Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

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The Promise of Action Research

Debby Zambo, Arizona State University


Debby Zambo is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership. She teaches action research in an educational psychology and also teaches child development. Her research interests include action research, the perceptions of preservice teachers and students with special needs.



This study examined the perceptions pre-service teachers hold about learning and conducting action research. Results indicate that pre-service teachers can learn the process, believe that learning the process improves their thinking skills, and believe action research is applicable to their future. Fewer students felt that it helped them develop professionally or that it opened communication between them and their mentors. Students did not believe that their mentors cared or were interested in learning about action research.



As an instructor of pre-service teachers I often ask myself just what is it that my students need to know to persevere and become professionals. Marilyn Cochran-Smith (2004) uses the metaphor of “walking the road” (11) to exemplify the long, complex, and seeming endless journey that teachers embark upon as they traverse their career. Nieto (2003) suggests that teaching is a difficult job physically, mentally, and emotionally. This means that teachers must have the stamina to keep up with their students, be in tune with innovations in the field, and have the heart to connect with every child. New teachers face these challenges on their first day when they confront the “reality shock” of teaching (Veenman, 1984, 143). New teachers cannot ease into their responsibilities but they can be prepared to take on the challenges they will face.


The mental demands of teaching are greater today than ever before and new teachers must be savvy in their thinking. From the moment they walk into their classrooms they must make good judgments, think critically, and problem solve effectively in a complex field with many demands (Nieto, 2003). According to Lee Shulman (1987) teachers show their expertise in thinking when they are purposeful in their actions, when they reflect and set goals and provide rationales for what they do, and when they are able to supply evidence of their effectiveness. Along these same lines, Sternberg and Horvath (1995) believe that expert teachers are knowledgeable, efficient, and insightful. This means that an expert teacher’s thinking relies on research and proven theories instead of intuition and unproven facts. They use research to solve their problems and they are able to come up with creative and insightful solutions. It is the quality of their thinking that sets them apart.


Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

As a teacher educator I have turned to action research to help my pre-service teacher education students develop their thinking skills. Action research is gaining momentum in schools as a professional development tool and at universities as part of teacher preparation programs (Mills, 2004). Cocheran-Smith and Lytle (1993) define action research systematic study of an issue or problem in one’s situation, with the goal of bringing about improved pedagogy and productive outcomes. Teachers who conduct action research may investigate the effectiveness of a program, gather information on their own teaching, or conduct an in-depth study of a child.


My students are in a two-year professional program that includes both coursework and experience in the field. Due to the hands-on nature of their field experience they get a glimpse into the reality and responsibilities of daily classroom life. They begin to feel the demands and tensions of teaching and as a result they begin to voice their concerns. They are concerned about taking on the many responsibilities of a classroom. They worry about discipline, knowing the subject matter, working with diverse learners, and gaining the cooperation and support of parents. However, along with their concerns I see a determination, commitment, and passion to do things better than before. My students have a vision of what it means to be an effective teacher and they want to be a teacher who reaches and teaches each child. They understand the need for expert teachers and they long to become experts themselves.


To help teachers develop their expertise calls for a new vision of professional development and one way documented in the literature is through action research. Oja & Smulyan (1989) report that action research helps teachers become more flexible and open-minded. These authors note that when teachers work together on a common problem "clarifying and negotiating ideas and concerns, they will be more likely to change their minds if research indicates such change is necessary” (14-15). Likewise, Cardelle-Elewar (1993) notes that action research helps teachers become more critical and analytical. In her work she found that when teachers engaged in collaborative action research they form partnerships and that partnerships open dialogue and critique. Teachers who openly communicate delve deeper, think longer, and more honestly about what they do. Holly (1990) states that action research tends to make teachers more proactive and self-directed. Holly believes that when teachers do action they produce evidence that they can solve their own problems. Being able to show one’s effectiveness leads a teacher to trust their own judgment and become less reliant on outside experts. Similar to Holly’s ideas, Dadds (1995) and Loucks-Horsley, Hewen, Love, and Stiles (1998) conclude that participation in action research helps teachers gain self-confidence. Finally, Darling-Hammond and Mc Laughlin (1995) report that doing action research helps teachers become more reflective. These researchers believe that teachers who engaged in action research explore, question, and think about their practice and what is happening in their classrooms. Research indicates to that there is much promise in the art of teaching, the science of research, and a merging of the two (Zuber-Skerritt, 1996).


Action Research and Collaboration

The challenges of teaching are great and new teachers often find themselves in a lonely struggle to survive. Teaching has been noted to be “the loneliest of professions” and for new teachers this loneliness may cause them to feel isolated and without support. Nieto (2003) notes that a sense of community can be the initiative for many teachers to persevere. New teachers, like all others, need to feel that they are part of the system; that they have power and say in what goes on at their school. New teachers need to feel included and they need to develop their voice. The best place to do this is in communities that promote intellectual work, allow open dialogue, and provide needed support (Cochran-Smith, 2004). In their research, Levin and Rock (2003) discovered that when new teachers do action research with mentors they understand each other better, communicate more effectively, and develop insight about themselves and each other. However, these researchers also describe a drawback of collaborative action if communication is not open, responsibilities are not shared, and voices are not respected.


New teachers and pre-service teachers must both walk that bumpy road and as a result, they are alike in many ways. They have a passion for teaching, want to have a voice in their school, and many times feel isolated and removed. As an action researcher, I often reflect on what I do in my classroom and wonder if the assignments I ask my students to do help them over those early bumps and support their needs. In my class students, all of whom are pre-service teachers, do action research at their field placement sites. As the instructor of this process I have strong beliefs about the value and benefits of doing action research. However, I began to wonder if my students’ beliefs were similar to mine. I became interested in learning, in a systematic manner, my students’ thoughts about action research and to do this I designed a survey study. The study was developed to help me as an instructor know if the way I taught action research helped my students learn the process and cycle of action research and if my students thought it would be used by them in their future career. In addition, I wanted to understand my students’ perceptions of its contributions to their problems solving abilities and their professional growth as educators. As an instructor this information is important because I want my students to have the thinking skills and professionalism they will need those early years of their careers. I wanted to know how my students felt about the help and support they received from their mentor teacher teachers because college instructors often forget their importance in the lives of pre-service teachers.



Setting and Participants

This study took place at a public metropolitan university located in the southwestern United States. One hundred, seven students enrolled in four sections of a required, 3-credit, educational psychology course that was part of the teacher education program participated in the study. The course was taught over fifteen weeks and classes met for seventy-five minutes twice a week. All students in this study were juniors and there were no other level of students because students are in our college are in cohorts and being in cohorts they take courses at specified times. The educational psychology course with the action research component is taken during their second semester and none of the students had ever conducted or learned about action research prior to this course. The students in this study were all enrolled in the college of education and were taking 12 credit hours along with a field-experience that entailed an additional 5-10 hours a week. Field placements ranged from pre-kindergarten to the high school level in nearby inner city schools. These students were typical of those enrolled at our college that is a commuter school that serves over 7,300 students on an urban campus. Because we are a commuter school many of our students come from working-class families and many work-full time while they pursue their degree. The majority of our students are Anglo and approximately 95% of them are female between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six. Students who participated in this study were treated as a coherent group due to the high level of homogeneity on several factors, gender, ethnicity, and age. Questionnaire data were treated this way because I was not looking to compare groups. There were not sufficient numbers to disaggregate students on other factors for example, less than 10 of the students were males. 


Development of the Questionnaire

To create the questionnaire I used research in action research, research in cognitive psychology on expert thinking, and my personal experiences teaching action research. In developing the subscales I looked at overarching themes that these sources provided.


The first area I wanted to investigate was whether the way I taught action research helped my students understand the process and cycle. I wanted to know if doing a project helped them learn how to find a focus, create data collection methods, collect and analyze data, use literature to become informed, and create an effective intervention plan. Items in this variable came from the requirements I set for my projects. These ideas were derived from various action research cycles reported in the literature like The Action Research Cycle by Calhoun (1994), Stringer’s (1993) Action Research Spiral, and Mills (2003) Dialectic Action Research Spiral.


The next variable of interest was students’ perceptions regarding the effect of action research on their development of expertise. I wanted to know if my students believed that learning how to do action research improved their problems solving and critical thinking skills. To create this category I examined what Shulman (1987) and Sternberg and Horvath (1995) said on the thinking of experts and found effective problem solving, making good judgments, and critical thinking to be themes that arose. I also used what others like Cardelle-Elewar, (1993), Dadds, (1995), Holly, (1990), Loucks-Horsley, et al, (1998), and Oja and Smulyan, (1989) said about the positive effects of action research on developing of expertise. Merging these two areas helped me develop the questions for this subscale.


Third, I wondered if students believed learning how to do action research helped them grow professionally. I wanted to know if my students’ thought that action research helped them become more reflective and more committed to education. Along these same lines I also wondered if my students’ believed learning how to do action research changed their ideas about teaching. I developed this subscale because of one of my personal experiences teaching action research. As an instructor I get to listen to students’ concerns and their ideals as they strive to become professionals. This tacit knowledge was merged with research that indicates that action research has the potential to enhance professional development (Darling-Hammond & Mc Laughlin, 1995; Oja & Smulyan, 1989). These researchers believe that teachers who engaged in action research explore, question, and think about their practice and what is happening and narrow the gap between aspirations and reality (Elliott, 1980). Specifically, I wondered if my students thought that action research helped them feel more reflective, more committed, empowered, and open to reform.


A fourth area of investigation was the impact of their mentor teacher on their projects and the effect of action research on their relationship between their mentor teachers and themselves. I wondered if mentor teachers knew how to do action research, if they became interested in the projects, and if students felt that they received the support and feedback they needed. I created this subscale because researchers like Cardell-Elewar (1993), Catelli (1995) and Cocheran-Smith and Lyttle, (1993) found positive reciprocal benefits for teachers and their mentees when they conducted action research as a team. In contrast, the work of Levin and Rock (2003) notes the drawbacks of doing action research if cooperation and openness are not fostered and mutual respect achieved.


Finally, I wanted to know if our students saw the applicability of action research to their futures. Nowhere in the literature did I find mention of this variable relating to action research. Due to this missing information we turned to the theory of future time perspective (FPT) because it emphasizes that future goals influence present motivation and learning (Husman & Lens, 1999). Students with a long FTP develop more long-term, rather than short-term goals because they realize that their present actions apply to their future needs (Manderlink & Harackiewicz, 1984). Using the theory of FTP I wanted to understand if my students saw the relevance and applicability of action research in their future classrooms. I wondered if they would use it in their classrooms and if this inspired them to learn about action research and do well on their project


Questionnaire and Procedure

The questionnaire contained 22 Likert-type items targeting five subscales. The subscales I used and their items were:

Doing the project taught them how to do action research

·        Doing the action research project helped me learn how to analyze data.

·        Doing the action research project helped me learn how to collect data.

·        Doing the action research project has helped me learn how to create interventions.

·        Doing the action research project helped me learn how to use current literature to solve problems/gain information.


Learning action research developed their expertise by improving thinking/problem -solving skills

·        Learning how to do action research made me a more critical thinker about education.

·        Learning how to do action research made me a better problem solver about educational issues.

·        Having an action research component in an education program helps develop expert teachers.

·        My action research project helped solve a problem in my intern classroom.


Learning action research helped them develop professionally

·        Action research has made me a more reflective educator.

·        Action research helped change some of my preconceived notions about teaching.

·        Knowing how to do action research has caused me to grow professionally.

·        I feel empowered because I know how to do action research.

·        Learning how to do action research has made me more committed to education.


Mentor was knowledgeable and interested in their project and the project helped their relationship


The applicability of action research to their future


Participants completed the questionnaire during their regular class time during the final week of the semester. Students indicated their level of agreement or disagreement on each item on a four point scale with 1 = strongly disagree, 2 =disagree, 3 =agree, and 4 =strongly agree.



A total of 107 students completed the questionnaire. This was the number of students who were in class on the day it was administered. There were 4 students absent and they did not complete the questionnaire.  The reliability of the questionnaire in its entirety and of the individual variables as measured by coefficient-alpha was high.  The alphas were: entire survey = .96, Doing = .88, Thinking = .81, Professional Development = .92, Mentor = .81, and Future = .83.


The mean for each of the variables was computed as the means of the responses to questions related to that variable. As a result, variable means were not limited to scores of 4, 3, 2, or 1; instead they were continuous data. To aid in interpretation of these scores 2.5 was considered as the mid-point. Scores above 2.5 were considered in agreement and scores below 2.5 were considered as disagreement. The means and standard deviations for the variables were: learning to do action research (M = 2.81, SD = .47), thinking and problem solving (M = 2.76, SD = .47), professional development (M = 2.61, SD = .57), mentor impact/involvement (M = 2.23, SD = .63), and applicability to future (M = 2.81, SD = .52).


The percent of students whose variable means were above 2.5 and below 2.5 were determined. Seventy-six percent of the students had a subscale score above 2.5 indicating that they agree that doing the project taught them how to do action research. Twenty-four percent had a subscale score below 2.5. Seventy-one percent of the students had a subscale score above 2.5 indicating that they believe that action research improved their thinking skills while twenty-nine percent had a subscale score below 2.5. Sixty-one percent of the students had a subscale score above 2.5 indicating they thought that action research helped them grow professionally and thirty-nine percent had a subscale score below 2.5. Fewer students had subscale scores above 2.5 when it cam to beliefs about mentor teachers. Thirty-six percent had a subscale score above 2.5 indicating while sixty-four percent had subscales below. In regard to the applicability of action research to their futures, seventy-six percent of the students had a subscale scores above 2.5. Students believed that action research was relevant to their career and would be used by them in their future classrooms. Twenty-four percent had a subscale score below 2.5. 


Paired Sample t-tests were also conducted to look for differences between selected variables. A significant difference was found, t (1, 106) = 8.68, p<.001 between doing the action research project and the interest, experience, and support of the mentor teachers with means of 2.81 and 2.23, respectively. Students felt that they learned how to do action research but few felt there was interest and support from their mentors. A significance difference was also found, t (1, 106) = 3.58, p<.001 between thinking (2.80) and professional development (2.60) with means of 2.76 and 2.61, respectively. Students felt that learning how to do action research enhanced their thinking and problem solving skills but fewer felt it helped them grow professionally. Last, a significant difference was found, t (1, 106) = 5.43, p<.001 between professional development and future use with means of 2.60 and 2.81 respectively. Students felt they would use action research in their future classrooms but fewer felt that it helped them grow professionally.


Discussion and Conclusion

Action research is gaining momentum in schools as a tool for professional development and at universities as part of teacher preparation. As an instructor working with pre-service teachers I wanted to understand how my students felt about learning the process of action research and the benefits, if any, they felt they gained. While the findings of this study have limitations in generalizing to other populations, the insight it provides is useful to others in similar situations.


Using a structured format and requiring students to conduct an action research project helped them learn how to do action research. Questionnaire results tell me that my students believe that they can complete each step of the action research cycle because they learned how to do action research n my course. My students know how to identify a classroom problem, conduct a literature review, design ways to collect data, collect and analyze data, and create an intervention plan. While this result is encouraging, I recognize that students need continued practice so they can refine and extend their skills. Becoming a teacher is an evolution that comes about as new teachers go into the field (Cochran-Smith, 2004). The rewards of doing action research will deepen over time when my students use it to identify and solve problems in their own classrooms. My students have a foundation in the process of but need nurturing and encouragement to continue using action research throughout their careers. 


The results also indicate that my students believe that doing the project improved their thinking and their problem solving skills. This is another promising finding because the mental demands of teaching are high. New teachers cannot ease into their responsibilities. From their first day they have the same physical, mental, and emotional demands that all other teachers face. They must think critically, make good judgments, and show evidence of their success. The questionnaire indicates that my students believe that doing action research helped them learn these skills.


Another promising finding from the questionnaire was that many students saw the relevance and applicability of action research to their career as educators and many indicated that they would use it in their futures. Being in a professional program they have a goal of becoming a teacher and to get there they know they must learn strategies that will help them later when they have classrooms of their own. My students are able to see the applicability of action research to their future needs and this motivated them to learn because of the promises that it holds.


Students believe that doing action research improved their thinking and would be used by them in their future but fewer felt that it helped them grow professionally. This included feeling empowered, rejecting preconceived notions, and becoming more committed to the field. Lower scores on this subscale may result from the strong commitment that many new teachers already have. In my students I see a determination and passion to do things better than before. John Elliott (2003) notes that action research starts with a sense of frustration, employs creative possibilities, and is built upon a commitment to do things differently and bring one’s profession in lines with one’s values and ideals. Unfortunately, the reality shock of teaching causes many concerns and may case many new teachers to lose their ideals. New teachers want to be come highly qualified professionals in the field. Action research is a tool we can give them to help them hold on to their ideals.


Unfortunately, numbers also fell when it came to mentor teachers. Students felt to a significant degree that they learned the process despite the fact that they felt that mentor teachers did not know how to conduct action research and were not interested in their projects. They also did not feel that doing the project opened communication between their mentors and themselves. This was insightful and enforced the importance of informing and enlightening mentors about the benefits and process of action research. Teaching can be a lonely field and research shows that doing collaborative action research has the potential to foster the voice, community, and support that new teachers need. However, it has also been noted that when action research is conducted time, resources, and support are a necessity (Levin & Rock. 2003). Finding mentor teachers is often a challenge as teacher responsibilities and pressures grow. In an ideal world, I would have all my students placed in schools where action research is used as a means of professional development for their entire staff but not all schools are embracing this ideal.


Results from this survey provide insight into to my initial questions. My students believe that they learned the process of action research but more importantly they understand that it develops their thinking and problem solving skills. They also think it is a useful tool and will be something they use in their future classrooms. My students are not as concerned with professionalism as they are with maintaining their ideals. New teachers long to do things better and doing action research gives them a process they can use to show that they are effecting change. Finally, I learned that action research does not exist in isolation. Novice teachers need the support and commitment of their mentors to nurture them as they develop their skills to do action research. The power of action research lies in its ability to foster discourse and communities of support that new teachers need.



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