Action Research Skill Development in Education

What characterises the move from ‘evaluation’ to ‘research’ in a teaching and learning context? It is spirals of action in which educators add degrees of rigour and discernment to the evaluative process.

When this move is made by an individual or a group of educators, with students in their immediate care, this is Action Research. I define Action Research in education as:

‘The process when educator(s) directly responsible for students evaluate and improve initiatives that effect those students.’

This definition sets the parameters of Action Research (AR) as:

1) Intended improvement of learning of students in one’s care

2) Spirals of evaluated action

3) Each spiral must add rigour and discernment to the whoe process

Much Higher Education research, as well as an increasing proportion of Secondary and Primary Education research, falls into this categorisation of AR, however is frequently not reported as such. This is to a large extent because AR is disparaged for its more subjective orientation. However, not labelling research as AR doesn’t make it more rigorous. I suggest a more appropriate characterisation by those reporting research with students under their care as AR, while requiring communication of the ways they have added rigour and discernment to spirals of research, will provide teaching and learning communities with deeper and more fundamental understanding of educational initiatives.

One way of adding rigour is by having a clear conceptualisation of the processes within each cycle, so that one knows what to add rigour to. The Research Skill Development framework (RSD delineates six facets of a cycle of research; these are represented below in a seemingly linear fashion, however the process is in reality more recursive and messier.

A. Embark and clarify: This includes elements such as

Identify educational problem

Clarify a new idea

Consider emerging education initiatives and select one

Re-embarking and re-clarifying is necessary throughout the research process

B. Find and generate:

Imagine a solution

Locate potential solutions from sources eg colleagues, literature

Subsequently generate will frequently involve generation of evaluative data, whether of personal reflections, student results, student perspectives or colleagues’ accounts.

Subsequent finding will relate to locating relevant literature, whether for improved solutions or comparisons to emerging findings.

c. Evaluate and reflect:

Determine pros and cons of potential solutions

Consider fit-to-context

Propose or find evaluation strategies

Subsequent evaluate will relate to the data, for example whether to include or exclude outlying data points. To reflect on the whole AR process is essential to be discerning, for example, about biases in your approach or limitations in the published literature.

d. organise and manage:

Determine how evaluative data will be organised during collection

Establish timelines, determine materials whether hard-copy or online and other resources.

Subsequent management may consider how students and other colleagues may be involved in the whole process. Often analysis of data will necessitate a reorganisation of data into more appropriate ways, as one example of the many ways that these are interdependent facets, not separate, linear steps.

e. Analyse and synthesise

Determine how evaluative data will be represented e.g. prose, frequencies, graphs, tables

First-time through synthesis: what is a more precise research question? Or project aim? If you clarify this, then every other facet will be able to be fine-tuned. However, clarification may well take place after one or more spirals.

Subsequent synthesis will probably concern pulling together the evaluative data. It will also involve further clarification of research question- providing the next point of embarking; this may be better informed by gaps in the literature that you were unaware of in the beginning. This is another example of interdependent facets, where synthesis frequently gives new or clarified points of embarking.

f. Communicate and apply in ethically, socially and culturally aware ways

Talk with students about ideas

Discuss with colleagues

Apply mini-versions of strategies with individual students/small groups

Consider ethical issues, social inclusion as well as facilitating team work rather than just requiring it, culturally diverse groups.

Do you need ethics approval if you want to publish this?

Subsequent communication may involve strategies for listening to critique and response to feedback, considering more deeply the intended audience for outputs as well as appropriate outlets (school/department/conference presentation; newsletter; report; peer reviewed paper) and their requirements. Often the ‘final’ product is a communicative document that incorporates all the above facets.

Just to reiterate, this is not a linear process, but rather recursive, often a little messy when we do not know what our action research will throw up! It may take many spirals and pilots before we have a more streamlined strategy. We do need, however to formulate over time strategies so there is a movement from ‘loose’ to ‘systematic’; as you work through these facets of the research process, you will need to make conscious effort to add degrees of rigour and discernment to make this genuinely action research. Action research can begin in sloppy, unconscious and/or haphazard ways- and that is a great thing- it is easy to begin, and then proceed in a more systematic way to improve our students’ learning. However, once the process becomes consciously Action Research, strategies to increase rigour and discernment include moving from:

  1. Imagined solutions to published solutions to well-evidenced published solutions.
  2. Strategies involving one student to whole class to multiple classes
  3. Strategies involving yourself to another educator to multiple educators
  4. Strategies that are for one lesson to multiple lessons to multiple term/semesters/years. (One consideration here is to report cycles of ‘educationally significant timeframes’. This varies from context to context: in a university course it may mean one full semester, in Academic Language and Learning it may mean one student encounter.)
  5. Evaluation that involves anecdotal/ reflective self to student perspectives and outcomes to colleagues perspective in peer review.
  6. Analysis that involves your perspective to a conceptual framework to multiple perspectives.
  7. Communication with students to peers to newsletter to peer reviewed publications
One further consideration is that the use of a framework in common, such as the RSD enables the individual reporting of Action Research to be more readily reviewed and synthesised, and so more likely to build a shared body of knowledge in a field of study. Please give your perspective of the relevance of this perspective of AR to your T&L context in the one-question poll below.

Archive access for RSD Webinars for Semester 1 2013.

If you missed earlier Research Skill Development ( webinars, every session was archived:

S1: Graduate Attributes articulated with Research Skills

S2: Researching, critical thinking, problem solving, clinical reasoning: same ship different bay

S3: RSD and AQF Levels 8 & 9

S4:  Researching as a conceptual jewel: Six facets of the RSD

S5: Student autonomy in research: when and how much?

S6:  When academics integrate RSD across degree programs.

These sessions are also all available from


When academics integrate RSD across degree programs

The first Research Skill Development (RSD: Project (Phase 1), funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, considered the outcomes when individual academics running individual semester-length courses explicitly developed and assessed student research skills in content-rich contexts. The outcomes included a preponderance of positives, yet with some substantial problems identified. The study was published in HERD in December, 2012 with the title ‘When academics integrate research skill development in the curriculum’, While that study, spanning five universities and 27 courses in every faculty grouping threw up some surprising results full of potential, the fact that the academics involved were early adopters who chose to use RSD potentially biased the data to the positive.

Therefore, the current Phase 2 of the RSD project is called ‘Outcomes and uptake of explicit research skill development across degree programs: ‘Its got a practical application in my world’. The pre-colon part shows that the project focus is in multiple courses across entire degree programs. This begins to reduce the bias towards early adopters only, as program-level requires a broader base of users, sometimes by those less convinced than the early adopters.

The after-colon portion is from a graduate’s statement 16 months after completing a course reframed with the RSD: he, like the vast majority (91%) of students who were interviewed, found that the explicit development of his research skills was of fundamental and practical usefulness to his world of work. Phase 2 is all about the benefits and detriments of explicit research skill development across degree programs and evidenced in year-after-graduation contexts.

Some stand-out features include:

1. Empowerment in the workplace. One Graduate of the Bachelor of Oral Health said in interview one year after graduating:

‘Well just being able to have a bit of a voice in the staff meeting full stop; like it’s nice to be able to be listen to and particularly by the dentists.  It’s nice just being able to give your ideas, your research, what you found and their (dentists) accepting of it, so it’s nice that way. I think it (research) helps with that as well because it’s just not what you reckon.  It’s something you’ve researched

2. Deep practical relevance of research skills in the work context. Another graduate of the Bachelor of Oral Health said:

‘Before I left for Cambodia, I actually took a silver fluoride which is a product that we didn’t even actually come into contact with in the Bachelor of Oral Health here. …  I was really looking into that because I thought that might be really beneficial for Cambodia because they don’t get care often and they’re considered more rural so I was doing a lot of research with that and I ended up purchasing some and taking it over with me and I was using it a lot when I was over there.’

Strong and clear benefits of coherent research skill development throughout a degree were frequently evident, and suggest that deeper consideration needs to be given to the conceptualisation of learning at university as requiring the skills associated with researching- including for those students who will not continue to postgraduate study.

Feel free to add your comment to this blog as well as join us on Friday 14 June, when we are having a webinar on this topic. For details, go to . Join us to discuss the implications of explicit, coherent and incremental development of research skills across degree programs, considering outcomes from Degrees in Media, Medical Science, Engineering, Animal Science as well as Oral Health.

Hope to see you there.


Student autonomy in research: when and how much?

Higher Education, like Primary and Secondary Education, is to some extent polarized between direct instruction and inquiry modes of learning. However, these polarising perspectives can fall on the same educational continuum, if one asks ‘how much autonomy is appropriate at the moment?’ The Research Skill Development framework ( addresses this question by describing a continuum of autonomy comprising 5 degrees of student autonomy, from the highly structured ‘Modelled Research’ (Level 1) to the highly autonomous ‘Open Research’ (Level 5).

The webinar on this topic was run 7 June 2013, and the archive of this (audio, text and ppt) is available

A recent email from an overseas colleague who recently encountered the RSD observed that the striking feature of the RSD is its scope- from primary to PhD. He went on to say:

‘If you were to be asked, do you think the framework suggests an expected research skill level each student?

I answered ‘No’- there is no level of the RSD fixed with level of schooling. This is because most educational ‘levels’ consider degree of ‘betterness’ –deeper levels of understanding, more complex context, etc. The levels of the RSD are completely different, describing degree of student autonomy; it concerns how much scope students are given.  That means the RSD asks educational questions like ‘how much scope does this class need for effective research, right now? What is my educational aim over the next x weeks/months/years? Do I need to give low levels of autonomy/high levels of guidance for maximised development of research skills, then give higher levels of autonomy for student- inspired application of these skills? So First year courses may be given a lot of structure and guidance- Level 1- early in a semester , then progressively given increasing research scope in the same context towards level 4 or 5. Possibly the next semester of year, starting new context, they should be given Level 1 autonomy. Some PhD students do require a high degree of structure and guidance when they embark on developing new knowledge. The RSD framework is therefore conducive to conceptualising a spiralling curriculum.

A second question the colleague asked: ‘Is the framework coupled with assessment tools just to gauge the current level of students?’

‘The current level’ is bound up in the content, context, the year level and especially the main hidden factor in education- the degree of rigour required. Therefore a student working successfully on a task with scope at level 4, may need more structure and guidance eg Level 1 in a new context.
His final question was ‘ As teachers, what is or are our roles as students go through the framework? Do you think it advisable to let them discover what research is?’

Different educators have different pedagogical stances on this. Crudely speaking, level 1 and 2 are in keeping with an objectivist position (more didactic and focussed on acquiring content and practicing skills) with directed learning seen as premium. Levels 4 and 5 are more in keeping with a (social) constructivist mindset- where discovery learning is king. RSD doesn’t pre-value any of these positions- just puts them on the same continuum, so that all may educators consider their place in their students learning.