Action Research is a term used to describe a particular approach to evaluation that is consistent with the Trust’s Knowledge into Action approach.  At its simplest Action Research is described as a cycle of Planning, Acting, Observing, and Reflecting.  

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Action research is a collaborative approach to inquiry.  It asks questions, analyses responses, tests out new actions on the basis of those responses and then asks further questions.  In this way, action research tests out ideas as they are developed and provides ‘real-time’ feedback about what’s working and how.  This produces practical knowledge rooted in the experience and practice of those most closely involved.

UK Government guidelines suggest examples of situations when action research might be particularly useful:

  • To support a novel way of working or delivering an intervention.
  • A policy is based on a new or unproven theory of change and little evidence is available about how it might work in practice.
  •  There are a number of feasible alternative options for delivering a policy and it would be helpful to test them.
  • A policy is being delivered in a challenging implementation environment.

Action research aims to develop practical knowledge by undertaking research with and by people, rather than on them.  Rather than being a passive audience for research and consultation, beneficiaries and providers become active ‘co-researchers’.  There are a number of main features to action research.

  •  It is likely to be participatory – to involve beneficiaries, staff at all levels and others with an interest in the way that project activities are organised and delivered.  See the Participatory Evaluation section elsewhere in the toolkit.
  • It is also likely to be appreciative; focusing on the aspects of the activity that are valued in order to build on them and to generate momentum for change. See the Appreciative Inquiry section of the toolkit for more information.
  • The scope of the inquiry is unlikely to be tightly defined in advance, but open to issues and concerns that emerge and are of most concern to those involved.
  • The emphasis is likely to be on developing a dialogue about delivery and effectiveness, and on staying closely attuned to what matters in the delivery context.

Action research may use a variety of methods, bothqualitativeandquantitative. The choice of techniques will depend on the purpose of the inquiry and should be chosen by those who are part of that process. Participatory techniques are of particular relevance in this context.