Pedagogical action research



For many years, firstly  as a lecturer and more recently as a staff developer, I have been interested in the potential of action research as applied to teaching and learning in a university context. This interest was sustained through establishing an active group of like-minded colleagues at Liverpool Hope University who met regularly to discuss and research pedagogical issues. This, in turn, has led to three international Pedagogical Research in Higher Education (PRHE 06, 08, 10) conferences.An account of this initiative is described in Norton & Owens 2013 and Norton, 2014).

PRHE conference 2010

Delegates pictured at one of the keynote sessions at the PRHE conference 2010

Each conference also produced a special issue of the Hope University in-house journal PRIME (Pedagogical Research In Maximising Education) which itself was designed to promote and disseminate learning and teaching action research studies.


Pedagogical action research can most simply be defined as systematically investigating your own teaching and assessment practice and/or your students’ learning (often the two cannot be separated). Pedagogical action research is derived from an ‘issue’ that has arisen in your pedagogical practice as an ‘academic’ (a term I use inclusively to represent all who are involved in student learning, such as teachers, learning support professionals, librarians, and  staff developers to name but a few).  Most importantly, as a form of action research, this kind of research has the dual aim of contributing to theoretical knowledge and to improving practice.


The work on action research culminated in a book I wrote in 2009 to help others who were interested in carrying out this type of research but who might not necessarily have the social science/education research background to know where to begin. With this thought in mind I wrote a practical ‘walk with me’ type of book , the purpose of which would enable the reader to design, carry out, analyse and disseminate a pedagogical action research study which would be of publishable quality.

Here are some excerpts from my preface to give a flavour of the book’s contents:

‘I hope to have provided a guide that is encouraging but at the same time does not attempt to gloss over the very real issues that doing pedagogical research in a university context can create. Throughout the book, I have adopted an informal personal style, drawing directly on my own experience in carrying out and promoting this type of action research. In this way, my purpose has been to illustrate how feasible action research is, even when you are hard pressed by other academic demands, and also to show you some of the pitfalls I have encountered along the way, so that you will, at the very least, be forewarned’.

‘The book is organized into two sections: the theoretical and the practical, either of which can be read independently, so for those of you who are keen to get on with the practical aspects of doing an action research study, a good starting point is Chapter 5. If you already have a fair amount of experience with action research but would like some theoretical underpinnings you may prefer to start with Chapter 1.  In this first section… I make a case for pedagogical action research in higher education where there is still an uncomfortable divide between research and teaching, and where the former is more highly rewarded. I have spent some time on this as I have found that in the highly competitive academic research world, you need to be able to justify and defend any research activity which might not be recognized as ‘mainstream’.

Throughout the book I have used the device of hypothetical case studies or vignettes to bring to life some of the dilemmas and decisions we have to make in carrying out our action research projects. This has also been a useful device to include illustrations other than those from my own experience as an academic psychologist, but I hope in reading them, you will have caught some of my enthusiasm and commitment to this type of research. I wish you the very best of luck in your own pedagogical action research journeys’.

Killing three birds with one stone

While mindful of the University context in which subject research is often privileged, I remain an advocate of the benefits of carrying out pedagogical action research as a practical and pragmatic approach to at least three of the demands that are put onto academics’ shoulders:

1. The need to be a reflective practitioner

Carrying out research on your own teaching and/or on your students’ learning is interwoven with being a reflective practitioner.

2. The need to engage with continuing professional development

Pedagogical action research is an empowering form of CPD, particularly in engaging with the scholarship of learning and teaching (SOTL).

3. The need to be research active.

Pedagogical action research can be equally as rigorous as ‘subject’ research but in order to be considered as such, it must be disseminated and open to public scrutiny through peer reviewed conference papers and journal articles.


Further resources

Some of my more recent PowerPoint presentations on pedagogical action research are available on this website for colleagues to download.

I also offer workshops and interactive presentations which can be adapted to suit specific requirements. For more details please contact me at


Norton, L & Owens, T (2013) Pedagogical Action Research: Enhancing Learning and Teaching through a Community of Practice. In Diane J. Salter (Ed) Cases on Quality Teaching Practices in Higher Education. Hershey PA: IGI Global. Chapter 18, pp.291-303.

Norton, L (2014) Pedagogical Action Research: research and teaching intertwined. Chapter 4, pp23-27. In McEwen, L Mason O’Connor, K. (eds)  Developing pedagogic research in  higher education SEDA special 37 ISBN: 978-1-902435-59-6 London: SEDA


Comments are closed.