Action Research in the midst of COVID-19

Two people video conferencing, one a patient, one a doctor.

Overcoming the Impact of COVID-19 on Research

While we are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the students in the MA Leadership (Health Specialization) are perhaps the most profoundly affected. With health authorities in crisis mode, students working across the country are being redeployed, over-worked, and with social distancing requirements and research that is not directly related to COVID-19 being effectively shut down, many are wondering how they can complete the Capstone requirement of their masters degree.

We have worked together to open up the possibility of “first person” or “autoethnographic” action research capstone projects to temporarily overcome the requirement for “third person” engagement. According to Tobert (1999),”the three questions [or ‘persons’ of inquiry] concern the first-person dynamics of one’s own awareness, the second-person dynamics of the immediate group with whom one is interacting, and the third-person dynamics of the larger institutions within which one’s action is situated.” So autoethnography is primarily focused on oneself as the key informant. By systematically exploring a leadership challenge that you are currently experiencing – and let’s face it, we are pretty much all in this situation right now – or a long term obstacle that you have not been able to overcome, you are able to gain new insights, develop ideas of how to do things differently (through consulting with others and from searching the literature on the topic), try out new approaches or “interventions,” and evaluate their effectiveness. By consulting your inquiry/feedback team, or content knowledge experts, you are bringing in the “second person” of action research. You can also share your findings with a  “third person” of action research, through publication or dissemination.

Inspiration for this Approach

Inspiration for this possibility came from a project I completed as part of a post-doctoral masters degree in higher education, early in my teaching career. I was stressed when students did not receive feedback in the way I intended. While I could not control my students’ reactions, I wondered if I could deliver the feedback while conveying my belief in them, and inspiring them to learn and grow.

Working systematically through the action research process, I journaled every time I met with a student, recording what I had said, and the student’s reactions. As an INTJ, I recognized that my feelings were probably less in my conscious awareness than my thoughts (Quenk, 2000), so I paid particular attention to journaling my emotions. This turned out to be a goldmine of consciousness-raising when I later analyzed the data. I also designed feedback sheets to record my feedback, which became a useful source of data and organizational tool when it came time for the intervention and evaluation. The process of seeking out feedback strategies in the literature opened my eyes to evidence-based approaches which I would not otherwise have known about, and I began looking forward to meeting even the most confrontational students.

My inquiry team – all higher educators – revealed that they, too, experienced stress during feedback tutorials, so I submitted my research for publication, to fill the gap in the literature, serendipitously providing you an example of a first person inquiry. I hope that, regardless of your project, sharing this story encourages your systematic reflection, and seeking solutions by dipping into the literature.


Hartney, E. (2007). Strategies for the management of lecturer stress in feedback tutorials. Active Learning in Higher Education, 8(1), 79-86. 

Quenk, N.L. (2000). In the grip: Understanding type, stress, and the inferior function. (2nd ed.). CPP Inc.

Torbert, W. R. (1999). The distinctive questions developmental action inquiry asks. Management Learning, 30(2), 189–206.