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Tutorial 10: Cycles of Change

Tutorial 10: Resources

A. The Cyclic Nature of Action Research


If we look back to the multiple understandings of action research we should have added a poll question about the role of cycles in action research.  For some, the very nature of action research is the commitment to work over time.  Other forms of research look across contexts at one time, action research looks at the same activity system over time.  The difficulty is that university programs are not always long enough to accommodate the multiple cycles of action research and focus on help students learn how to accomplish at least one cycle of action research.  In the case of trying to do action research over a very short period of time, say in a one-semester course, the cycles can be very small.  It is, for example, possible to use action research to increase your leadership skills using each group meeting as a cycle of research.  Many researchers agree with me that iterative design is a critical and necessary dimension of action research.  For example,  The University of Warwick  shares this advice on cycles of research. 


The Action Research Cycle:

The action research cycle consists of four steps –

those of planning, acting, observing and reflecting.

Usually represented in a cycle or spiral illustration. 





Action Research Cycle

How you conduct these separate steps is up to you. Other parts of this site deal with the different methods of observation. The essential elements of these steps are that they are:

  • small – the idea being that the research is responsive to any findings that may occur, i.e don’t carry out a second action before you’ve had a chance to reflect on your first

  • practicable – an incredible innovative plan is no good unless you can implement it simply, and its effects are open to observation

  • inclusive – action research usually has not only catalytic validity but is also accountable, disseminated to colleagues, and above all, shared by the people who are being acted upon and observed (i.e. tell your students what you’re doing and why). This is because the leading action research gurus have mainly also had a humanist agenda about social change and altruism. It’s not essential, but perhaps still desirable.

  • re-iterated – the cycle can be gone through as many times as is necessary, or until you run out of time.


The challenge is when is a cycle finished and when is it time to plan a new cycle.  Often the action that was put in place continues and the next time it starts over might be too far in the future for the academic timeline.  It is possible to have cycles that shift a bit from the first.  The first cycle might make visible a new problem, a different idea, or a plan to take the action to different actors.   The reflective activity is what officially ends a cycle, through the lens of action research lighting up another part of the overall activity system.  Often the first cycle uncovers problems that could have been solved by some sort of preparatory work with perhaps a forgotten stakeholder.  This change becomes the second cycle.  A description of the cycles of action research by the Clark County School District might also help you think about the process of cycles. You can learn more about how they are using action research by exploring their action research site.​


B. Improvement Science and Cycles of Innovation


The public schools in Austin Texas are using a research process recently promoted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This info chart provides a good description of the cyclic process of doing action research. Here is a short video in which Austin Principal John Roca from Menchaca school describes how action research is helping new teachers learn to teach:











At their school, they use time as a marker of cycles. The teachers have 2-week check-in with their mentor teacher but this does not necessarily mean that the cycles are all two weeks long.

Visit improvement science in action and listen to Tony Bryk talk about it these "new" ideas. Test your understanding of action research.  Use this chart to see how improvement science compares to action research.  Improvement science is very clear on the value of cyclic, improvement. Their goal is not to get teachers to do a project but rather to start them on a process of continual innovation.





















Note the cycles of improvement increase in scope. It starts with the action research of one principal and then the learning extends as more principals and more school engage in the same process. So the teachers, as well as the principals, are doing action research.

You can also learn more about improvement science by watching Tony Bryk's short video and then exploring the resources on the Carnegie Foundation site.

















C. Explore Action Research Reports to Understand Cycles





All of the action research reports on the Center for Collaborative Action Research are done in cycles.  You can read about how these action researchers linked their work to improve their skills in cycles. 


In the first example, Matt Jones in his action research was exploring ways to use technology to increase his effectiveness as a swim coach.  His overall research question was: "How can  I use  social learning technology to increase swimmer performance?" 

 In cycle one, he used an underwater camera to videotape his swimmer's practice.  Then he moderated student discussions where they viewed and analyzed each other swim strokes in terms of body position,  the pull and the kick, as well as other features. In his second cycle, he wondered if it might increase effective learning if the interaction took place online.  As often happens in a first or second cycle, things did not advance as well as he had expected.  Reflecting on the process he noted that the structured analysis that was present in the group discussions was missing online.   In the final cycle, he introduced a method of analysis to help the students give more effective online feedback to their peers.   He does a good job of summarizing the study, the findings, and his learning in his final reflection.  But here we are only looking at the flow of the circles from one to the next. 

Jones, M.  (2013) Seeing Below the Surface, How Technology Can Make Coaching a Shared Experience, Center for Collaborative Action Research. (Accessed on Aug 15, 2018)


Anne Smith provides a different example.  The problem she identified was a number of students were sliding through schools with D's.  She reported on a series of three smaller action cycles which she groups in her first cycle.   She started with the idea of taking away the option of passing with a D. She wanted them to either doing well enough to earn a C or flunk with an F.  She had to check this with her principal and with parents. Once she had permission, she started the first cycle.   The other two activities evolved from the first.  The students wanted an option to redo their work.  And then they wanted to know what needed to change in order to get the grades they wanted.    The first part of each of the research questions specified her action and the second part specifies the outcomes that she planned to assess. 


Cycle One Research Questions:
If I remove the possibility of my students getting a D, will my students…

  • aim for the higher grade because failure isn’t an option

  • be more motivated to try harder

  • need more assistance from me to help when they aren’t understanding

  • be more engaged in their learning

  • seek out extra assistance when they aren’t understanding


If I give my students no deadlines except for at the end of each 6-week grading period,

will the students…

  • redo the assignment over and over until they demonstrate their understanding

  • seek extra assistance to turn in their best work

  • start redoing assignments less because they do it correctly the first time

  • be more motivated to be successful

  • become better writers with multiple revisions of their work


 If I have my students create their own rubric for assessing A, B, C, and F work, will the students…

  • have a clear understanding of their grade

  • have a clear understanding of the assessment

  • redo assignments less because they know what is expected from them in order to achieve

  • be more motivated to be successful


So while Ann Smith decided to combine these "subcycles" into cycle 1, she could have reported each of these as a separate cycle.  Action researchers can decide where to make these breaks.  Anne continued all three of these practices throughout the year, but the focus of her action research shifted as moved from cycle to cycle.  (Explore her action research report to see how this project evolved across two more cycles. 


The point of the examples is to show how the project evolves through refining and extending the cycles.  Looking through the set of action research reports just to see how cycles evolved will provide many different examples for how to move from one cycle to the next. 

Improvement Science
Action Research Reports
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