At the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, April Passi, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, conducted an action research pilot study on personal narrative writing in her advanced pre-university English course in 2019.

As part of her teaching, April often reflects on her practice and wishes to improve it. Teaching is a dynamic process: we teach something, we get the results, we reflect on them, and we make changes to enhance the learning experience. This is what action research is all about!

In the fall of 2023, I had the opportunity to discuss with April her ongoing project and her insights on how teachers can implement action research in their classrooms.

What is action research?

Action research is the process of learning by doing and learning with others. This research methodology, dating back to the 1940s, has its origin in Kurt Lewis’ research on factory workers. In trying to solve the problem of employee turnover, Lewis made the factory workers directly involved in the process of how things worked in the factory.

Later, this methodology was used in communities to implement collaborative decision-making and collaborative research processes to design interventions that would respond to the needs of the community.

It is now widely used not only in the business world but also in education. Its primary purpose is to address and improve problematic situations by finding solutions that streamline processes.

What sets action research apart from other forms of research? It is not just about collecting and analyzing data. This methodology aims to take action over the course of the research to make changes. The main goal is to investigate reality and then change it by solving problems. According to Stephen Kemmis and Mervyn Wilkinson (part 2, page 21) [PDF], 2 influential figures in the application of action research to education, you need to go through a cyclical process with 4 main phases per cycle:

  • planning (finding a problem and planning a change)
  • action (acting on it)
  • observation (recording the results)
  • reflection (analyzing data)

Knowledge is created through action and an ongoing process of reflection and revision. In other words, the findings from the 1st cycle serve as the building blocks for the following cycle as you revise the plan. It is therefore an iterative process as you revisit and rethink your actions after each cycle. You can then observe tangible improvement in your practice and stay connected within the community!

Action research in education

Among the different forms of action research, exploratory practice stands out as being well-suited for teachers. Exploratory practice hinges on active participation, where the participants are part of the community under study.

This methodology is compatible with teachers as they become researchers within their own institutions and their teaching communities. It is research conducted by teachers, for teachers. They can address specific problems in their classroom or institution and then implement changes and solutions.

While an action research cycle is similar to a traditional teacher course preparation cycle, it does entail a few additional steps. These steps include:

  • creating a detailed project description
  • collecting formal data
  • analyzing data
  • collaborating with actors within the community

At first glance, these steps may appear time-consuming, but implementing an action research project in your classroom will bring many benefits. It allows you to reflect deeply on your teaching practice and feel like you are making changes and progress by:

  • giving empowerment to teachers to make changes in their practices
  • fostering positive changes in your classroom and beyond
  • improving your teaching practice
  • promoting collaboration with colleagues and administration

April’s action research project

April Passi’s growing interest in action research teaching practices has driven her to delve into its application in her teaching practices.

For several years, she has been teaching the same unit in her advanced English as a Second Language (ELS) course at the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal. The unit focuses on personal narrative writing, where students write stories based on their own memories and experiences. She has been using a translingual approach, allowing students to create their text using multiple languages. For instance, students might refer to or make use of their first language (French, in most cases) to better express some personal experiences in their stories.

Over time, April continued to build and refine this unit. She realized that students appear to enjoy this personal narrative project, but why? She wanted to understand the reasons behind their motivation. What elements of the personal narrative writing unit help them to develop self-confidence?

After conducting some background reading, she decided to start an action research pilot study in her classroom on this personal narrative writing unit during the fall of 2019. The focus was on finding out their source of motivation and evaluating if the translingual approach empowers students in learning English.

Personal narrative writing project

Each week, April would introduce her students to different writing techniques and guide them through different writing workshops in class. Additionally, they would read and analyze some sample personal narratives, which would later serve as mentor texts to help the students craft their own narrative writing.

Throughout the semester, students went through several drafts of their personal narratives. April would either provide feedback on these drafts or hold peer feedback workshops in class, allowing students to collaborate and improve their writing. At the end of the unit, they would submit their final personal narrative and complete a self-evaluation and reflection on the writing process.

April Passi is standing up in front of a classroom. Behind her, we can see a pull-down projector screen displaying the words “Translingual personal narrative.” On the left-hand side, we can see a blackboard, while on the right, we can see a door.

April Passi in front of her class, introducing the translingual personal narrative unit.

Data collection and analysis

April collected data using comments from 12 of her students on their personal narratives. She examined their reactions to the work by analyzing their self-evaluation and reflections. To do so, she proceeded with thematic analysis using NVivo software and poetic analysis.

A sample poem from a selected student. It reads: “All these exercises / gradually work on more and more vivid imagery I'd like to add even more / adds a lot of quality to a narrative. / Feedback from my classmates / enriched my text a lot! They had / a bunch of ideas! / challenging / to find how to write it, though. / I could also work on: / transitions / epic detail / making my voice even more unique / more precise vocabulary.” It is followed by a poetic analysis written by the teacher. It reads: “Reflective memo: This student notes that the activities helped them to gradually work on including vivid imagery in their writing. They mention vivid imagery several times – for them, it “adds a lot of quality to a narrative”! It seems like it is a tool they really enjoyed learning and using. They also note that talking to peers gave them more ideas. This student seems confident, while also reflecting on specific elements they could improve.”

A sample poem from a student selected for the pilot study followed by poetic analysis by April Passi. (Source: Passi, A. (2023). Translingual Personal Narrative Writing for CÉGEP EAL Instruction: An Action-Research Pilot Study. Concordia Working Papers in Applied Linguistics [PDF])

During her analysis, April encountered some instances of conflicting codes, where students expressed both enjoyment and enthusiasm for the project alongside feelings of insecurity as writers. In response, she turned to poetic analysis to look at the data from a different point of view. She discovered that conflicting codes were not mutually exclusive and that students could enjoy the activity and still feel insecure.

April’s findings

The findings from her action research pilot study suggest valuable reasons why the students enjoy and feel engaged in their personal narrative writing. Indeed, the unit on translingual personal narrative writing allows them to:

  • practise their writing skills
  • tackle a challenging learning experience
  • identify their strengths and weaknesses
  • increase their confidence
  • analyze sample personal essays
  • choose a topic that is meaningful to them
  • incorporate strong personal emotions (negative or positive)
  • have the freedom and time to revise their work before submitting their final product
  • better communicate their ideas using multiple languages
  • get comments from their peers

April mentioned she can now apply and connect these findings to other areas of her teaching, not just to that unit.

Learnings and takeaways

This action research pilot study highlighted several positive aspects. For instance, using data from authentic classroom materials proved an advantage, as there was no need to ask for additional tasks from students.

Moreover, this approach provided insights into students’ preferences and needs and offered April learning opportunities. Engaging in data management (such as data ethics handling and data analysis), allowed her to acquire new skills and knowledge.

However, it is important to acknowledge some mistakes and drawbacks April has encountered along the way. Initially, the study aimed to investigate translingual pedagogy, but the collected data didn’t adequately address this research question, underlining a poor study design.

Furthermore, the data analysis process proved to be labour-intensive, even with a relatively small dataset of just 12 samples. From these challenges, a few key takeaways emerge:

  • seeking assistance with study design beforehand can help ensure a more focused and effective research approach
  • conducting the project collaboratively with a team (which may include students, colleagues, or university researchers) can alleviate the substantial workload associated with data analysis
  • exploring options to apply for workload reduction through administrative channels can provide the necessary time and support for research endeavours

Following her 2019 study, April made changes to the unit in 2021 and 2022. For instance, she included more discussions and activities around translanguaging to encourage the students to use it more as a literary device in their writing.

Additionally, she included a linguistic portrait activity to promote student reflection on their linguistic identities. She had the students reflect on the languages they knew and how they felt about each language.

Editor’s Notes

To learn more about April Passi’s action research pilot study, you can read her published paper Translingual Personal Narrative Writing for CÉGEP EAL Instruction: An Action-Research Pilot Study [PDF].

Future Directions

In the future, April would like to focus more on the impacts of translanguaging. She also hopes to have a genuinely collaborative approach by actively engaging the students in the action research process. Inviting them to share their opinions and getting them involved would be a way to fully include their voices in the findings.

Designing your action research project

According to April, to implement your action research project in your classroom, the most crucial part is carefully planning it before putting it into action. Here’s a step-by-step guide inspired by Becoming a Teacher through Action Research: Process, Context and Self-Study [PDF] by Donna Kalmbach Philipps and Kevin Carr to help you brainstorm on your next project.

Step 1: Finding your area of focus and research question

First of all, you need to come up with your research question. What are you wondering about? It could be related to your:

  • teaching practice
  • teaching setting
  • teaching materials
  • etc.

Ask yourself:

  • Is there something that amazes me or frustrates me in my day-to-day teaching?
  • Is there anything in my college that is missing or problematic?
  • Have I heard my students complaining about anything that seems significant?
  • Do I have questions about the curriculum, the materials, or the workload?
  • Is there anything my colleagues find challenging or complain about regularly?

Once you have found your area of focus, it is relevant to consider the stakeholders for possible future collaboration. There are certainly other people in your institution who would be interested in this question.

Step 2: Choosing your design

There are different frameworks that you can use to design your action research, but what is important is finding the one that aligns with your research question. You can find below 4 examples of designs.


Self-study is reflecting on your own process by:

  • analyzing values and beliefs
  • collecting multiple perspectives on practice
  • tracking progress in goals
  • changing values and beliefs


Ethnography involves gaining a better understanding of issues regarding students and schooling by:

  • shadowing students and colleagues
  • interviewing people
  • collecting artefacts
  • making recommendations for changes

Materials analysis

The purpose of this design is to analyze and evaluate materials, such as textbooks, based on background research by:

  • choosing materials
  • focusing on one area (reading, speaking, listening, writing, etc.)
  • developing a rubric based on literature to evaluate the materials

Integrated action

Integrated action is to experiment with new teaching methods, practices or approaches to address a concern or improve student learning or motivation by:

  • identifying the problem
  • developing a plan to address the problem
  • reflecting on the impact

Step 3: Method of data collection

Choosing the appropriate type of data and the method of collection required to address your question is an important step in the research process. Various data collection methods can be used, each offering unique insights:

  • Observation:
    • note taking
    • logs
    • checklists
    • maps
    • shadowing
    • anecdotal records
    • etc.
  • Interview:
    • surveys
    • questionnaires
    • attitude rating
    • formal interviews
    • informal interviews
    • focus groups
    • etc.
  • Artifact:
    • student work
    • video recordings
    • audio recordings
    • photographs
    • portfolios
    • self-assessments
    • textbooks
    • devis
    • etc.

Step 4: Methods of data analysis

When it comes to interpreting your data, many approaches can be used according to Johnny Saldana. It depends whether you’re dealing with qualitative (interviews, artifacts, observation notes, etc.) or quantitative data (surveys, questionnaires, rating scales, etc.)

Some approaches to interpreting qualitative data (further details in Saldana’s work):

  • poetic analysis (keywords/phrases from data that capture the essence of the text)
  • coding (words and phrases that are significant and stand out)
  • thematic coding (extended phrases or sentences)
  • dramaturgical coding (data collected or presented as a play script)
  • arts-based approaches (visual art, music, dance, etc.)

Some approaches to interpreting quantitative data:

  • descriptive statistics
  • ANOVA tests
  • correlations
  • regressions
  • etc.

Step 5: Sharing your findings

Sharing research findings involves carefully considering the ethical aspects, audience, and impact.

Regarding ethical concerns, if you intend to share your research with an audience, this often requires obtaining permission or consent from participants. Seeking guidance from your administration or a pedagogical counsellor responsible for research can clarify these ethical obligations.

To share your findings, determine the intended audience. Identify who you want to reach and consider the best ways to reach them. For instance, putting a photography installation in an area frequented by administrators featuring personal stories of how precarity affects non-permanent teachers can be an effective way to share your research findings.

No matter your research question, starting by working on a small scale is a good idea. There is no need to publish the results right away. Another way to help you start your action research project is to find someone you can work with, like a colleague or a researcher from a local university who would like to help you. They may have the time, resources, and expertise to design an action research project collaboratively with you.

Implementing an action research project in your classroom is a great way to promote collaborative work within your institution by talking to other teachers, administration, and even students. It can improve your teaching practices, your teaching environment, and even your community!

What would you like to change in your teaching practice? What shape is your action research project starting to take? Share your ideas and comments below. Let’s collaborate for change, one step at a time!

Additional resources

(2023). Action Research in the time of COVID-19. The Canadian Journal of Action Research, 23(2).

Allwright, D & Hanks, J. (Eds.). The developing language learner: An introduction to exploratory practice. Palgrave Macmillan.

Center for Collaborative Action Reseach | Action research tutorials. (n.d.). ccar-tutorials.

Passi, A. (2023). Translingual Personal Narrative Writing for CÉGEP EAL Instruction: An Action-Research Pilot Study. Concordia Working Papers in Applied Linguistics. 83-108. 

Phillips, D. K., & Carr, K. (2014). Becoming a teacher through action research: Process, context, and self-study. Taylor & Francis Group.

About the author

Véronique Drolet

After teaching English as a second language and English Language Arts at the secondary level for 16 years, Véronique Drolet has recently joined the college network. She is currently an English teacher at Cégep Limoilou. In addition, her strong interest in languages led her to complete a certificate in translation. Passionate about the pedagogical integration of digital technology, she is now part of the Eductive team as a technopedagogic editor.

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