What is action research?

action research celta elt teacher research Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

A misunderstanding of research in general is that it is reserved for researchers; that is, teachers do the teaching and researchers do the research. This perception, however, is not accurate because most teachers are constantly looking for ways to improve their practice, and while they do this, they are conducting research.

Some teachers believe that they don’t have the training to conduct ‘proper’ research. While this might be the case, conducting action research may not necessarily involve complicated research methodologies.

A holistic view

In the broadest sense, action research is a means towards understanding problematic social situations and improving them (Burns, 2005). In language teaching and learning, action research usually involves practitioners (e.g., teachers, school principals) planning strategies in response to problems related to classroom management, teaching materials and language skills, for example.

Kemmis and McTaggart’s (1988) action research model consists of four steps:

  1. Plan: Understanding a problem and identifying potential strategies
  2. Action: Executing the strategies
  3. Observation: Noticing outcomes of the strategies
  4. Reflection: Evaluating the outcomes of the strategies

Although this simplified model is criticised for its seemingly fixed and predictable steps, Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) clarify that their model is not intended to be a step-by-step guide for action research in practice.

Theory and practice

An easy way to conduct an action research is to identify a problem, which can be the result of teacher reflection or of a casual conversation with fellow teachers. After identifying the issue, it is a good idea to clarify its scope by reading about it or talking through the problem with a colleague. A practical way is to write the problem on a piece of paper. At this stage, teachers may have some strategies in mind that may help to solve the problem. The next step is to select a strategy that is likely to result in a positive outcome, and to create and execute a classroom plan. It is necessary for teachers to record their observations and finally, think about how the strategy can be improved or how it helped to solve the problem.

Plan your action research today. Like most research, yours may not change the world. But you will have a better understanding of the problem and a more informed classroom practice.


Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38, 57-74.

Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (eds.) (1988). The action research planner (3rd ed.). Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Velychko