How to conduct action research in schools

First posted on the Reach Free CPD blog on 26 April 2017 and the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 23 June 2017.

Most research carried out by teachers in schools can be considered ‘action research’. It is basically a piece of research carried out in the course of an activity, social situation or occupation to improve the approach, methods and/or practice of those involved. It is particularly conducive to education as action research directly involves the teacher or administrator researching how to better understand or improve their everyday practice. Moreover, most advocates of action research suggest that the research should carry on in cycles after the initial study as we are always trying to improve, tweak and develop our practice. In this sense, research is an ongoing process.

“Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162, cited in Smith, 2007).”

Planning your action research

Before conducting any research, you will need to set up a plan of action or a research strategy. For example, Cottrell (2008, p. 257) says a good plan of action consists of:

  • the research question (or questions)
  • a search and review of relevant literature
  • a research design with a chosen methodology or methodologies
  • the collection, correlation and an analysis of the data
  • drawing a conclusion
  • writing or presenting a report

It is also important to factor in areas of further development into any conclusion. Unless you intend your research to be a one off (and not, therefore, proper action research), you may want to consider ways in which the research can be tweaked, adapted or used by way of comparison to other research projects that are being undertaken. This is to ensure that either yourself or others can carry on your research and continue to improve the areas of practice studied. Of course, this may not form part of your actual plan, but it should be in the back of your mind as you choose a topic and conduct your initial research.

Choosing a research topic

Almost any aspect of teaching and learning can be researched through action research. For instance, you could focus on your own classroom and pupils. However, you may prefer to widen your research to include your department, particular cohorts of pupils or even have a whole school focus. Your research could focus on:

  • a pedagogical strength (to demonstrate best practice)
  • a pedagogical weakness (to seek solutions)
  • an area of intrinsic interest
  • an area of concern evident from school data
  • a specific part of your school’s SDP or a school policy
  • an area related to national policy, such as Pupil Premium or SEND

Nevertheless, it is important to focus on a particular area of your practice to ensure your research is both feasible and practical. This will useful be useful to the cyclical nature of action research as you can carry on your research by improving techniques and/or strategies or trying out new ideas. You can also feedback to colleagues and set up wider research or working groups to look into your area of study.

What might a good research question look like?

Below are a selection of research questions used for CamStar research projects. (For more detail on the below, please visit These are not necessarily action research projects, but do offer a starting point for small scale research within schools.

  • What characterises a good extension activity?
  • Does the wide ranging use of a Virtual Learning platform improve the self-efficacy and attainment?
  • High culture versus pop culture: which is best for engaging students?
  • Can teaching computational skills enable students to become more confident and able learners?
  • What are the pupils’ perceptions of learning in general and learning of Mathematics?
  • Engaging KS3 students in Maths through ICT:
  • Does the use of ICT in Maths lessons increase the engagement and motivation of low ability students?
  • Could we incorporate the Xbox Kinect as a kinaesthetic and visual teaching resource?

Background research: a literature review

Before starting your own research, it is important to read around your area of interest . This is simply known as a ‘literature review’, which may consist of a simple summary of key ideas or sources. However, in educational research (as well as the social sciences more generally), a literature review often combines both a summary and an analysis. Here, the summary is merely highlighting the important concepts and/or findings from other people’s research, but your analysis is a hypothetical account of how this research could be applied to your research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might involve:

  • tracing the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates
  • assessing how this progression relates to your context
  • hypothetically synthesising the concepts or findings in the reviewed literature with your own practice
  • depending on the situation, evaluating the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • possibly in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date and relate this to your own proposed research

The above paragraph and bullet points are adapted from the University of Southern California’s advice pages on conducting research, please visit their website: click here.

Types of research

There are two main overarching methods:

  1. A quantitative approach looks at the larger picture and allows for the research(s) to collect a larger data set than qualitative approaches. This is because quantitative research involves numbers, closed questions and surveys. It is also statistical and allows the research to identify trends, patterns and/or correlations overtime. Although questionnaires and surveys can be quick to write and their analysis is quite easy with the right software, it can lack the depth and insightfulness of qualitative data.
  2. A qualitative approach, which goes into detail via a small sample or case study. These approaches can be very informative and insightful into individuals views or actions as well as small groups, but they may raise questions as to whether they are representative.
Quantitative Qualitative
Structured interviewsQuestionnaires with closed questions


Analysis of official statistics

Analysis of school data

Codified content analysis

Unstructured interviewsQuestionnaires with open questions

Focus groups


Case studies

Interpretations of photos, videos, art etc.

For more information on research methods, please visit the NFER’s website:click here.

Choosing who to research: sampling

It is important that you think about who you want to research. This could be a particular group of pupils, perhaps a particular demographic or a group with similar estimated grades. You may also want to consider selecting a cross-section of your school’s or a certain year groups pupils’ in order to get a wider set of respondents. Therefore, you might want to ensure your respondents are representative of the pupils in your school or selected cohort. When you select a group to research, this is called a ‘sample’.

  • Random sampling: where your sample of the population is chosen at random.
  • Systematic sampling: a form of random sampling that chooses people systematically, i.e. every tenth person on roll.
  • Stratified sampling: where you divide the sample into different groups, which could include different abilities or demographics of the population as a whole.
  • Quota sampling: this is a sampling method in which a sample is selected inline with quotas representing each defined part of the population, such as ethnic groups or social class.
  • Cluster sampling: where clusters of people that represent the population as a whole are identified and used in the sample.
  • Snowball sampling: this is a method of selecting a sample by starting with an individual or a small group of people and asking them for further contacts.
  • Panel sampling: this involves questioning the same group of people at regular intervals over a given length of time to observe trends of opinion. It can be done with small groups of pupils.

Choosing your method(s) and sample: areas to consider

There are a number of areas to consider when choosing your research methods. I suggest a number of key areas for small scale action research projects (see Jones, 2017):

  • An operationalised concept that constitutes the information needed to answer the research question;
  • If the you are using questionnaires or interview questions you will need to design these so they are not ambiguous and easily understandable;
  • If the you are observing, setting up unstructured interviews or semi-structured observations, such as focus groups, you will need to factor in practical constraints and permissions;
  • If the you are using secondary data, such as official statistics, you will need to be able to locate and request a dataset;
  • A sample group that will be both relevant and feasible to contact and interview or observe etc;
  • If you have the time, they may also design a small pilot study as well.

Ensuring your proposed research method or methods are feasible: PET

You can also use ‘PET’ as a criteria for assessing the feasibility of the research (ibid). PET is widely used in A Level Sociology and Psychology lessons as a way of evaluating the strength of various research methods.

  • The P is essential as you  need to consider all the practical issues associated with your chosen research methods. This would include the cost and time it takes to produce the research, for example.
  • The E stands for the ethical aspects of the research. This includes issues such as gaining informed consent, ensuring that vulnerable groups receive appropriate care and consideration and that participants and researchers do not suffer any physical or psychological harm during the research.
  • Lastly, the T aspect, which stands for theoretical,  would include evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the types of methods you use. For instance, this could include looking at the positives and negatives of using evidence collected from surveys, observations or experiments.

Writing up your research

When writing up your findings and conclusions, you should:

  • Discuss the relevance and importance of the research question(s). Relate this to your own practice or context and, if possible, mention the wider significance of the research.
  • Outline the key summaries and findings of your literature review. Again, relate these to your own classroom practice or context and, if possible, make wider links to best practice and/or school, or even government, policies.
  • Explain and defend your methods for collecting data, which would include justifying your choice of methodology, the sources of data and the chosen sample group. Furthermore, this would also address issues such as response rates and any problems you may have had accessing and analysing secondary data.
  • Summarise your results and relate to any conclusions you have made. You could also discuss how this furthers your understanding of the focus of your research as well as the field of study as a whole.


Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research (Lewes: Falmer)

Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook (London: Palgrave)

Jones, A. (2017) Teaching Sociology Successfully: A practical guide for planning and delivering outstanding lessons (London: Routledge)

NFER (2017) Choosing Your Research Methods. [ Retrieved 18/04/2017]

NFER (2017) Types of Research. [ Retrieved 18/04/2017]

Smith, M. K. (2007) ‘Action research’, the encyclopedia of informal education.[ Retrieved: 18/04/2017].

The featured image by Sofia GK and used here under a Creative Commons Licence.

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