Action Research Case Study Difference

Main Difference – Action Research vs Case Study

Research is the careful study of a given field or problem in order to discover new facts or principles. Action research and case study are two types of research, which are mainly used in the field of social sciences and humanities. The main difference between action research and case study is their purpose; an action research study aims to solve an immediate problem whereas a case study aims to provide an in-depth analysis of a situation or case over a long period of time.

1. What is Action Research?
     – Definition, Features, Purpose, Process

2. What is Case Study?
     – Definition, Features, Purpose, Process

3. What is the difference between Action Research and Case Study?

What is Action Research

Action research is a type of a research study that is initiated to solve an immediate problem. It may involve a variety of analytical, investigative and evaluative research methods designed to diagnose and solve problems. It has been defined as “a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions” (Sagor, 2000). This type of research is typically used in the field of education. Action research studies are generally conductors by educators, who also act as participants.

Here, an individual researcher or a group of researchers identify a problem, examine its causes and try to arrive at a solution to the problem. The action research process is as follows.

Action Research Process

  • Identify a problem to research
  • Clarify theories
  • Identify research questions
  • Collect data on the problem
  • Organise, analyse, and interpret the data
  • Create a plan to address the problem
  • Implement the above-mentioned plan
  • Evaluate the results of the actions taken

The above process will keep repeating. Action research is also known as cycle of inquiry or cycle of action since it follows a specific process that is repeated over time.

What is a Case Study

A case study is basically an in-depth examination of a particular event, situation or an individual. It is a type of research that is designed to explore and understand complex issues; however, it involves detailed contextual analysis of only a limited number of events or situations. It has been defined as “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used.” (Yin, 1984)

Case studies are used in a variety of fields, but fields like sociology and education seem to use them the most. They can be used to probe into community-based problems such as illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction. 

Case studies involve both quantitative and qualitative data and allow the researchers to see beyond statistical results and understand human conditions. Furthermore, case studies can be classified into three categories, known as exploratory, descriptive and explanatory case studies.

However, case studies are also criticised since the study of a limited number of events or cases cannot easily establish generality or reliability of the findings. The process of a case study is generally as follows:

Case Study Process

  • Identifying and defining the research questions
  • Selecting the cases and deciding techniques for data collection and analysis
  • Collecting data in the field
  • Evaluating and analysing the data
  • Preparing the report

Difference Between Action Research and Case Study


Action Research: Action research is a type of a research study that is initiated to solve an immediate problem.

Case Study: Case study is an in-depth analysis of a particular event or case over a long period of time.


Action Research: Action research involves solving a problem.

Case Study: Case studies involve observing and analysing a situation.


Action Research: Action research studies are mainly used in the field of education.

Case Study: Case studies are used in many fields; they can be specially used with community problems such as unemployment, poverty, etc.


Action Research: Action research always involve providing a solution to a problem.

Case Study: Case studies do not provide a solution to a problem.


Action Research: Researchers can also act as participants of the research.

Case Study: Researchers generally don’t take part in the research study.


Zainal, Zaidah. Case study as a research method. N.p.: n.p., 7 June 2007. PDF.

 Soy, Susan K. (1997). The case study as a research method. Unpublished paper, University of Texas at Austin.

Sagor, Richard. Guiding school improvement with action research. Ascd, 2000.

Image Courtesy: Pixabay

When planning for a practice-based enquiry or small-scale study you will most often be confronted with the choice between an action research or case study approach. Strictly speaking, there are many approaches to enquiries, but for practical reasons the action research or case study approaches are amongst the most popular for teacher-researchers.

Your decision for one or the other approach must be well justified and to this end you must consult research methodology literature. However, in the following there will be a simplified exploration of the two approaches to get you started.

What is action research?
Action research should be considered as a way of life in the classroom. As a reflective practitioner you will observe what happens in your class and then identify an issue or problem that you need to address. After consulting relevant literature you will then formulate a new approach or intervention, which you carry out in your classroom. Once you have worked with this intervention you will reflect and reconsider its effectiveness and impact and the cycle can start again. For a practice-based enquiry you may go through several cycles or through one cycle only. The advantage of the action research is that it naturally develops from your teaching practice and that it addresses real issues within your classroom. Typical critique of action researches would be that they are not rigorous or systematic enough.

What is case study?
A case study is more difficult to understand because it can be a method as well as a methodology. Here we only look at case studies for their methodological function. If you want to learn more about a specific issue or you want to explore a particular problem or occurrence, then the case study is for you. The description of what makes a “case” differs in various research methodology publications, but generally speaking a “case” can refer to a group of people, a specific person or issue, a collective of ideas. The advantage of a case study is that you get to know the status quo in all its facets and so you gain a deep insight into your field of study. Common critique of the case study approach is that it is so specialised and specific to the context of the research that generalisability is lost. Sometimes it is also said that the mere description of a status quo is not practical for teachers because there are no changes. My argument would be that detailed knowlegde of what happens in your classroom or school can lead to recommendations for future practice. It is just that you do not enter a cyclical approach of evaluating and revisiting your suggested changes.

Action research or case study?
Both approaches have their benefits and limitations within the realm of practice-based enquiries. The choice therefore depends on what it is that you want to find out. Are you planning to introduce a new teaching strategy or changes or interventions with some or all of your pupils? Or are you trying to explore a specific topic? The former would be a justification for action research, whereas the latter hints at a case study. You must be guided by your research focus, your research question or hypothesis and by the research methodology publications you consult.

Posted under Learning and Teaching, Tags: action research, case study, methodology, methods, reflection, reflective, research


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