Becoming an Efficacious Action Researcher: A Traveler's Guide

by Cathryn A. Smith

Contract Faculty University of Winnipeg
Sessional Instructor University of Manitoba
Sessional Instructor Graduate Studies Brandon University
Faculties of Education


This article identifies four lessons I learned as a traveler and their relevance for me as a novice action researcher completing a doctoral dissertation. These four lessons include (1) packing and organizing the right gear, (2) learning while you travel, (3) developing habits of mind, and (4) preparing to share your trip upon your return. Following a brief overview of the research study, each of the lessons is described in the context of traveling and then matched to my corresponding research practices. Using a travel metaphor, I share what I have learned through my research experience regarding ways to carefully manage and organize large quantities of data, the value and practices of being a reflective practitioner, systematic and sequential procedures to guide each action research cycle, and finally using a process-folio to publically narrate the research journey for others.

Some say everything important is learned in Kindergarten (Fulghum, 1986, 2004). I learned “everything” of importance in my early twenties when I spent eighteen months backpacking around Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, and Europe. The length of my travel immersion was equal to that of my doctoral immersion in action research, and the two experiences share other attributes as well.

As a traveler, I learned to anticipate and prepare for varied and unpredictable experiences by careful preparation and packing before initial departure and every time I moved locations. I learned how to catch my breath and regroup when it was raining, I was stuck somewhere, or had tedious tasks to do like laundry. I learned there were useful routines to follow when first arriving in a new city, country, or region and effective ways to ground oneself throughout the journey. Finally, I learned how important it was to distill experiences into meaningful sound bites and images for others, who only wanted to hear the best and most important bits of the journey.

These lessons from my travels make the image of research as a journey an appropriate metaphor for my experience conducting action research and the lessons I learned as a novice action researcher. In this article, after a brief overview of my research design, I explore each of the four aspects of travel as they relate to conducting an action research study: (1) organizing your gear, (2) learning while you travel, (3) developing habits of mind, and (4) preparing to share your slides.

The Trip Plan: Research Design

The purpose of my study was to answer the main research question: “What leadership development model could be developed that would enhance the ability of teacher leaders to be agents of change?” I recruited a cohort of eight (and later nine) teacher leaders from seven school divisions who were committed to social justice and had a formal or informal leadership role with their peers. I facilitated six full-day leadership development sessions and one validation session with the cohort. The leadership development sessions were guided by my researcher-designed conceptual model which was refined and revised during the course of the study.

Data sources for this study were typical of those found in other qualitative studies. Specific data sources included participants’ and researcher journals, reflections and action research cycles; videotaped focus group and leadership development sessions and audio-recorded mentoring conversations; curricular and design process items; self-assessments and peer reflections; and written pilot testers’ feedback. Data analysis was ongoing, cyclical, and reflexive and focused on both process and outcomes, as recommended for action research (Herr & Anderson, 2005). Analytical strategies included content and thematic analysis, “theme-ing” (Saldaña, 2013) and crystallization across the multiple sets of data.

Organizing and Packing the Right Gear

Of the four lessons I learned as a traveler, the first lesson was the importance of being able to pack and keep track of the right gear for your travels. There wasn’t much point after all in packing a rain coat if you couldn’t find it quickly when it was raining. The parallel challenge I faced in my action research was how to keep track of the multiple digital, handwritten, and hard copy data sources generated through the research. I had to learn to manage large quantities of data and create order out of chaos.The sheer volume of data and the need to create management systems to stay organized and create a data audit of the study surprised me initially. In conversation with other researchers, I have come to understand that data management is a critical skill for novice researchers to master, especially action researchers who engage in data collection, analysis and interpretation over multiple cycles of inquiry (Stringer, 2013).

In my travels, I learned to pack items in the same part of my backpack every day so that I could access them quickly when necessary. Similarly, early in my study I created an Excel spreadsheet upon which I would make an entry for every item that would pinpoint its location. Each file created, each artifact collected, each cluster of handwritten analysis in my researcher’s notebooks, and each audio or video recording had an entry identified by title, date, format, folder, and location. All eight of my researcher’s notebooks and their pages were numbered to ensure I could locate an entry quickly. Every digital document included a footer identifying its working title, date of creation, and folder. This process facilitated linking hardcopy documents with specific entries in the data inventory.

The database itself included a footer with a revision date I would change whenever I made entries: this process prompted me to stay on top of updating entries amidst the flurry of analysis or writing. I developed an initial file folder system on the computer organized by session. Over time, I figured out more efficient ways of streamlining sub-folders to enhance organization and facilitate retrieval. Whenever I would restructure or re-organize my electronic filing system, I would note how I had done so on the database to ensure I had a clear audit path for all the data and knew where different files were stored. Like a backpack loaded with souvenirs, by the completion of the study this database document contained nearly 900 entries. Clearly, I would not have been able to keep track of that amount of data without a structured and organized system.

When traveling, I would mail home the materials I had collected once we left a particular country. Similarly on my action research journey, it was helpful to package or contain each action research cycle and complete its full analysis before moving on to plan the subsequent session. To facilitate this closure process, each session had its own storage binder with defined sections to include raw data, content analysis, thematic analysis, researcher’s reflections and the final session summary. Later, when I began to look horizontally across the data sets, I was able to re-arrange the binders to pull together similar data sets to study the contribution of each data source to my learning.

This approach to data management and analysis was thorough, meticulous, and not an approach everyone would choose. Dating, naming and numbering every page of every document helped me distinguish between different versions and ensured I accessed the correct ones. Although I thought I would never forget what I had created or how I had organized my filing system, over time it became impossible to retain that amount of information in my short-term memory. I expect that data management may be a rather large issue for many new action researchers who will also likely be busy teaching while conducting action research.

Learning to Problem Solve While En Route

A second routine I developed as a traveler was to write whenever I was lost (either figuratively or physically), overwhelmed, or unable to figure out what to do next.Some writing was factual, documenting where we had been and what we had done. Some writing was more analytical and cumulative making comparisons between countries or regions. The final type of writing was more interpretive, when I tried to apply what I was experiencing to big issues in the world. To capture my thinking and understandings at various points along the research journey, I developed similar habits as a reflective practitioner. The act of writing and dictating various forms of researcher reflections became a very productive aspect of the research. I wrote and reflected to organize, plan, explore ideas, make sense of data, and identify and resolve issues that arose at all stages in the research process. For example, I dictated my reflections after each full day session, I took time after the analysis of each session’s data was complete to ground myself by writing responses to each of my four research questions, and I followed Reichert’s (2010) advice to write all the time even when I thought nothing was happening.

My personal favorite was to write when I didn’t know how to proceed. I would identify a potential approach while writing, stop to go test it out, then return to writing and reflect on its success. If I were not satisfied with the results, I would identify a new strategy and repeat the process. My issues would usually get resolved through this approach and as an extra bonus I would have a tangible record of my problem-solving process. If my issue were not resolved, I would schedule a learning-focused conversation with one of my critical friends to help me work it through. I recorded and transcribed those conversations with my critical friends and considered them a data source and form of guided researcher reflection.

My written and dictated reflections captured my emerging understandings of what I was learning from the study. Writing researcher reflections came to be the way in which I found my path forward when I wasn’t sure what to do next and the way I sifted through the reams of data and experiences that comprised different aspects of the study. The act of writing or dictating into an audio recorder allowed me to conduct conversations with myself in which I could play the devil’s advocate, question my actions, capture my doubts and most importantly inform my analysis. This writing informed and deepened my understanding of the data and the research experience.

Habits of Travel: Systematic and Sequential

As travelers, we learned how to negotiate new cities efficiently after many experiences of getting stuck without money, a place to sleep, or basic items for survival like a map. Our rules were to arrive in a new location early in the day, have one person sit with the luggage while the other found the tourist information office, got oriented with a map, exchanged money if necessary, and found us a place to stay. We learned to go cautiously on our first day because it was most often the day when we would make mistakes adjusting to a new currency and were most confused. At the end of my first action research cycle, I similarly sat with all my data, took an inventory of the types of data I had collected, the forms of analysis I had conducted, and the methods I had used to make sense of and track the research. Until then, the process had been intuitive as I discovered a need for a new step in the process or a more efficient sequence I would develop a new strategy or make small adjustments to a developing habit. To monitor my facilitation of the six sessions and document process, content and decision-making, I found by session two that I was moving through ten data collection and analysis procedures per session (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Documentation and analysis process for researcher’saction research inquiry indicating purpose and benefits of each.


In preparation for each session I developed the researcher’s action research cycle, the session agenda, the facilitation guide and the researcher’s checklist. During and after each session I gathered the participants’ response to activities (videotaped and later transcribed), written participants’ reflections, and researcher reflections. Following each session, I developed a logic model, session summary, and cumulative themes based on my data analysis. This ten-step inquiry cycle allowed me to stay focused, critical, and reflective throughout the research process. A detailed description of each of the ten steps and how I used them to study my facilitation of the leadership development sessions can be found in Chapter Six of my dissertation (Smith, 2014).

While this ten-step process is uniquely suited to my study, perhaps elements of the methodology may be useful for others. According to Heron, in successful cooperative inquiry groups, “research outcomes are well-grounded if the focus of the inquiry, both its parts and as a whole, is taken through as many cycles as possible by as many group members as possible, with as much individual diversity as possible and collective unity of approach as possible (1996, p. 131)”. I found the process I developed helped keep me focused, consistent, and analytical through each step in the research process and also provided tangible evidence of my analysis that I could share with my participants to solicit their feedback. This attention to detail and process was invaluable as I entered the final phase of my study, making the research journey visible to others.

Preparing to Share Your Slides: Articulating Your Journey

As a traveler I expected and eagerly anticipated giving a slide show and sharing my experiences with friends and family when I returned home. Consequently, while on the road I would gather artifacts, write notes, document our route, and identify the peak experiences and challenges encountered. The challenge for an action researcher is similar, to describe the research journey in detail and make it clear to readers why particular decisions were made at various junctures throughout the research process.

In my dissertation, I chose to make this learning process visible by using a strategy common in arts-based pedagogy known as a process-folio. A process folio is a collection of works in progress “designed to capture the steps and phases … in the course of learning” (Gardner & Torff, 1999, p. 102). A visual artist would include rough sketches, experimentation with form and technique and reflections on the creative process used in developing a finished piece. The focus on detailed data collection, reflective practice, and analysis of process make the process-folio an appropriate choice for my action research inquiry. I used the process-folio to make my thinking and decision-making processes public. As I wrote about each of the ten steps in the action research methodology in my dissertation, I included a description of each technique, the data I collected, observations, analysis and interpretation of what was learned from each data set across the six action research cycles (see Figure 1). The process-folio supported me in making the intangible process of facilitating adult learning and conducting practitioner inquiry visible for readers.

Conclusions and Recommendations

When I headed out on my travels through Central and South America, Africa, and Europe,I was a novice traveler prone to packing everything I thought I might possibly need, keeping every piece of paper and too many souvenirs, feeling lost and bewildered with each new country and later overwhelmed trying to describe my experiences to others. Over time though I developed routines and habits that made traveling easier, less stressful, more organized and meaningful. My experience as a novice action researcher was similar. I began by collecting a great deal of data, unsure what would turn out to be significant, and learned to keep all of it neatly stored, organized, and retrievable. When I was lost or unsure what to do next, I learned to write reflections, and test out ideas and possible interpretations. To facilitate my path through each action research cycle I developed research habits that systematized and sequenced my actions. Finally, I developed processes and learned how to distill from multiple experiences the essence of what I was learning while I was still engaged in the research process.

As a novice action researcher, I entered my study feeling well-prepared for multiple cycles of inquiry, participant engagement in analysis and interpretation, and the need to carefully monitor the research process. By following the four steps described in this article I was able to follow the advice of Herr and Anderson (2005) who compare action research to designing the plane while flying it. Paying careful attention to managing multiple forms of data, being a reflective researcher, developing systematic ways to manage multiple AR cycles, and using a process-folio to make my process visible to others, I was able to guide the process as a researcher and keep my head above water so I could look around, learn from, enjoy and ultimately share my research journey.


Fulghum, R. (1986, 2004). All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Gardner, H., & Torff, B. (1999). Conceptual and experiential cognition in music. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 33(4), 93-106. Heron 1996

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative inquiry: Research into the human condition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Herr, K., & Anderson, G. L. (2005). The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Reichert, E. C. (2010). Influencing change for teacher leader professional learning: A phenomenological study. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from http://ecommons.txstate.edu/eapstad/14

Saldaña, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Smith, C. (2014). Developing teacher leader for social justice: Building agency through community, critical reflection and action research. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1993/23995

Stringer, E. (2013). Action research (4th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


Financial support for this research was provided by The Manitoba Association of School Superintendents (MASS), the Manitoba School Improvement Program (MSIP), Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning (MEAL) and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship. In-kind support was received from the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) and the Manitoba Education Research Network (MERN).