The idea of conducting research can instill fear in many who are unfamiliar with its many varieties. Particularly in science-related areas, it’s easy to conjure images of white-coated, protective-goggle-wearing individuals hunkered over Erlenmeyer flasks waiting for something to react. When we hear about bringing research into the science classroom, the emphasis is often on creating opportunities for our students to conduct experiments and test ideas – but what about using the classroom itself as a site for discovery?
Action research has a long, established history as a methodology for helping individuals find ways of improving or refining behaviors, situations, and conditions. What makes action research unique it that it is meant to be interventionist and recursive – it is driven by and for the individuals who would benefit most from the changes, and is often modified as the research goes on. The end-goal may be change for a distinct group of individuals (e.g., one classroom) or for dissemination of best practices or content. Visionlearning is a prime example of how action research can lead to something substantial – it began in a Natural Science classroom to help students learn better, and has been disseminated internationally through the website and publications so that others can benefit.
Conducting action research does not require special training; it requires individuals who are interested in improving a situation and have some ideas about how those improvements might be made. In any classroom (science-based or otherwise), educators can engage students as co-researchers to answer questions that would benefit them all – improving conditions and teaching the process of inquiry along the way.
Key to the process is identifying a question that is answerable via data collection (e.g., Does group learning improve student engagement? or Does using reading blogs improve retention of scientific concepts?). In action research, those data streams might be as simple as regular check-ins with participants through interviews or focus-groups, collecting documents produced in the classroom, and/or conducting pre- and post-surveys. The data does not have to be something you can quantify, but it does need to speak to your questions. You should also collect more than one type of data so that you can triangulate (test the validity of your findings).
In our current educational paradigm, which puts a heavy emphasis on standards-based instruction, action research is a wonderful tool that educators can use to experiment with meeting the administration’s requirements, while also exploring alternative methods for instruction.
Do you participate in action research at your institution? If so, we would love to hear about your experiences – challenges as well as successes – in the comments below.
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Written by Heather Falconer
Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics from research writing to marine biology in the public and private educational sectors.