In international development cooperation, there is an increasing focus on adaptive management, intentional and resourced learning, and the use of learning to improve activity implementation and impact. Programs are being called on to incorporate operations or action research into their Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) plans. Recognizing that there is a continuum of what can be considered "research"--from self-discovery with individual action to randomized control trials--this post is focused on action or applied research which we identify as having the following characteristics:

  • Practical and collectively undertaken
  • Locally defined and carried out
  • Quick turn-around, low cost
  • Designed to address an immediate and specific challenge.

How, practically, can this be done? Two examples from USAID supported and RTI implemented education activities in Uganda are used to illustrate a key finding from our experience:  including those who are expected to “act” upon findings to define the issues and carry out the research takes us further towards adapting for better implantation and outcomes. The first is an action research training for the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) carried out by the USAID/Uganda Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity (LARA), the second is action research on different modes of teacher training carried out by the USAID/Uganda School Health and Reading Program (SHRP).

Think about the last research endeavor you were involved with. Who articulated the research questions? Who carried out the research? Who was expected to act on findings? Did they? Did anything change as a result?


USAID/Uganda LARA: Action Research Training and Action Planning with Government Staff

As a way to increase engagement of MoES and district officials to support Early Grade Reading, LARA introduced the concept of action research.  In September, 2018, the team brought together 72 Ministry and district officials to discuss action research as a way of

  • expanding collective learning
  • co-creating new knowledge and
  • building leadership skills.

Officials gained a deeper understanding of how they could use this type of research to improve implementation and sustainability of the MoES’ Early Grade Reading program, shift the “status quo” and demystify research. Building on previous appreciative inquiry work, LARA staff designed the action research to expand collective learning, co-create new knowledge and build leadership skills. Participants planned individual and group action research initiatives with the overall goal of improving educational learning outcomes and reflected on how they could use action research to improve children’s reading performance. In addition, participants learned how action research could be used as a tool for quick, interval learning and understanding what is working within the context of the Ministry and their districts. Facilitators coached participants to develop action research proposals that emphasized teamwork, collaboration and critical thinking following the iterative pattern of reflecting, planning, acting, observing.  Excerpts from an action research plan

Participants recognized that action research could be undertaken with available resources and as part of their oversight role. Ministry participants noted that the action research skills could help them contribute to the current debates within the MoES around improving the quality of education. At the end of the training, participants working in district groups and working as individuals, identified action research topics, developed draft proposals, and shared their proposals with their colleagues and supervisors for input. Action research plans were carried out by district staff using their own funds. (See Image, at right, with excerpts from one of the research plans, and a presentation delivered at CIES 2019).

Recommendation: Action research can be undertaken with available resources and as part of oversight role

Action research is simple, workable, and hands-on and up to the point.  It helps teachers to improve teaching skills and competences” Robert Muwhezi-Centre Coordinating Tutor, Bishop Brown Coordinating Centre, Kayunga. 

“Action research is participatory realistic and dependable in fostering effective and efficient teaching & learning in schools”.  Alice Doya- District Education Officer, Kayunga.



USAID/Uganda SHRP Action Research on Modes of Teacher Training: Residential vs. Non-residential findings

The School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) had been training teachers in the program’s Early Grade Reading (EGR) methods since early 2013. At the program’s peak in 2016, SHRP trained over 8,000 teachers over a 2-week period. As of 2018, all in-service teacher training (initial and refresher) had been large-scale, residential trainings at the teacher training colleges. These central trainings are expensive and, given the observed level of proficiency in teaching EGR in classrooms, perhaps not as effective as they could be. In May, 2018, SHRP piloted smaller scale teacher refresher training as a viable, cheaper (and more sustainable) alternative. 

The research was conducted by program staff, as they were monitoring the teacher training sites (both residential and non-residential). The research was designed to be undertaken by staff supporting the training venues. The outcome of the research was to determine if the smaller, Coordinating Centre (CC) /non-residential training was more effective, or at least as effective, as the larger trainings in terms of teacher attendance, content coverage and learning, answering the following questions:  

  • Are teachers present?  Are we training the right teachers?
  • Is the training lasting as long and covering the same amount of content?
  • Are teachers learning (at least) the same amount as they are in the larger trainings?

Research was conducted at five coordinating centres (the local, non-residential sites) and 3 residential training venues. Views of participants, facilitators, SHRP and MOES officials was also sought on the pros and cons of local, non-residential compared to residential training vis a vis content coverage, participant engagement and other issues related to the training. Importantly, the impetus for this research came from the teacher training technical team, the technical team worked with program M&E staff to develop data collection instruments and protocols, and all data were collected by program staff while overseeing teacher training at no additional costs.

Major findings and recommendations to action: Findings from this study showed that CC-level, non-residential trainings were an equally and, potentially, more effective structure for training delivery, and that the key component to ensuring high quality trainings lies in the content delivery and individual trainers. [See CIES presentation]. In general, CC level training is better for ensuring that teachers attend and the “right” teachers are trained.  Class sizes are smaller and teachers may be learning more (they do not appear to be learning any less). Fears about CC level training (that teachers would not attend, content would not get covered, teachers would not learn as much) were not supported by the data (See Graphic below depicting teacher’s attendance).

Graphic showing that in two cases out of 5, attendence dropped on the second day during non-residential training, whereas all three residential trainings maintained the same attendence on day 2 as on day 1.Still, programs need to ensure the quality of the training, whatever the mode/venue by tracking teacher attendance and quality of trainers. Participants and other stakeholders were, in general, positive about the CC level training as far as increasing participation due to the smaller classes and closer oversight. When planning to undertake research, ask “who else can I include” and make sure that you are including those who are expected to do something differently as a result. 

Bolstered by these findings, the program went on to expand non-residential training (the teacher training teams was poised for action – they initiated the research after all!). The Ministry of Education and Sports was also spurred to move to non-residential training. 


Check out this other related research from RTI available on SharEd:

- Action research and the Plan, Do, See Act model in Indonesia

- Comparing large, residental teacher training to smaller, school-based distance learning in Bangladesh

- A set of action research monitoring tools from Uganda/LARA used to support to measure the level of fidelity of implementation of the EGR methods and generate lessons learned to inform adaptations in EGR programming.


Cover photo: (c) RTI International. The Commissioner of Basic Education leading team to role play the need to attend meetings.

About the Expert

Program Officer for the USAID Uganda/LARA program.