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Center For Collaborative Action
Pages and Files
TI: Overview of Action Research
T2: Understanding Action Research
T3: Your Research Question
T4: The Context
T5: Plan For Action
T6: Cycle 1 in an Iterative Process
T7: Collecting Data
T8: Analyzing Data
T9: Reflecting on your Actions
T10: Cycles of Change
T11: Writing your Action Research Report
T12: Your Identity as an Action Researcher
Click the globe to see our 3-D
Action Research Neighborhood
AR Sharing Overview
Sharing AR syllabi
Cycles of Actions
Reports & Portfolios
Rubrics for Assessment
Evaluating Student Work
Journal for publishing Action Research
Q and A
Sharing Outcomes from
Doing Action Research
Overview of Outcomes
AR World Map of SITES
planning action research
"We must become the change we want to see in the world
." -- Mahatma Gandh
1) Resources for Writing a Rich Description of your Social Setting
Writing a rich or "thick" description requires paying attention to a number of factors some of which are not immediately apparent in the setting. The idea or goal is to give your readers a sense of what features of the setting will be important for understanding your action research.
One set of resources is exploring how others have described there setting... Here are some examples from work published on the Center for Collaborative Action Research
In Joel Lowsky"
Action Research Portfolio
, click on "Field of Action"
In Karen Elinich's
Action Research Portfolio
In Chris Bigalow's
Action Research Portfolio
In might also be helpful to refer to the
Activity Theory Model
for creating your description of the setting... The intersecting triangles with Action, Outcome, Community, Tools, Roles and Rules, can provide a way to think about elements of the setting that are important to capture.
2) Resources for Reviewing the Literature around your Action Research Topic
What is a review of the literature?
This following section assumes your action research is being done, in part, for a graduate degree. If you are doing action research for professional development outside of a degree program, you might want to look at these
A literature review is a creative way of organizing what has been written about a topic by scholars and researchers. It is doing a favor for your readers. You are collecting and highlighting information that they might want to read. You will find literature reviews at the beginning of many essays, research reports, or theses. To write the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what you have learned through a careful reading of a set of articles related to your research question. The literature review should be organized around a small set of concepts, themes, critical dimensions, debates that are related to your research objective, the problem or issue you are exploring.
It is NOT just a descriptive list of a set of studies; it is not a set of summaries of papers arranged without structure. It is NOT an annotated bibliography.
In creating a literature review you acquire and demonstrate your evolving expertise in an area. You will being demonstrating the following:
* Ability to find significant articles, valid studies, or seminal writings that are related to your topic...(research skills--notice that research is different than "search" that is because it is more than searching for information).
* Analytic ability to synthesize and summarize different views on a topic or issue. (This is repeated searching with an analytic evaluation =researching)
* Writing skill in weaving the resources together to give a picture of past research as it relates to your specific topic.
of a Literature Review
Your specific goals may vary but generally you are trying to do one, or more, of the following:
Ground your problem in the content of those who have struggled with the problem or issue in the past.
Describe how your approach will be similar or different from what what has been tried in similar settings in the past.
Suggest new ways of a solving a problem by combining or contrasting past approaches.
Describe a conflict that you are going to explore by trying one or more strategies.
Establish the need for your research.
Demonstrate your command over the topic
Identify the community of people who care about your topic or problem
A literature review does not
Share details about your research site
Directly assert your ideas on the topic
Indicated what you believe should or must be done in future
The lit review is not about your ideas-- it is about summarizing the ideas of others.
Here is a good overview of a lit review for graduate students from the North Carolina State Library:
Conducting the Literature Review
You will need to first identify a
problem, or research question.
(The literature review will help you understand more about this topic or problem).
You will need to identify the
of literature and good
techniques to find relevant studies or articles. You will not have time to do an exhaustive search so you should decide on where you will look and how you will organize you search. A small set of the most relevant resources is what you are trying to find. You have access to an online library and you will need to learn how to use it. You will want to find how others have attempted solutions to your problem.
You will need to
the results of your search. What are reading? You should be able to distinguish between:
popular press articles,
practitioner magazines with ideas and "success stories, "
publications where respected leaders in the field describe their work and its implication with a wide audience
research journals that are peer reviewed where new knowledge is reported and debated by the a community of practice.
Did you find a small set of materials that were closely related to what you are interested in doing? Don't be worried if you find someone has already done your study. This is a valuable resource. It will give you clues as to what you might or might not find. It is very useful--your study will be different, because you are in a different setting, so don't worry.
Replication is an important part of science.
The hardest part is to
the literature you read. You need to abstract a set of concepts and questions, compare items to each other discussion strengths and weaknesses. This is more than a summary and you had a great group experience doing this on the wiki.
The result should be a fair and balanced treatment of a subject that helps a reader
from your creative work.
Finding the Literature to Review
Use Google Scholar and access you might have to any library electronic databases to find recent journal articles, unpublished papers, research instruments, etc. Set up the Scholar
to help you. (It has an option to set up library links to a nearby library if you want to do some walking, and you can set up download citation to work with refworks.)
Visit your library and ask the liberian to help you
With any search tool, choose "Advanced Search" rather than "Basic Search"
Eric Educational Resource
s, use "descriptors" and with others, "subjects," instead of keywords, for narrowing down your searches and getting focused results. (Thesaurus tab on www.eric.ed.gov. lets you search for descriptors / subjects and show you acronyms you may want to try.) For instrument search using
, select "tests/questionnaires" in "publication types" on the advanced search view.
For locating measurement tools, to use in your efforts to collect evidence, try using such terms as "measures" "instruments" "research instruments", "scales", "questionnaires" or"surveys."
If you cannot find a copy of full text of an article, try sending a note to the author. Most universities have a convention so with the university name and some checking into the convention, you generally can find the author's email.
A new networking site built around research -
- might also be helpful.
your research topic
, here are some links that might be helpful -- feel free to add more!
Read and Taking Notes with a Clear Purpose
At first you will be reading to understand the materials. But then you should start to look for major concepts, conclusions, theories, arguments etc. that surround your topic. Be attentive to similarities and differences as you explore similar studies. Here are some guidelines for note taking.
You can use a software program such as endnotes (expensive) or refworks (free), zotero (free) , Papers (inexpensive), or note programs like evernotes (free), or SOHO notes (inexpensive) ( others listed on the
under collaborative tools tab). Or you might want to set up a template in excel or a form in Google Docs that links to a spreadsheet (
see form and spreadsheet example
) , or use a table in word.
Here are some ideas for what you mighttrack
Who is the author and what institution do they come from.
What is the problem or issue that is central and how is it defined. Look at the language used as it will reveal a great deal about the perspective of the author. Who is the audience and what do you think that purpose of the writer is?
What literature did the author use to define the problem. Is there a theoretical perspectives on learning or on technology?
What is the goal of the writer? Is the paper a celebration of a activity or an effort to understand what happened and why?
Can you identify the author's theoretical framework? Look for what theories are cited in the literature review and they relate to any studies cited.
Examine the relationship of the literature relevant to the problem/issue in the article. How did this person approach the problem?
Without extensive background in research, it may be difficult to evaluate the design but think about the methods. If you were to follow the same procedures would you find the same results (reliability) and do you think that the methods used helped to understand what was taking place (validity).
You may be reading articles that suggest a method or a project and provide the inspirational account of the process. Look to see if the writer also can reflect on what things did not work as well. If everything was perfect, you might not be reading the whole story. Look for discussions of problems or setbacks which suggest a balanced discussion of the project.
Examine the logic of the argument and how it relates to the question that you posed.
How does the article help you think about your issue or questions? How was it helpful and what was missing?
Are there any possible quotes that you might use in your paper...(see below for my guideline for when to and when not to use a direct quote.) Remember to include the page number for the citation (authorlastname, date, pagenumber)
You will need the reference citation in APA format. (I put in the authors name and reference and often find I can just copy the listing but you have to be able to recognize APA style).
Creating the Structure of your Review
A literature review has an overall structure or organization and there is an organization at the paragraph or section level. First, some advice for the overall structure is provided, followed by advice on how to write at the paragraph level.
1) Overall Structure
You will need to decide how to organize the lit review and there are many different ways of doing this. Keep in mind that anytime you have a list of things, the order should be meaningful. So if you decided on a number of sections that you want to include, think about how they are related.
Do the readings fit together as elements of a model or parts of a theory?
Do the issues move from large scope to a small focus?
Is time an important factor in organizing the material?
Have advancements in technology for example, affected the interpretation of the studies?
Is location of the research relevant
to the findings?
Are there a set of re-occurring themes in the literature that you can use as frame?
Is there an ongoing debate with one or more sides?
Will your reading be familiar with your topic, of do you need to do some definitional work?
The answers to these questions will help you think through the structure.
As you start to read, start thinking of how you will organize what you are reading. Pay attention to how others do this. If one article describes five crucial issues, another lists three and two other articles discuss issues that are not mentioned in the first two, you might come up with a composite list of what you think are the four or five most important issues and use these to organize your review. If you are looking at a technological tool interacting with a community, you might want to look at how this tool was introduced and what we know about about it success in different contexts. Your action research might include two topics, for example you might be looking at a problem and tool that you think will help with the solution of the problem. You might then use the first part of the lit review to discuss a brief history of the problem-- how do we know that the problem exists? For example of you are looking at issues of student engagement, what do research say about student engagement and perhaps you find three important themes. And suppose your action research involves using a technology tool, say video production or wikis or screencasts. The second part of your lit review might be studies that suggest these tools are linked to increasing student motivation. So what are some possible structures for the lit review?
Broad to Narrow
You widen the lens dealing with broad issues and then focus on your specific problem. Problem could be described first in general society, then in education, in schools and finally in the classroom perhaps focusing on research which looks at the how the problem effects the teacher -student relationship.
- You use time to organize the findings - this is good if our ideas have taken a real shift. For example, it might be relevant to look at findings before and after a policy like No child left behind.
- This is similar to chronological but it is tied to specific advancements that happened. Dealing with technology, there might be a story where the availability of different tools made a significant difference in the way your topic was studied. So for one-ton -one computing, as the technology changes, this takes on different meaning. Early studies might have been with desk computers, then with laptops, followed by handhelds devices, and most recently tablets like the ipad.
- Often the community has more than one view. So for example, is online learning more or less effective then classroom learning. Often you lay out one thesis, followed by an antithesis and then a synthesis. So the thesis might be that online learning is better. You would start with evidence that supports this. Then you would summarize research that challenge the thesis are provide an antithesis. Finally, you would discuss research that attempts to explain why some people find an effect and other people don't. For example, you might point out in research studies of the same teacher in face-to-fact setting, the online settings is not a fair comparison because in one setting the teacher is high experience and in the other a novice, thus the comparison is not valid.
Thematic Organization based on a model, theory, or set of dimension
- There might we a framework you are using, like structural, functional or organizational factors. A theory might predict a number of different outcomes and the theory could be used to organize the lit review. There maybe some agreement in the literature about a list of important dimensions. For example, Brandsford et at. in How People Learn, describe teaching as having four properties, learner-center, content-center, assessment-centered and community-centered. So you could use these four dimensions to organze teaching in a certain domain. There are organizational frames in many books or articles that could help you organize material.
- It could be that you are dealing with a topic has been explored by people in different locations in different ways. For example, if your topic was global education, you might be looking at how it is view from two or more countries which then becomes the way you organize your research.
Sections you might need to include within your literature review
Your logic model
Your learning theory
Your logic model or theory might provide some clues for how to organize the lit review.. BUT REMEMBER.
The lit review is not about what you are planning to do. Is about the context of your problem in the work of others.
Everything in the lit review is in the past tense as you summarizing was has been done. Avoid the use of future tense.
Research does NOT prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead it gathers evidence to support assumptions or to suggest outcomes or to predict what is likely to happen. Avoid the use definitive verbs like MUST, SHOULD, NEVER or CAN'T and use more tentative words like suggested, advised, assumed, or countered.
2) Writing each paragraph.
In a lit review your opening sentence is a claim. You make claims that are related to the problem you are exploring based on what you have read in the literature. So if your readings suggest that collaboration in the classroom is of value you might start with this claim. The claim can be of your own making or you can share a claim that was made by another writer. In this case I am going to start with my own claim.
The social capital that the students bring to the classroom is one of the most valuable underused educational resource schools have available.
So now I need to provide evidence that will support this claim. What would work as evidence?
Large scale studies
Case studies or examples
If I have a list of studies, great, if not I may need to go looking. I might use "peer learning" or collaborative learning, school, peers. What I would be looking for are studies that help me make the case that students have knowledge or skills that could enhance learning in the classroom. Once I have that evidence, I am ready to make my warranted summary. For this claim it might be that we need to change the classroom to allow more participation by students or more peer collaboration with each other.
3) Organization of a section
The paragraph structure could also be the structure of a section. I could expand the claim into a paragraph by explaining what I mean by social capital and how I see this as a resource. If I can find others that say similar things, I might add their voices to amplify the claim. Then I could use a paragraph to explain each piece of evidence and finally a paragraph to make and explain my warranted summary claim.
Another way of writing a section is to present a set of linked claims. In this case, each linked claim is connect to the next in some logical way (see the suggestions above for different forms of organization).
Graduate School Writing Guidelines
Demonstrates clear understanding of material/subject.
Adequately paraphrases and limits reliance on direct quotes (see more about this below in the next section)
Demonstrates critical thinking by objectively interrogating (vs. reporting) literature theories throughout paper.
Engages in synthesis.
Deftly applies theory to real life situations.
Uses specific examples rather than vague ideas.
Overall structure of paper is clear, easy to follow.
Thesis statement is evident at the beginning of the paper.
Ideas are presented in a logical order that the reader can easily follow.
Transitions provide logical connections between ideas.
Paragraphs are coherent with clear topic sentences and relevant supporting examples.
Language is clear and succinct; rarely employs unnecessary wording.
A variety of sentence structures are used and student avoids repetition and monotony of rhythm.
Writing is adequately formal, avoids colloquialisms.
Writing is not flowery, sentimental or metaphorical.
APA format is used.
Active voice rather than passive voice is used.
Paper is free of run-ons, comma splices, etc.
Punctuation is consistently used correctly.
Paper has been proofread: no misspellings.
Grammar is at graduate level—appropriate use of articles, effective word choice, consistent verb tense, subject-verb agreement.
Vocabulary is adequate for graduate level. Academic language is used throughout the paper.
Quotes, Citations & References
A literature review is an well structured essay and NOT a list of summaries of what you read. Think of as pulling together the voices of key people to help others learn what the relevant positions or problems related to your research question.
WHEN TO PARAPHRASE AND WHEN TO QUOTE....
When should you use a quote and how should you reference the work of others? You use a direct quote ONLY for one of these three reasons...
The text is so wonderfully written that no matter how hard you try to put it in your own words something critical is lost. You cannot paraphrase it. Use the quote and be sure to include the author, publication date and page number.
FROM THE EXPERT
-The importance is not the words but the fact that a certain person said them. For example, a politician might make a statement that has meaning because of WHO said it. The words might be less then poetic but the reason for the quote is to ties the words to the author. Again you need to indicate the source and if it is cited in an article from another source the correct way to list it is. (Bush, 2004 cited in Steward, 2004, p35).
CONCEPTS AS PROPERTY
The quote contains a phase or concept that you want to tie to a person. For example "communities of practices" (Lave and Wenger, 1991)
But beware of writing in the words of others because you are afraid to interpret a the text.
This is a common mistake in graduate student writing. You have a right to make sense of the writing.
And with a citation you can paraphrase the results of the study using some of the words that are in the study. Don't be afraid to put it in your own words.
Now there are a number of ways to cite the person --Suppose you want to quote Riel for the phrase/idea --"Technology is shared minds made visible"...here are four different ways of doing this.
Riel emphasizes the collaborative history of technology by defining it as "shared minds made visible" (Riel, 2000,15)
Riel described technology as a way of making shared mind visible (Riel, 2000).
Technology is a way of making shared minds visible (Riel, 2000)
Technology mediates the collective work of people through time and space (Cole, 1980; Riel 2000).
In a literature review you might use any of these. But the more you are able to share your understanding of the work of others, the more valuable your writing.
Finally you will read materials that are NOT part of of your literature review. Don't include things in your references just because you read them. Remember that part of the creative work is
what is relevant.
It is not how many references you have, but the quality of the references that we are looking for.
Common Writing Problems and How to Avoid Them
1) Use past tense instead of future tense:
Lit reviews are written in the past-- it is all about what had been done, what has been found. There will be time later to give your readers your advice for the future. Any advice should be in the word of others and shared in the past tense. For example,
" All students should have rich experiences that will help them learn (Dewey, 1905) in a lit reivew might be expressed in the past tense this way: "Dewey (1905) suggested that teachers should make use of new technologies to give students rich experiences to learn from."
2) Give evidence rather then superlatives
: In research reports, the writer accepts the burden of giving evidence more often than opinion. If you think that a book or event was fabulous, tell the reader why you came to this interpretation and see if you cannot get the reader to think the same thing based on the evidence and not your assessment.
3) Avoid making Sweeping Claims -
Avoid the temptation to say "Research proves... " Rarely does research prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases phrases like "research suggests...", "There is substantial evidence in favor of...", or "The consensus among a number of researchers is that..."
4) Suggest courses of action instead of using Imperatives such as must or should.
A common error is to get overly confident about what some group of people must do or even should do based on the evidence. If you are reporting on what an author said should or must be done, that is fine. But a lit review if not a place for you to assert "the 5 most important things a leader should do." Of course if they come from the research summarizing them is great. For example, "in reviewing all of these studies, I found seven clear recommendations for engaging student in learning" is great. This is different than saying "All teachers must always make sure to ..." which does not fit in the lit review. You will have a chance to share your ideas later in the report.
2) Some advice from other universities can be found in youtube.
David Peak does a great job of describe the literature review and process of writing it.
3) Some valuable links for citations
APA Style Guide and and information
SAGE Journal advice on APA style
David's Citation Machine
More Advice on writing the lit review
Preparing Literature reviews
, by Ling Pan)
Practitioner Research: the Purposes of Reviewing the Literature within an Enquiry
by Rae Stark, University of Strathclyde, Scotland
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Tutorial 5: Plan For Action
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