Brenda M. Capobianco, Purdue University

Tom McConnell, Purdue University

Michelle Priddy, Purdue University

Lauren Schellenberger, Purdue University


The role of teacher action research is well documented in pre-service, in-service, and independent teacher professional development initiatives. However, little is known about the instrumental role teacher action research plays in the professional development of teacher educators. This study examines the use of collaborative teacher action research in assisting three prospective science teacher educators’ professional development and growth. Participants employ qualitative methods such as interviewing, reflective e-journaling, formative assessments, and classroom observations, as a means of assessing the impact of their instructional approaches. Data sources include the participants’ final action research papers, reflective journal entries, the instructor’s field notes from class discussions, and additional supporting documents. Data were analyzed using cross-case document analysis and narrative inquiry.  First- and second-order action research results reveal the complex ways prospective science teacher educators gained new pedagogical knowledge, professional understanding, and ability to reflect critically on how to better prepare pre-service science teachers.




            The role of teacher action research is well documented in pre-service, in-service, and independent teacher professional development initiatives (Abell, Bryan, & Anderson, 1998; Capobianco, in press; Feldman, 1994; Hodson & Bencze, 1998; Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1999; vanZee, Lay, & Roberts, 2003). However, little is known about the role teacher action research plays in the professional development and preparation of prospective science teacher educators. Doctoral students constitute a significant part of the staff in science teacher education programs at state colleges and universities. They serve as key mentors, supervisors, and instructors in courses and programs, such as undergraduate science courses, science methods, and student teaching. In many cases, doctoral students are instructors or supervisors while serving as students of the very same processes they study, model, and teach. In what ways can action research help prepare doctoral students for the scholarship of teaching and learning in science education? How might engaging action research facilitate the development of doctoral students’ habits of mind and ability to: 1) foster significant, long-lasting learning for all students; 2) enhance their practice and profession of science teaching; and 3) make important contributions to the field of research in science teacher education?

 Examining the role of action research in the development of doctoral students (i.e. prospective science teacher educators) complements the timely efforts of researchers at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching [CFAT] (2005). In 2001, CFAT launched a multiyear project to examine the doctoral degree in the United States.  Entitled the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) the project aims to stimulate rethinking and renewal of doctoral programs in six disciplines, including education. The fundamental question CID researchers ask is: “What is the purpose of the doctoral education?”  

An organizing notion for this initiative is that doctoral programs should produce “stewards of the discipline.” According to CID researchers, these individuals must develop the habits of mind and ability to do three things well: “1) creatively generate new knowledge; 2) critically conserve valuable and useful ideas; and 3) responsibly transform those understandings through writing, teaching, and application” (CFAT, 2005). In this study, we conducted an in-depth examination of how action research facilitated graduate students’ capacity to generate, conserve, and transform knowledge into powerful pedagogies of engagement, understanding, and application within the field of science teacher education. This study explores and documents the perspectives and experiences of three prospective science teacher educators learning to engage in collaborative teacher action research on how to effectively prepare pre-service science teachers. The graduate teaching assistants planned and conducted action research within their respective undergraduate courses, including biology, botany, and environmental science courses. Through collaborative action research, the graduate teaching assistants interacted, reflected, and made meaning of the complexities associated with transforming their practice to be more student-centered, authentic, and inquiry-based.

Theoretical Framework

            This study was grounded in two main areas of literature: action research and first- and second-order action research.

Action Research

            Simply put, action research is a form of systematic, intentional, self-reflective inquiry undertaken by teachers to improve their own practice and understanding of their practice (Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1992; McNiff, 2002; Stenhouse, 1985). Deliberate attempts are made on the part of the practitioner to identify and address a particular phenomenon so that the practitioner gains new knowledge and discovers a new understanding about his/her own educational situation. In the context of this study, we employed collaborative action research. Collaborative action research is associated with experiences of meeting with colleagues, sharing ideas, and making decisions that foster a cohesive, supportive and productive network (Capobianco, in press; Feldman, 1994).  As we joined together each week, we teased out our emerging ideas about how to transform our practice and developed action plans to address varying phenomena in our classrooms.

For this study, we take the position that action research should be valued not simply as a heuristic for the individual graduate teaching assistant. Rather, if it is to play a role in the co-construction of new knowledge for science teaching and learning, teacher action research must also be cumulative, malleable, and accessible to different people (i.e., teachers and teacher educators alike) and their respective educational situations over time for a variety of purposes. Furthermore, science teacher educators and researchers must develop standards of quality and evaluation for action research that are appropriate to and supportive of key stages of the development of prospective science teachers.

First- and Second-Order Action Research

Embedded in this study is Elliott’s (1991) construct of first- and second-order action research. In his book, Action Research for Educational Change (Elliott, 1991), Elliott states:

The attempt of the Humanities project team to facilitate reflective practice in schools generated an important conceptual distinction between the ‘research’ role of the outsider in relation to the ‘research’ role of the insider practitioner (see Elliott 1976-77). Stenhouse contrasted the first order inquiry of the teachers with the second order inquiry of the central team. The teachers’ inquiry was focused on the problems of developing pedagogical strategies consistent with educational aims and principles. The team’s inquiry was focused on the problems of facilitating teachers’ reflective capacities (Elliott, pp. 26-27).


In the same book, Elliott talks of a “second order process of action research...a process of reflectively analyzing his experience as an action-research facilitator” (p. 13). For the graduate students, their research ‘object’ was their own teaching practice (first order inquiry). For the outside researcher (the course instructor), it was the strategies for facilitating the development and interpretation of the ‘students’ reflective capacities.’ This distinction between first- and second-order action research is particularly important in the context of this study. It questions the location of ownership, as research primarily belongs to the graduate students. In this study, it was up to the graduate students to establish objectives and strategies to achieve them. For the most part the instructor’s contributions were only one of support and facilitation of the action research process. Hence, first-order action research was driven and directed by the graduate students in the context of our collaborative action research group while second-order action research was facilitated by the instructor and her interpretation and analysis of the students’ reflective experiences of becoming researchers on their science teaching.

Context of the Study

The setting of this study was a large, four year Midwestern university of approximately 38,000 students where the first author teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in science education and the other three authors instruct courses in undergraduate biology for pre-service elementary science teachers, undergraduate environmental science for pre-service elementary science teachers, and undergraduate botany for agriculture and biology students. This study took place during a graduate-level course titled Action Research in Science Education, which was taught by the first author. Throughout the semester, the prospective science teacher educators learned about the theories, concepts, and models for science teacher action research. 

The primary objectives of the course were for students to be able to: 1) develop an understanding of what action research is, how it is conducted, and what role it plays in the construction of teacher knowledge in science education; 2) plan and conduct action research within their respective educational situation; 3) generate and transform knowledge through self-critical inquiry; and 4) gain insight into the role action research plays in science education and science teacher education.

The instructional approach was to provide graduate students with diverse opportunities to actively engage in the processes of action research, establish and sustain collaborative and active dialog among peers in the class, and build upon their existing knowledge base for research and science teaching. Students were encouraged to maintain a reflective research notebook; establish a cohort of critical friends and meet weekly; present a starting point speech; develop a data collection plan; participate in a data analysis workshop; and prepare and present a final action research paper. The instructor encouraged graduate students to choose their own personal inquiries and connect their own classroom experiences and knowledge with the research processes to be learned. In turn, this required that the instructor to understand the role and context of each teacher’s personal life in the learning process. By facilitating graduate students’ understanding and practice of action research, the instructor provided the graduate students with opportunities to develop: 1) knowledge and skills of science pedagogy; 2) curriculum and instructional materials; 3) a variety of assessment approaches; and 4) different research approaches to address significant inquiries in science teacher education.



            As graduate students, instructors, and authors of this paper, we have opted to take credit for our contributions by using our real names in an attempt to represent all of our voices with respect to our own viewpoints and lived experiences with transforming our science teaching through action research. The participants of this study include three graduate students in science education; Tom, Michelle, and Lauren and the course instructor, Brenda. All three graduate students came to this study with extensive undergraduate academic experience in one or more sciences as well as at least one year of study in educational research. Tom is a doctoral candidate in biology education and former practicing biology teacher with a strong interest in integrating instructional technology in the science classroom. Michelle is a masters student in environmental education with interest in pursuing a career in informal science education. Lauren is a doctoral student in biology education who is interested in teaching biology at the community college level. All three participants entered this study with little to no previous experience in or knowledge of teacher action research. Yet all three participants demonstrated a keen ability to reflect critically on their own personal and professional experiences, very early on in the course.

            The course instructor entered this study with extensive knowledge and experience with action research. Brenda completed graduate work in action research, conducted action research as a practicing middle school science teacher, a university instructional consultant (Capobianco & Feldman, 2002), and novice science teacher educator (Capobianco, in press) and co-facilitated collaborative action research groups (Capobianco, in press; Capobianco & Feldman, 2002).  Our ultimate goal was to: 1) to improve our practice by studying and conducting action research; and 2) to learn more about how we can build and sustain quality action research among science teacher educators and science education researchers.


            Action research was the primary method through which we engaged in to learn more about their own practice. The method of action research that we employed was enhanced normal practice (Feldman 1994), which consisted of anecdote-telling, the trying out of ideas, and systematic classroom inquiry. Narrative inquiry was the second method we adopted in this study. In order to understand how we, as a collective group of researchers, were making meaning of our practice and the changes that we made in our practice, it was important to hear and listen to one another’s stories of their practice and the steps we took to transform our practice. Our narratives served as “the context for making meaning” of the changes we initiated within our own educational situations (Connelly & Clandinin 2002, p. 3). Because of the collaborative nature of our study, narrative inquiry allowed us to see ourselves as active participants of the research process so that our voices were acknowledged and valued as an integral part of the study. Each of the graduate students wrote a first-person narrative account from his/her perspective (Clandinin & Connelly, 2002). In these narratives, each researcher summarized his/her action research study, reflections of his/her experiences, and emerging perceptions of teaching pre-service teachers and learning more about teacher action research.

Data Sources

It is important to note that there are two distinct components that define our model for collaborative action research used in this study. The first component consists of the graduate students conducting action research.  The second component consists of instructor examining the graduate students and how they engage in action research.  This required the graduate students to employ their own methods for gathering data.  The graduate students used ethnographic methods (i.e. interviews, journal keeping, classroom observations, formative assessment, and document review), as well as surveys and questionnaires, in their research. The major products of their research included: 1) a statement of his/her research interests; 2) a reflective research notebook chronicling their development; 3) a starting point speech; 4) a data collection plan; and 5) a final action research paper. Excerpts from these data sources in addition to field notes from weekly class discussions and classroom observations and reflective journal entries served as significant data sources for the course instructor and this respective study.

Data Analysis

Once all the data were collected, we then began the preliminary analysis using grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).  The first step entailed open coding of the data, specifically field notes from class meetings, students’ reflective journal entries, and final action research papers (Miles and Huberman, 1994).  During this phase, emphasis was given on identifying indicators of concepts and categories that fit the data.  Repeatedly appearing categories and concepts helped to construct themes based on the lessons the students learned on becoming researchers.  The viability of the construction of themes was then tested against other relevant data sets (i.e. field notes from classroom observations and other supporting documents).

The final phase of analysis involved the continued interpretation of each source of data with particular attention to the stories each graduate student shared throughout the course of the study.  Through construction and reconstruction of the students’ stories (Clandinin &Connelly, 2002), the graduate students with the help from the instructor, created narratives grounded in the data that makes sense of how each graduate student transformed his/her practice using action research.

First-Order Results Presented by the Course Instructor

Defining What Research Means

            One of the first tasks I encouraged graduate students to do was to define what “research” and “action research” meant to them. My intention was to determine how students characterized “legitimate research.” Could engaging in action research somehow influence their ways of thinking about educational research? As the semester progressed, the graduate students and I revisited our working definitions for both terms and modified them accordingly. At the end of the semester, we prepared a summative list of characteristics for each term as a result of our engagement with action research (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1

Working Definitions for “Research” from January to May, 2005.

Characteristics of Research

Beginning of Semester                           Middle of Semester                  End of Semester

Collaborative                                                        Collaborative                                                        Aimed at “self” inquiry

Methodical                                                            Critiqued by community of practice                  Systematic

Systematic                                                             Orderly vs. random                                              Self-critical, reflective

Starts with a hypothesis or question                                Hypothesis-driven                                               Descriptive

Collection of data                                                 Involves data collection & analysis                 Action research = research

Analytical                                                              Methodical                                                            Action research can serve

Has a set of standards                                                                                                                        as a research methodology

Creative process


Generates a new question

Table 2

Working Definitions for “Action Research” from January to May, 2005.

Characteristics of  Research

Beginning of Semester               Middle of Semester                  End of Semester

Answer question                                                 Decision driven                                    Self-inquiry

Institutes action                                                   Data-driven                                           Action research is made public

Collaboration                                                        Systematic                                             Context of research = practice

Data collection & analysis                                 Reflective                                              Reflection is an integral part

Creative                                                                 Collaborative                                        Product = knowledge construction




            Based on students’ working definitions, action research was perceived early on as action-oriented, collaborative, and creative. As the semester progressed, students defined action research as more decision-driven, systematic, and reflective. By the end of the semester, students highlighted the significance of action research as teacher-centered, highly reflective, and a legitimate form of research.

Starting Point Speeches

            Each graduate student presented a five-minute starting point speech at the beginning of the semester. The purpose of the starting point speech was to help students begin to articulate a research focus and its educational significance, the general state of affairs or situation; an explanation of the facts of the situation; factors to change or modify in order to improve the situation; and ethical concerns. Table 3 summarized three distinct components of students’ starting point speeches.    

Table 3

Students’ Initial Starting Points for Action Research.



General state of affairs one wishes to change or improve

Factors to change or modify in order to improve the situation


Pre-service elementary science teachers lack understanding of technology integration in the science classroom

Improve pre-service elementary science teachers ability to reflect critically on how to integrate technology in the science classroom


Enhancing my understanding of the process necessary to foster collaborative reflection

Establish a small group of students to engage in reflection on technology integration


Enhance my role as a facilitator of group


Make group interactions more member-driven vs. facilitator-directed


Students do not participate regularly in my lab section of an environmental science course for pre-service elementary science teachers

Improve my instructional practice so I can stimulate discussion and interest among students


Increase my understanding of how my students can help inform my practice

Gather weekly feedback from students about my instruction through formative assessments


Botany students in this course appear disinterested and unmotivated


Instructor uses traditional approach to instruction (e.g. lecture)

Improve and empower my role as a TA by incorporating a series small group activities that promote cooperation and participation among all students in lab


Change the instructor’s instructional techniques by sharing ideas for group activities


Heighten my awareness of how small groups function

Design and implement a series of small group activities they require participation from all students


Evaluate the impact of these activities on student interest and motivation


            The research problems posited by students were grounded in two areas: 1) improving instructional practice and 2) increasing understanding of that practice. All three graduate students identified problems that were central to their own instruction. Michelle and Lauren were eager to test out and incorporate new techniques in their lab sections while Tom was interested in setting up a novel reflection group using strategies that promoted shared leadership. All three students were also interested in improving the understanding of what happens when they integrate these strategies.

First-Order Results Presented by Graduate Students

What follows are the graduate students’ personal and reflective accounts of their experiences in engaging in action research with pre-service science teachers and undergraduate science students.  In these storied experiences, each graduate student described: 1) the focus for his/her action research study; 2) his/her action plan; 3) dilemmas encountered; and 4) lessons learned as a result of engaging in action research.  Their storied accounts of becoming researchers of their own practice give life to the efforts graduate students as teaching assistants make everyday to increase their understanding of the complex and incomplete nature of teaching science for pre-service science teachers.

Tom’s inquiry into collaborative reflection among pres-service elementary science teachers

The focus of my action research study was to examine ways I could foster collaborative reflection on using technology in the elementary science classroom. The context of my study was an undergraduate biology course for pre-service elementary science teachers. The challenge for me was to find ways to facilitate collaborative reflection among pre-service elementary science teachers who were inexperienced in reflective practice, collaboration, and technology integration.

My study entailed meeting with six pre-service science teachers (who were 2 to 3 semesters away from student teaching) as a collaborative group and engaging in reflective discussions about their ideas and concerns for integrating technology in the science classroom. I collected data through small group discussions (4 to 6 meetings), semi-structured interviews (3 per pre-service teacher), e-journaling (bi-weekly), and classroom observations (app. 3 per pre-service teacher). Simultaneously, I recorded my personal reflections of each meeting so I could develop a better understanding of my role as a facilitator for collaborative reflection. When I analyzed the discussion and interview transcripts and my own reflective journal entries, I learned that there were three key components to establishing and practicing collaborative reflection. Participants must have a thorough understanding of what collaborative reflection means and be willing to share their own personal needs and expectations for the group to function. In addition, the facilitator must work effectively at establishing and sustaining a community of practice.

My experience with action research has given me a new tool that I can use to help me refine and improve my practice as a teacher educator.  Instead of viewing action research as a way to fix what is wrong with my practice, I now see action research as a continuing process of growth and improvement.

Michelle’s self study in an environmental science course for pre-service elementary science teachers

            My action research study was a reflective self-study to improve my teaching practices as a graduate TA in an environmental science course for pre-service elementary science teachers.  I wanted to learn if and how my lab instruction helped students develop a better understanding and appreciation of issues in environmental science.

            To determine my students’ initial concerns, I developed and piloted a series of formative assessments that I administered after each lab session. These assessment techniques included a one-minute paper; the muddiest point assessment; and open-ended surveys. Each assessment focused on identifying key concerns students reported having difficulty with and possible areas for improvement with my instruction. Using open coding procedures, I determined that I needed to address the following aspects of my practice:  1) relate my students’ learning in the course to their work as prospective science teachers; and 2) provide more thorough background information prior to each lab to help students develop a better understanding of the lab topics.   

            With the completion of my reflective self-study, my views of action research have greatly changed.  I have learned that action research is a cyclical process and reflection is an important component within this cycle.  Also, that action research is a collaborative effort, where input from colleagues is crucial to the successful progression and completion of my own research study.  In regards to my self-study, I have learned the importance of feedback from my students in informing my teaching practices and will continue to use assessments in my future career as a teacher educator. 

Lauren’s attempts at integrating small group activities in a botany course

            The focus of my action research was to improve botany students’ interests and understandings of the subject matter through small group activities. The course was an undergraduate botany course that consisted of traditional lecture and lab sessions with little room for small group interactions. I decided to design and implement collaborative group work activities for two reasons: 1) to increase student interest in the course; 2) to improve students’ understanding of the subject matter through authentic experiences.

            My action strategies included different techniques that supported small group interactions. Two examples included: 1) an interactive Jeopardy review session; and 2) a jigsaw activity using dichotomous keys. Both activities required students to work in small teams, take on specific roles, and work effectively to determine key information related to the course topics. To determine the impact of these particular activities, I administered pre- and post-surveys, conducted classroom observations, reviewed supporting documents (i.e. student work), and recorded my reflections of each lesson. The results indicated that collaborative social interactions among students improved their understanding of the subject matter and their perspectives on the course.  By communicating with their peers, the students achieved a realistic sense of scientific activities.  This research influenced my teaching beliefs by reinforcing the importance of providing students with experiences that are student-centered, collaborative, and authentic. By systematically and critically examining my own thoughts and actions, I have become more mindful of the needs of my students. 

Second-Order Results

            As the graduate students wrote their individual action research papers, we convened as a group to do a cross-case analysis of the individual reports. The rationale for this analysis was to conduct a second-order action research: action research on the action research process (Elliott, 1991).

Each paper and accompanying PowerPoint presentation was reviewed by two other readers, including the instructor. In weekly class meetings, we shared our reflections on one another’s work and identified recurring findings grounded in the papers. We identified three major themes related to the ways the graduate teaching assistants as researchers gained new knowledge, developed a greater self-awareness and a deeper understanding of science teacher education. These themes were the following: 1) generating and understanding one’s own personal practical knowledge; 2) conserving new knowledge by improving one’s practice in science teacher education; and 3) transforming new knowledge through understanding the landscape of science teacher education. What follows are brief summaries of the overall findings under each theme.

Generating and Understanding One’s Own Personal Practical Knowledge

Tom’s interest in collaborative reflection dramatically shaped the practical and technical knowledge he gained from facilitating more interactive discussions on technology integration with pre-service elementary science teachers. Tom identified and implemented key strategies for fostering collaborative reflection and as a result learned first-hand how pre-service teachers desired to use technology yet knew little about how to integrate it in the science classroom.

Michelle’s self-study aided her in the construction of new practical knowledge necessary to develop more open-ended, whole class discussions on science topics central to her own students’ development as pre-service elementary science teachers. By designing and administering regular formative assessments, Michelle recognized a disconnect between what she thought were interesting and engaging activities and what students reported as difficult and irrelevant to future teaching careers. Using these results, Michelle simplified lab procedures, interacted with students individually in a nurturing manner, and frequently pointed out to students how the lab activities applied to their work as teachers.

Lauren’s results on incorporating group activities included increased student participation and performance on class assignments. In the end, the graduate students gained the practical knowledge necessary to create, test out, and evaluate their own ideas.

Conserving New Knowledge by Improving One’s Practice in Science Teacher Education

            Engaging in collaborative action research allowed the graduate teaching assistants to shift their assumptions, self–perceptions, and knowledge of pre-service science teachers, towards feelings of confidence, competence, and self-reliance as promising teacher educators in science education. Weekly reflective writing and oral reporting of reflections helped the graduate teaching assistants shift their self-perceptions from passive TA’s to active teacher educators.

Issues, such as power, authority, and mastery of the curriculum permeated their roles as graduate teaching assistants. On one hand, the graduate students were instructors, while on the other hand, they were students of the very processes they were studying and attempting to teach. On occasion, the graduate students grappled with the following questions: What kind of power or authority do we have to ask our students to do more than what they are required to do? Would students respond in the same way to a faculty member? How do I discuss with faculty discrepancies in our teaching philosophies? This power differential became more obvious when the graduate students began implementing their action plans. Each week the graduate students observed one another structure new learning opportunities for their students, share their professional experiences, and connect practical experiences with their courses in order to make teaching and learning more meaningful for themselves and their students. Inquiries into their own experiences as pre-service science teachers helped the graduate teaching assistants recognize the limitations of traditional approaches to science teacher education (e.g. lecture) and a prescribed curriculum; while reflections on their own practice helped them recognize that much of their practice as teacher educators was grounded in the lessons learned as they reflected on the theory and practice from their graduate studies.

Understanding the Landscape of Science Teacher Education

            While understanding one’s own personal practical knowledge and improving one’s practice are crucial qualities in a science teacher educator, it is also important to understand the landscape beyond the university classroom, to frame the individual challenges within a larger institutional and societal change. The graduate teaching assistants learned how pre-service teachers often felt frustrated in their efforts to: 1) bridge theory into practice; 2) to merge science content knowledge with pedagogical knowledge; and 3) to address standards through inquiry science teaching. They learned that this frustration came from the lack of continuity between teacher preparation courses, field experiences in the schools, conflicting cooperating teachers’ viewpoints and practices, and significant gaps in their science content courses.

            In sum, the graduate students heightened their awareness of their own professional development and growth. Engaging in action research allowed the graduate students to do what they considered legitimate research. Much of their work was credited to risk taking activities, such as infusing instructional change and critical feedback, gained through participation and support within our collaborative action research meetings. Action research literature documents the transformation that participants experienced as they engage in intense, self-critical inquiry of their own practice and are offered a supportive collaborative group of critical friends through which they mediate their ideas and refine their practices (Capobianco, in press; Feldman, 1994; Hollingsworth, 1994).


            If the aim of our doctoral programs in teacher education is to educate and prepare our graduate students to become research scholars and effective teacher educators, then we need to pay particular attention to the ways our graduate programs (i.e. professors, course offerings, and curriculum) provide opportunities for our students to develop the habits of mind and ability to do three things well: 1) creatively generate new knowledge; 2) critically conserve valuable and useful ideas, and 3) responsibly transform those understandings though writing, teaching, and application. The doctoral degree at its core is a research degree. Demonstrating one’s ability to conduct research and scholarship that make unique contributions and meets the standards of credibility is the culminating experience of the graduate degree. Hence, action research can serve as the vehicle through which our graduate students can frame and re-frame these habits of mind and abilities. Engaging in sustained, systematic, self-critical inquiry allows our graduate students the ability to merge both research and the scholarship of teaching and transform a common appreciation for the two to one of application and deeper understanding.


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