A Self-Study of the Teaching of Action Research in a University Context

Apr. 02, 2011

Source: Studying Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2011, 35–49
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article reports a self-study of the experiences of a teacher educator who has developed and taught a university-based action research course.

Method and Data: A self-study
The empirical data for this self-study were gathered in the author's university classroom.
The author adopted self-study as the methodology, using qualitative data collection methods.

Data were collected over the four semesters; class sizes ranged from 10 to 25 students.
The collected data were:
(a) the syllabi, textbook, handouts, quizzes, and exams;
(b) notes of class discussions and office conversations; and
(c) work submitted by students, student email correspondence, and comments on course evaluations.

Data analysis was driven by two research questions:
(1) What do the students understand and not understand about action research? What is hindering their understanding of action research? What pedagogical concerns about a university-based action research course have I identified?
(2) What can the author do to help these teacher-researchers better understand the concept of action research and help them carry out a meaningful action research project?

Themes in the Data

Despite the enormous benefits of action research, teaching it in a university setting presents a series of challenges.
The article describes three themes which emerged during the action research.

Theme 1: Teacher culture clashes with the research world
The author struggled with how to help them move from the idea that there is a single right answer to an inquiry-based perspective that encourages multi-layered understandings, multiple perspectives, and complex thinking.

Theme 2: Teachers’ assumptions about teaching and learning
Contrary to the student-centered goals of action research, the author found that none of the students’ action research projects collected data from the students’ learning perspective.
By equating student scores with learning, the experiment designs left little room to explore the processes and implications of student learning.
When they studied the effectiveness of an instructional method, their teaching was the data, but what they analyzed were the students’ scores, not the teaching itself.

Theme 3: Action research, domesticated by traditional research
The third theme concerns the fact that the research design chosen by the teachers conformed to traditional positivistic research rather than to action research.

Implications for Teacher Educators

This self-study leads the author to suggest that the problems that arose can be explained by considering the culture of teacher education, institutional factors, and pedagogical factors.

Culture in Teacher Education
The prevalent culture, of which we tend to be unaware, often hinders teachers from rigorous analysis and inquiry on their own.
Teacher education programs can begin the process of identifying and challenging the prevalent culture.
Teacher educators should consider action research as a way to promote critical, creative, and reflective thinking skills.

The Institutional Level
University-based action research has limitations because teacher educators are not able to reach a full understanding of the specific context where the research is conducted.
The author suggests that each faculty member should have a small number of students with whom he or she can make school visits and engage in the projects over an extended period with more in-depth commitment.
That way, teacher educators could build insider knowledge and encourage classroom teachers to use their insider knowledge.

However, as the action research course is taught in a university setting, the status of action research has been shaped by the university’s mission of fostering academic competence.
In the institutional context, academic writing has been the sole way of measuring the excellence of action research.
By expanding the ways in which the inquiry process is presented, teacher educators can be more successful in promoting the goals of action research.

The Pedagogical Level
There are more practical solutions drawn from this experience for teacher educators who develop an action research course.
First, textbook selection has to be made in alignment with the purpose of action research.

Specific assignments that the author suggests are reflective journaling on teaching, or writing a narrative on a case.
Incorporating these assignments could strengthen the reflective nature of action research and distinguish it from technical aspects of research.
Sharing exemplary articles shows how a teacher poses a question and works to resolve it within a particular context.
Equally important is having opportunities to celebrate inquiry, knowledge of practice, and expertise in the classroom.
Fundamentally, teacher educators should teach how action research is distinctively different from traditional research with its own epistemological assumptions.

Concluding Comments

This self-study has been a powerful and profoundly personal experience that has generated important insights into the complex challenges of teaching action research to classroom teachers within the assumptions and constraints of the university context.

Updated: Nov. 24, 2013