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Practitioner-led 'how to'

Choosing a topic and formulating a question

The following questions are especially important in practitioner research:

  • “What aspect of your practice would you like to change?”
  • “How do you know that it needs to change?”
  • “How will you know that you have achieved your intended improvements?”

These questions can help you identify the focus of your research. It will also help you to identify actions you might take to try and improve your learners’ experiences within your research project.

You may find it challenging to turn a 'big' idea into a manageable research question. PICO, an approach borrowed from the medical world, is a helpful technique when formulating a research question. The PICO question contains four parts e.g.

P = Problem.           How would you describe the problem?
I = Intervention.       What are you planning to do?
C= Comparison.      What is the alternative to the intervention/ action/innovation?
O = Outcomes         What are the effects of the intervention/action/ intervention?                                                                                            

Here are some example applications:

•  For learners identified with dyslexia (P), how does the provision of 1:1 support (I) compared to group support (C) effect in-year assessment marks (O)?
•  Does timetabling students (P) into single gender classes (I), as compared to mixed gender classes (C), lead to improved final GCSE results (O)?
•  For 16-18 year old GCSE maths students (P) who are receiving feedback on their homework tasks (I), how well do they achieve (O) compared to students who only receive verbal feedback (C)?


Collaborating with others and ethics

Collaborating with others

Practitioner research typically involves partners working together to try out, or better understand, teaching, learning and assessment approaches and their impact on learners and learning. The research process itself will typically involve teams reaching a shared understanding of what the project is about and then planning agreed changes to improve current practices. 

Practitioner research invariably leads to collaborative learning. In explaining what you’re trying to achieve to those involved (usually learners and colleagues), their responses and feedback will inform and influence your actions. 

As well as using direct data from the learners or learning exercises, you may also share your personal observations of what is happening in the learning situation with colleagues and teams, which may then:

  • Enable the other practitioner to identify constructive solutions to your problems;
  • Stimulate the other practitioner to think about his or her own teaching;
  • Improve the relationship between you and add a new dimension to your educational discussions.

Collaborative methods increase opportunities for ‘triangulation’, whereby those directly involved in the research - the learners, together with possibly a colleague or ‘critical friend’ - are invited to contribute their perceptions and improve the research process and outcomes.  This will also reduce the tendency to become too subjective.


Most practitioner research is an extension of everyday professional practice for which ethical approval would not be required, as it is in formal research.  However, in publicising your research findings (see Writing up research findings), you may require the informed consent of your learners or of colleagues if you wish to use data or materials which relate to their involvement in your research or in participating in interviews. Confidentiality and anonymity must always be assured.

It is also especially important to consider that there may be implications for colleagues from your research.  We all have sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and changing the accepted way that colleagues teach could be seen as implicit criticism.  The key here is to be sensitive and respectful when sharing your work within and outside your organisation and to ensure anonymity if required.

Should you need to gain informed consent, you can download an easily-adaptable ‘ethics form’ below.

Gathering data and identifying evidence

In busy everyday teaching, practitioners rarely plan on gathering evidence of their teaching.  However, in practitioner-research we actively search for the types of evidence of learning that would persuade other practitioners (and your team) that changes to your teaching situation are worth considering and developing within their own practice.

One of the challenges for practitioner researchers is showing other practitioners the outcomes and impact of your research: such as improved assessment results; or the fact that learners’ progress; or that changed behaviour has been sustained in the long term.  

Annual results from retention, progression and achievement can be useful ‘corroborating data’, which indicates that overall developments have occurred, but it is difficult to confidently identify the contribution which specific interventions may have made to resolve a particular issue. The North East and Cumbria OTLA team, funded by ETF, have produced a useful guide for those undertaking collaborative practitioner-research. Following Michael Bassey's advice on evaluating trustworthiness of research, they believe that the most credible validation of the relative success of a particular research intervention is evidence which would enable other hard-working practitioners to relate to what was happening in a classroom and whether, new strategies offer them an intelligent approach to explore.

Work with your colleagues  to design into your project some activity that will enable learners to demonstrate the effects of the change on their learning. This may be a test, a classroom or homework exercise, an observation by a colleague, or it may be a focused discussion with learners. 

* Bassey, M. 1999. Case study research in educational settings. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Writing up research findings

Write up your research findings, with a keen awareness of the audience you are writing for. Some teachers, trainers and assessors have time to read long, detailed research reports. However it is more often the case that they have busy working lives and need some very clear and direct signposts to what you did, why you did it and what you found. This audience may appreciate you describing and explaining your research through other media; using what we may call ‘multimodal’ approaches (such as blogs or posters).   In a presentation for the 2013-15 practitioner-led action research programme, John Sutter from Learning Unlimited explained how we can use images, colour, layout and many other factors to communicate to readers. For example, we might ask a group of learners to express their feelings about a certain intensive group-based task. To add to the learners’ feedback, we might audio-record the ‘buzz’ in the room when the activity was taking place.

You may wish to publish your research findings in a journal, such as InTuition, the Society for Education and Training (SET) journal, or the Journal of Teaching in Lifelong Learning (TILL). If so, it’s helpful to structure your work around key sections, such as a summary of your research, key findings, who your learners were, etc. If you would like to learn more about writing a research report, there are some useful resources below.

In a Blog written for the Education and Training Foundation’s ‘practitioner-led action research’ programme (2013 - 2015), JD Carpentieri from the Institute of Education advised practitioner researchers to:

“write as much as possible (even if that’s not a lot) during the research process. Don’t save all the writing for the end of the project. If you can write little but often throughout the literature reading and data collection phases, you will find later on that much of your work is already done. You will also find that “writing along the way” stimulates your thinking. This can be incredibly helpful when you come to the end of an occasionally hurried research project, and are desperate to produce lots of coherent text in a short period of time. If the ideas have already been percolating in your head for a while and have already been put down on paper (even just in note form), you will have a much clearer vision of what to do with your data, and how to do it.”