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Understanding Brenda Capobianco, Reina Horowitz,

Donna Canuel-Browne, and Ruth Trimarchi
the necessary

n light of increasingly demanding national and state professional stan-
dards for teaching, science teachers are being asked, if not required, to
steps for conduct some form of reflective practice, commonly referred to as “action
research.” In science education reform documents, such as the National
developing and Science Education Standards, teachers are encouraged “to approach their
teaching in a spirit of inquiry—assessing, reflecting on, and learning from their
implementing own practice” (NRC 1996, p. 42).
If science teachers are to conduct research and engage in critical reflection on their
productive own practice, they must understand the steps necessary to develop and implement
productive action plans, reflect critically on the actions taken, and consult and collabo-
action plans rate with other interested science teachers. In this article, we draw from our own
experiences as science teacher-researchers and present practical guidelines for science
teachers who want to learn more about conducting teacher action research. We par-
ticipated in a yearlong collaborative action research group that examined issues of
gender equity, diversity, and accessibility in science education. Using results from
our practical inquiries and collaborative conversations, we present examples for
science teachers to use when designing and enacting their own action plans.

48 T h e S c i e n c e Te a c h e r
N I would like to improve the …
Defining action research N I am concerned about …
Simply put, action research is a form of systematic, self- N I would like to change the way my students …
reflective inquiry undertaken by teachers to improve N I would like to integrate more … into my class.
their own practices and understanding of these prac- How can I do this?
tices (Carr and Kemmis 1986). Through careful prob-
lem solving and self-reflection, action research empow- We started by brainstorming issues in our daily prac-
ers teachers to recognize political, practical, and tice, such as student motivation in chemistry, student par-
personal problems related to practice and to take action ticipation in biology lectures, test performance in general
to resolve these problems. In science education, this may chemistry, and underrepresentation of minority students
include addressing the issues of high-stakes testing or in physics. We returned to our classrooms to make obser-
standards-based instruction on student achievement in vations of events and student interactions that contributed
science; examining ways to address student motivation, to one particular issue of interest (Burnaford, Fischer, and
participation, and engagement with science; or studying Hobson 2001). We recorded these observations in our re-
ways of increasing self-confidence and expertise among flective notebooks (Sagor 2000) and shared our reflections
new science teachers. with the group (Feldman 1999).
For Reina, a high school chemistry teacher, student moti-
Conducting action research vation was a constant concern within her core chemistry
In general, action research should be seen as flexible; classes (Figure 1). On occasion she observed her students as
teacher-researchers in different situations should make disinterested and unmotivated during class lectures. She
their own interpretations of appropriate processes for re- wanted to know if changing her teaching to a more student-
search (McNiff 1988). Based on our work as a collabora- centered approach would improve students’ participation
tive science teacher action research group, we learned and interest in chemistry. Donna, a biology and chemistry
that action research involves the following steps: teacher, wanted to know how to assess the performance of
her nontraditional students in chemistry, as well as measure
N Identify a starting point; the effectiveness of her self-designed assessments (Figure 2).
N Develop a plan of action; Ruth, a biology teacher, viewed lecture as an integral part of
N Collect data; her practice. During observations of her own lectures, Ruth
N Analyze and interpret; noted distinct groups of students not engaged in the lesson.
N Reflect; and As a result of her reflection, she decided to examine ways to
N Disseminate. increase the participation among small groups of young
women, low-income students, African-American students,
The collaborative discussions we engaged in regularly and second-language learners (Figure 3).
throughout the process were crucial to our experience. These starting points are practical for conducting action
These discussions provided points of reference that en- research because they stem from the teachers’ own obser-
abled our thinking, acting, and reflecting upon subse- vations of and reflections on their practice. Collaborative
quent changes in our teaching practices. brainstorming, journaling, and reflective classroom obser-
Following is an expanded outline of the steps for con- vations provide examples of different ways to get started.
ducting teacher action research. The steps are based on Additional starting point techniques include concept map-
the key processes outlined above and reflect our experi- ping or webbing (Sagor 2000), student interviewing
ences while conducting action research on gender equity, (Altrichter, Posch, and Somekh 1993), and reflective inter-
diversity, and accessibility in science education. Ex- viewing with colleagues (Sagor 2000).
amples are shown in Figures 1 (p. 50), 2 (p. 51), and 3
(p. 52). As we describe each step, we present our experi- Develop a plan of action
ences with learning how to conduct action research. The next step in the process is to develop an action plan
or strategies in response to the starting point. The main
Identify a starting point goal should be to pilot a particular course of action and
The first step in action research is to identify an issue, collect data on the outcomes of that action. For instance,
question, or problem to explore. To begin, teachers creating diagrams is useful for developing and mapping
should consider the following starting points: out different action strategies (Figures 1, 2, and 3).

M a rc h 2 0 0 4 49

Map of Reina’s starting point.

Students do not pass in homework

Observations of factors contributing Students report disliking school

to lack of student motivation in Students do not see chemistry as part of their world
Common Core Chemistry
Students appear bored during lecture
Students do not participate in lecture

Diagram of Reina’s action plan in core chemistry.

Addressing student motivation in core chemistry

Teacher moves away from
Teacher and students change
existing curriculum and
Students generate topics of interest the classroom setting to make
empowers students to
it more student-centered
suggest topics for discussion
Students facilitate whole-class discussions while
teacher observes interactions

Students feel empowered and motivated

to participate freely in class

Teacher gains new understanding of

the relationship between her and her students

Reina’s action strategies involved changing her chem- portunities for students to give immediate feedback
istry content and instructional methods in order to in- through reflective responses and quick check-ins.
crease students’ motivation. She incorporated structured Action strategies are the actions teacher-researchers
whole-class discussions. First, she and her students plan and implement in order to improve their practice.
brainstormed and negotiated a list of guidelines for They are connected to goals for developing and im-
group discussions. Second, she arranged the desks in a proving instruction, curriculum, and student learning.
large circle and initiated group discussions. Over the In general, action strategies can be viewed as prelimi-
course of the semester, students generated topics and fa- nary answers or experimental solutions to the problem
cilitated the discussions on smoking, racism, and preven- being investigated.
tion of HIV/AIDS.
Donna developed a series of assessments—performance- Collect data
based assessments on properties of solids, liquids, and Once action strategies are enacted, the next step is to
gases; identification of mixtures and compounds; and ob- develop and implement procedures for collecting data.
servation of physical versus chemical changes. After each Types of data readily available to teachers include lesson
assessment session, Donna and her students discussed plans, gradebooks, curriculum activities, assessment in-
how students felt about the assessment tool and whether struments, and other supporting documents (e.g., student
or not the assessment accurately measured what they un- work). Methods for data collection can include student
derstood about the week’s lessons. interviews (individual and focus groups), surveys, forma-
Ruth devised a series of in-class practices to improve tive assessments, classroom observations, and journaling.
class participation among four targeted groups during Reina employed three methods for data collection.
her class lectures in biology. One intervention she incor- First, she recorded the frequency of student participation
porated into her practice was the “interactive lecture” in each discussion. Second, she used formative assessment
(Trimarchi 2002). During the lecture she provided op- to gather students’ immediate feedback of each discus-

50 T h e S c i e n c e Te a c h e r

Map of Donna’s starting point.

Nontraditional students’
Reading, writing, and math abilities in chemistry Students have had little to no
skills are below grade level experience with school science

Students can Students can follow

manipulate objects verbal directions
Students are motivated
to learn science
Diagram of Donna’s action plan.

Identify curriculum topics properties of matter

Modify science vocabulary

Adapt procedures
Incorporate labs

Develop performance-based Develop performance-based Develop performance-based

Property Quiz Mixture/Compound Quiz Physical/Chemical Changes Quiz

Pilot Implement Implement

Review student performance

Reflect with students

Prepare and implement a summative assessment

Compare and contrast student performance

Reflect with students

sion. Lastly, she used students’ daily journal responses to researcher’s starting point—more specifically, the research
specific questions about each discussion. question. Donna’s research concerned students’ perfor-
Donna used her students’ work as a data source for mea- mance, therefore, students’ work on each assessment was
suring the effectiveness of her tools. In addition, she used an important data source. Reina’s research involved stu-
students’ verbal reflections on each assessment. Ruth took a dents’ participation in whole-class discussions, therefore,
more quantitative approach to collecting data. She surveyed her observations of students’ interactions were important
students about their participation in biology class before and data. Ruth’s research entailed students’ participation and
after she incorporated her interactive lecture techniques. interest in her interactive lectures, therefore, students’
The data collection methods illustrated here indicate feedback and her observations of their engagement were
the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods. important data. Lastly, whatever data are selected and col-
What are or are not data depends directly on the teacher- lected are based upon the teacher-researcher’s interpreta-

M a rc h 2 0 0 4 51

Map of Ruth’s starting point.

Lecture is an integral part of Honors Biology

Students find lectures challenging

“Quiet” students do not participate in lectures

Second-language Females Low-income students Students of color


Possible barriers include:

Speed of verbal Students appear uncomfortable

communications with questioning the teacher
Students feel intimidated Students do not have the skills to
to ask questions question the teacher effectively

Diagram of Ruth’s action plan.

Devise and implement an interactive lecture

Reflective responses Review flash cards

Quick check-ins Teacher letter 2/3–1/3 Notes

tion of the events that take place within the classroom, and that students liked the approach to group discussion and sub-
the data provide teacher-researchers with access to the re- sequently demonstrated increased class participation. Donna
ality of what is being investigated. concluded that her approach to alternative assessments not
only improved students’ performance on various assessments
Analyze and interpret but also improved her knowledge of how to design effective
Analysis and interpretation of the data allows teacher- alternative testing methods. Ruth concluded that survey re-
researchers to begin thinking about what is happening, sults indicated a moderate trend toward greater participation
why it is happening, and how it fits into the big picture. among targeted groups of students when interactive lecturing
As the data were collected in our group, we carefully techniques were implemented.
examined key factors that could explain particular phe-
nomena. In some cases, this meant scrutinizing com- Reflect
ments from students, responses to specific assessment In order to develop a critical awareness and deeper under-
questions, and patterns emerging from survey data. standing of the actions taken within the educational situa-
Reina, Donna, and Ruth initially skimmed their data tion, the teacher-researcher needs to engage in some level
to look for major patterns or trends. They shared these of reflection. In some cases, reflection is viewed as accom-
findings with the group by consulting with other panying the processes of planning (Carr and Kemmis
teacher-researchers about their thoughts and impres- 1986), data collection (Sagor 2000), and analysis (Kemmis
sions. By triangulating multiple sources of data, each and McTaggart 1988). The main point is that reflection is
teacher organized data into categories, also known as an integral part of a teacher’s action research.
“coding”—grouping together similar statements and re- Reflection can take place in the company of other sci-
sponses to construct a particular theme or major idea. ence teacher-researchers. In this collective forum, science
Based on analysis and interpretation of her students’ feed- teacher-researchers can join together as a group to dis-
back and participation in group discussions, Reina concluded cuss personal stories or anecdotes based on the results of

52 T h e S c i e n c e Te a c h e r
their actions (Feldman 1999). They can ask questions, ing in systematic, intensive inquiry parallels science teach-
make decisions, and consult with one another to draw ers’ engagement in scientific inquiry and experimentation.
conclusions from the data. The research allows science teachers to inquire, test, and
In the context of our group meetings, reflection played reflect on the actions they take to evaluate curriculum,
an integral role in our collaborative conversations. On frame local decisions for science education reform, and ex-
several occasions, Donna asked the group for clarity on ercise professional judgment. Action research also provides
her action research. Reina often asked for support and an evidentiary basis for improvement of classroom practice
guidance in making meaning of her results. And Ruth and enhanced student achievement, which is consistent with
frequently shared with the group the ways action re- educational reforms calling for greater accountability and
search helped her improve her approach to lecture. increased teacher professionalism. n
Disseminate Brenda Capobianco (e-mail: is an
The final phase of action research entails making the assistant professor at Purdue University, Department of
research public. This process involves articulating the ac- Curriculum and Instruction, Beering Hall, West
tivities, data collection, and results that emerged from Lafayette, IN 47907; Reina Horowitz (e-mail:
the research process. By making research public, teachers ) is a chemistry teacher at
play a more active role in the development and facilita- Springfield Central High School, 1840 Roosevelt
tion of professional development. In addition, science Avenue, Springfield, MA 01109; Donna Canuel-Browne
teachers disseminate new instructional strategies and (e-mail: is a biology teacher at
curricular innovations to other interested science teach- Northampton High School, 380 Elm Street,
ers, thereby enhancing their status as science teachers and Northampton, MA 01060; and Ruth Trimarchi (e-mail:
the status of science teaching itself. is a biology teacher at Amherst-
Methods of dissemination include a wide variety of ven- Pelham Regional High School, 22 Mattoon Street,
ues. At the school level, this might include presenting brief Amherst, MA 01002.
reports to colleagues through newsletters, staff bulletins, and
school-based colloquiums. At the state level, teacher-research- References
ers can submit manuscripts for publication in a state science Altrichter, H., P. Posch, and B. Somekh. 1993. Teachers Investigate
teacher journal or present their action research at a state sci- their Work: An Introduction to the Methods of Action Research.
ence teacher conference. At the national or international level, London: Routledge.
teacher-researchers can disseminate collectively their work in Burnaford, G., J. Fischer, and D. Hobson, eds. 2001. Teachers Do-
interactive symposiums, panel discussions, round table fo- ing Research: The Power of Action through Inquiry. 2nd ed.
rums, or professional development workshops. Lastly, work Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
can be made public to other interested science teachers in Capobianco, B., D. Canuel-Browne, S. Lincoln, and R. Trimarchi.
professional publications and on Internet discussion groups. 2002. Examining the experiences of three generations of teacher
Within our own collaborative action research group, we pre- researchers through collaborative science teacher inquiry. Paper
sented panel symposiums and paper presentations at both presentation at the annual meeting of the American Educa-
local and national educational research and science teacher tional Research Association, New Orleans, La.
conferences (Capobianco et al. 2002). Carr, W., and S. Kemmis. 1986. Becoming Critical: Education,
Knowledge, and Action Research. London: Falmer Press.
Benefits Feldman, A. 1999. The role of conversation in collaborative action
Why should science teachers wish to add research to their research. Educational Action Research 7(1): 125–144.
already full school schedules, demanding teaching respon- Feldman, A., and B. Capobianco. 2000. Action Research in Science
sibilities, and challenging professional development obli- Education: ERIC Digest. Retrieved November 19, 2003, from
gations? First, action research is a way for teachers to en-
gage more closely with their classroom practice and Kemmis, S., and R. McTaggart, eds. 1988. The Action Research
explore the issues they face daily in the process of science Reader. 3rd ed. Geelong: Deakin University Press.
curriculum reform. Second, teachers see action research as McNiff, J. 1988. Action Research: Principles and Practice. Lon-
both personally and professionally rewarding. Donna and don: Routledge.
Ruth often felt it was a luxury to sit and talk with other National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National Science Educa-
interested and passionate science teachers about transform- tion Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
ing their practices. Reina found the support from Donna, Sagor, R. 2000. Guiding School Improvement with Action Re-
Ruth, and others helpful at alleviating her feelings of isola- search. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and
tion as a new science teacher. Curriculum Development.
Science teachers in particular see action research as a Trimarchi, R. 2002. Drawing out the quiet voices: Making science
natural extension of their science teaching practice. Engag- lectures accessible to all students. The Science Teacher 69(1): 30–34.

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