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UT-Austin professor Kevin Dalby explains action research in education

Originally published on

Action research is one of the key buzzwords in 21st-century education. Action research borrows techniques from traditional quantitative and qualitative research methods to create a new research type motivated by concern for the education system. Whether quantitative, qualitative, or both methods are used, action research is conducted by people with ties to the education system to improve it systematically. Here, UT-Austin professor Kevin Dalby details action research in education.

Educational action research can analyze either the patterns and averages of quantitative data or the insights gathered from qualitative concepts, opinions, and experiences. It is not the source or the type of data being analyzed; instead, it is the intended purpose and resulting benefit of the inquiry. Action research is a process of examination that is conducted by and for those performing the analysis. The primary purpose for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and refining their actions.

Action research is empowering and inherently relevant. It is empowering because it helps educators be more effective at teaching and developing their students. Relevance is ensured because each research project’s focus is defined by the researchers, who are also the conclusions’ principal consumers.

An MIT professor, Kurt Lewin, is credited with coining the term “action research” in 1944. Still, this interactive inquiry process that balances problem-solving actions with data-driven analysis did not enjoy appreciable popularity until the last decade. It can be engaged in by a single instructor, by a group of co-workers who share an interest in a common issue, or the entire teaching staff.

Five-step process

Action research involves a five-step process. These five iterative steps are as follows:

  1. Identification of problem area – To be effective, the participants should focus on a central problem to help them be more successful in the classroom.
  2. Collection and organization of data – To ensure accurate results, teachers should use multiple independent data sources.
  3. Interpretation of data – In this step of the process, teachers methodically sort, sift, rank, and examine their data to identify the trends and patterns.
  4. Action, based on data – Creating an action plan, or incorporating the data results into an already existing action planning process, will allow the teacher to introduce structure around the changes they decide to implement. By altering only one variable at a time, they will identify which changes are responsible for an outcome, positive or negative, and refine their plan from there.
  5. Reflection – The action research cycle is created by identifying a focus for new research during the reflection step and thus beginning again.

Educational action research can be a rewarding pursuit for teachers and administrators for several reasons. Among these is the desire to know more and to improve in their craft. After all, good teachers are themselves students and should always look for ways to expand their existing knowledge and skills.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.