remedy more than just their housing problems.
With their agreement, you engage them as co-researchers into the problem. Through regular critical reflection they come to understand their situation better. They are able in time to act politically to overcome some of their disadvantage.
You could describe what you (and they) are doing as "empowerment" or "do-it-yourself social research" or "community development" or "citizen participation" or ... even action research.
I could add: "You offer an on line course in action research and evaluation...".
What is action research?
In the orientation session, I described action research as action and research. I regard it as a family of processes which allow the dual pursuit of action, or change, and research, or understanding.
I would add critical reflection as another essential or nearly-essential characteristic. Action research can be regarded as a cyclic process which alternates between action and critical reflection.... action --> reflection --> action --> reflection ...
There are other features which various people regard as essential. Some, for example, believe that action research must be participative. I have heard it argued that it must be at least partly qualitative. There are some who believe that it must be published. For me, these are choices.
Later sessions explore some of these issues further.
I mention these matters, not to persuade you to a point of view, but rather to indicate the approach taken in this program. It's simpler, I think, if I'm open about my own preferences and speak from my own experience. But I have a strong preference that you judge my ideas on their merits. I hope you take into account their relevance to your situation.
In short, I assume you will make up your own mind.
Most descriptions of action research stress its cyclic or spiral nature. Perhaps the most common is the cycle we might call the Deakin model: first planning, then action, then observation, then reflection; then back to planning and the beginning of the next cycle:... plan --> act --> observe --> reflect --> plan ...
A similar version captures the alternation between action and reflection mentioned above. In turn, reflection consists of a review of the previous action followed by planning for the next action:... intend --> act --> review --> intend ...
Another way of describing the spiral captures for me the unavoidable uncertainty of change programs. In this model, the process begins with broad and general questions, using general (or "fuzzy") methods. In all probability, this will yield only fuzzy answers. But that is enough to allow more precise questions and methods in the next cycle:
... fuzzy questions --> fuzzy methods --> fuzzy answers --> less fuzzy questions ...
In other words, I think of action research as an iterative process. It converges on a better understanding of the situation. The better understanding allows improved action.
Here is a different way of classifying action research: in terms of the main emphasis. You might choose two categories...
One, "action research", emphasises the research component. The important aim is to build better understanding. Change may also be pursued, but is less a priority.
The second might be called "action research". It pursues change as its first priority. If there are research outcomes too, that is a bonus.
There are examples of both of these above.
Whatever the variety of action research, both change and understanding are usually desirable.
To someone steeped in experimental research methodologies, those two aims might appear to be in opposition. For me, one of the defining features of action research is that it allows both to be achieved, and often achieved well.
Further, it seems to me that action and research can enhance each other. On balance, it is when action is well informed by research that it is most likely to be effective. In addition, it is when a system is undergoing change that its dynamics are most apparent, and often therefore most easily understood.
The examples above are brief. Two extended case studies have been placed on the arlist archive.
The first is an evaluation study. It is not very participative: the people take part mainly as informants. The emphasis is on careful data collection and interpretation. It illustrates a form of action research in which the research outcomes are given highest priority.http://www.aral.com.au/resources/case1.html
(Other resource files will be mentioned from time to time. Substituting their filename for "case1" retrieves them.)
The second is a decision-making exercise involving people in many different interest groups, with many different interests and positions. The emphasis is on reaching decisions which have wide acceptance. High participation is therefore pursued, despite the difficulties of doing so. It is an example of action research in which the action is the main focus.
The URL is
Other archived resources
which deal with action research:
- a partial "frequently-asked-questions" file
- a beginners guide to action research
- the relationship between action research and action learning
- Some writers insist on publication as a necessary component of action research.
[ back ]
ActivitiesA thought experiment
Think back over a typical day or week. Consider these questions:To judge from the earlier examples and the two archived cases, how much of what you do can be regarded as action research? Does it include critical reflection within a cyclic process?
Is it "action research", or "action research"? Can you improve it by strengthening the weaker component? Can you improve it by integrating the action and research components more?
How much critical reflection do you engage in? In what ways might more, or more regular, critical reflection improve your practice and your understanding? How might you do that?
An individual activity
During the next week, set aside in your diary at least 10 minutes at the end of each day. Use this time for critical reflection on the day's activities.
A later session will suggest a more detailed format for critical reflection. For now, you may find the following three steps useful:Recall the day in as much detail and vividness as you can. (You can include family and social activities, not just work)
Identify some surprises or unexpected results, and what you learned from them
Devise some future way of putting the new learning to work
For your learning group
When your learning groups are set up, there are a number of tasks suggested for you in the orientation sessions. Important are: getting to know each other; deciding what outcomes you want from the learning group; deciding how you will operate together.
If you have done that, it would be useful for you to exchange information on your projects. You can then decide the order in which you will work through them.
Some ways of carrying out these early learning group activities were included in one of the orientation files.
Let's practice action research on areol. What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick
This session has provided a number of brief examples of situations which might be described as action research. In addition it has pointed the way to two more detailed case studies. One displays an emphasis on research through careful data collection and interpretation. The other emphasises action by pursuing high participant involvement.
This will be a recurring theme: action research as action and research.
In addition, I've provided a number of descriptions of action research. These emphasised its cyclic nature.
The next session explores this further, and examines how change can be achieved. See you then -- Bob_____
Copyright © Bob Dick 2002. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (2002) Applications. Session 1 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.02w; last revised 20020712