Action Research Learning Circles (Adults)

Using Learning Circles for Collaborative Action Research

Learning Circles are an effective way to have students support one another in the process of doing action research. For more information on what action research is, you might want to visit the Center for Collaborative Action Research. The center also has online tutorials for learning how to do action research. The tutorials are designed to work well with learning circles.

Action research is the cornerstone of graduate programs at many universities. The STAR- Community of the Action Research Network of the Americas has a place for people to share their action research syllabi. If you look at the sequence of classes taught by Margaret Riel you will find a description of how learning circles were integrated into the course.

Learning Circles used in a Master Level Learning Technologies Program

In this blended program at Pepperdine University, students came to Pepperdine's Malibu Campus for a week-long face-to-face session. They learned to work in groups and engage in a series of activities to build the necessary trust and respect for working in learning circles and for other forms of collaborative work that are part of the graduate program. They also met face-to-face in the middle and end of the course.

Some of the activities in learning circles were described in the Learning Circle Model description under Opening the Circle. Pepperdine students also designed an opening activity using cartoons to help students reorient to new circle partners as they changed circles throughout the year.

There are two videos posted here.

The one to the right is a presentation to university faculty during a technology conference on how to use google doc and google hangouts and structure online learning with small groups online.

The one below is an online webinar describing the intersection between action research and learning circles

This use of learning circles in a university program modifies the model slightly as the new learning circles inherit the project planning begun in the previous circles. So the phase structure is a bit different. Here is the phase structure for action research learning circles across three 14-week sessions. Each session, the students are reorganized into new circles. This is done to increase the diversity of ideas giving everyone a chance to learn from most of the people in the program. The Pepperdine program is a cadre-based program so these students engage in all of their course work together.

In the beginning, students complained (a bit) about having to read and give comments to others. "Isn't that the role of the professor, why should I do it?" This led to a change. Students needed a clear rationale. The development of this rationale shared at the beginning of the course was a change that made learning circles work more smoothly.

The rationale for working in Learning Circles:

1) Life Co-Coaching: While your professors have many talents and years of experience in supporting action research, the ideas you most need might be in the head of one of your peers. Their life experience might be of more value to you. Helping others is a trade, and it is highly likely that you will receive way more than you expected. Helping others and being helped with action research is a bit like life coaching as you are trying to figure out how you and they can be more effective. Having a class of life coaches is extremely valuable. Students are one of the most valuable, underutilized educational resource we have.

2) Thinking outside of the box: We create boxes to help us deal efficiently with all of the things we need to process. While these boxes speed up processing time, they can also inhibit creative thinking. When someone who works in different sector brings us a problem, we are likely to have to combine what we know to think of something that will be of use. This compels us to take things from different boxes and form new links. And when we return to our issues, these new pathways might be just the combination of fresh ideas that develops a new level of performance.

3 Leadership Training: A good leader is someone who can inspire others to perform above their potential. When you see a peer who is not performing at high levels, what you do to change the situation. In a way, a learning circle is an exercise in leadership training as each person is trying to bring out the best performance in the group.

Critical Partners

By making a circle of action researchers responsible for the quality of all of their projects, students have a team of critical friends to help shape their action research and reflect with them on the process over time. Additionally, students can see what is working in different contexts. In course evaluations, students are very clear that learning circles is what makes their experience of action research so successful. Learning how to do action research in one year is very challenging and Learning Circles make this possible by relying on the intellectual resources of the group. (For the results of this survey data on learning circles used in action research, see see the STAR-C newsletter (Spanish and English) special issue May 2020 - Learning Circles Learning Circles

Schedule of Action Research Learning Circles

For each of the three 14-week sessions, students work in different learning circles to develop plans and carry out action research in their workplace. The students plan together, help each other search for resources, experimentation, evidence collection and analysis, and through the final writing and presenting phase. They are collectively responsible for the quality of action research projects in their group. They meet for one hour weekly with the professor joining the circle every third meeting.

Example of how Learning Circles are used in a set of University Courses

Opening the Circles: Description of self and workplace

Planning the Projects: Identification of problem to solve, forming action research questions

creating and sharing logic models, writing a literature review, planning the

first research cycle

Exchanging Work: Participants meet weekly and discuss each of the projects and

help formulate research questions. They share their work on a blog

and each person comments on the work, they lay the foundation

for cycle one sharing the progress with the cycle. Consent letters to

participants or surveys are co-constructed by the group

Publishing work: A draft of the plan, research questions and literature is posted on blog

Student share and discuss logic models (in voicethread)

Closing the Circle: Students thank circle members and end the semester

Opening the Circles: Introductions of the workplace problem students have chosen to study

Planning the Projects: Circle reviews the plans for cycle one helping with predictions

about what might happen

Exchanging Work: Circle members support each other while planning and carrying out

cycles of action research; they work as a team to analyze a data set

and then work to help each person think through plans for collecting

data; they help in the process of data analysis;

Publishing Work : Circle partners read and edit multiple drafts for cycle 1 and 2 for

each person taking responsibility for the quality of all of the projects.

Closing the Circle: They thank circle members and end the semester

Opening the Circles: They practice "elevator pitches" of their action research

Planning the Projects: Circle reviews the plans for final cycles helping with predictions

about what might happen

Exchanging Work: Circle members support each other while planning and carrying

last cycles of action research; the work as a team to think about

what the next steps are and how to develop leadership skills in context.

Publishing Work: They read and edit multiple drafts of cycle reflections and final reports.

Students publish their web portfolios on action research and

the circle presents their research in an Action Research Exhibition

Conference at Pepperdine University at the end of June

This event is web-casted for more information see the

Center for Collaborative Action Research.)

Closing the Circle: Graduation and planning to present in other conferences

If you are interested in more information of how learning circles and action research work together, see the STAR-C newsletter (Spanish and English) special issue May 2020 - Learning Circles Learning Circles, or contact Margaret Riel at