Unpacking a great action research project

A tale of research-driven change

an action research module examining scheduling and student choice

Last year two educators at Crossett Brook Middle School undertook an amazing action research project that directly improved their interactions with students.

Mollie Burke-Bendzunas, speech pathologist, and Melanie Zima, special educator, took a three-day class together during the summer. The class focused on structured teaching as a strategy for working with highly autistic students.  Mollie and Melanie thought that it could be applied more broadly to address a wide range of student needs.

Why do action research?

As detailed in this blog post, you should consider doing action research because it:

  • Powers professional growth
  • Makes change manageable
  • Promotes collaboration
  • Produces shareable knowledge
  • Drives systemic change

We’ve also described how to get started with action research.

But how does action research work?

Mollie and Melanie walked us through the website they developed to showcase their research and shared the insights they gained through the process.

Screen shot of a website.

You’ll see a succinct research question: “In what ways does Structured Teaching foster independence in students?”

They also included a synthesis of the research literature that forms a rationale for the Structured Teaching approach.

And lastly you’ll find an implementation plan with descriptions and images that depict how Structured Teaching was used with the focus students for each of the researchers.

You’ll also see they data they reported and analyzed followed by their thoughtful discussion of the results and implications for future practice.

Awesome, right? Now check out the interview below to get a behind-the-scenes look at their collaborative process and final thoughts.

How did you choose what to study?

Melanie: This structured training that we went to last summer has been the most, one of the most functional things that I’ve ever learned about and that we’ve actually implemented in use. Often times you go to trainings or workshops and you leave. You’re like, “Oh, that wasn’t all that helpful.”

But this was… this has been life changing. It’s been really nice to see kiddos who maybe need more adult support to be on task or to complete tasks. To see them be able to navigate through these systems independently, complete the work and have a true sense of pride and independence. Where maybe most of their lives that’s not the case. I think that that is so empowering and so life changing for those kids. They’re going to grow up and become adults. And that’s what you’re expected to do as an adult and have those adult responsibilities.

Mollie: I agree with you Melanie because we came into the school year knowing that we wanted to setup these systems for kids based upon that class that we took this summer. But I think this really kind of just gave us that accountability and that drive to really follow through with it. As you know the world gets busy, and things kind of trickle here and there. Your original plan might not have happened because other things takes its place. So, this sort of thing kind of really kept us on track, and really focused. I thought it was very helpful.

visual schedules great action research


What did the action research add to what you had already planned to do this year in terms of implementing your summer learning?

Melanie: It forces you to follow through.

Mollie: Yes, it made us accountable for following through with the initial goal that we had set out for ourselves way back in July.

Melanie: Also, the data. I like data personally. I like crunching numbers and looking at trends. I think the most exciting piece that came out of the data were the results. We knew it was going to work kind of. We knew that just because we believed it the practice of structured teaching. But I guess I didn’t realize just how much of an impact that it made. So, there was something validating in that and satisfying on a special educator’s soul level. That was awesome.


task strips great action research

How did working together allow you to deepen your learning?

Melanie: Let me be honest with you, when we sat down with those review articles it was like watching paint dry. So, the fact that we were able to… it was hard to like… the lit review often was regurgitated, not regurgitated information but a lot of the different articles said the same thing, but they used different case studies. Reading through that really, pulling out what was the most relevant of the information was difficult. So having the two of us divide and conquer made a tedious process much faster. And for clarification and comprehension purposes we were able … I had a sounding board. I had somebody to reflect with.

Mollie: We were able to ask each other questions and problem-solve on the spot, and even when we sat down to do it, both of us taking this task which I also feel is not very exciting, but working together and just powering through it and being organized. One person was the writer, one person was the finder of the information that we highlighted. So, it was just really nice. It was great teamwork. It was great.

Did you learn anything outside of your focus area that surprised you?

Mollie: I don’t consider myself very techie. And so, to work through this and figure out, problem solve, how to create this web site was very empowering I thought, to piece it all together. Because we worked hard throughout this entire year to gather all this information. Then to sit down and we problem solved, and we put it in. And really … once it was all done to see how much work we’ve really done. Because I think you go through the year and you don’t really realize all the things that you do until you go back and look. And so, it was very satisfying. I don’t know.


Melanie: I would agree. And I actually … to that I actually think about it from the lens of my students and what they feel like when they’re sitting in math class, and just can’t figure something out. So, like that problem-solving piece, but on top of that that perseverance piece. And I just remembered those days sitting either on my couch or in your chairs and just like going rounds on this computer and this web site because we couldn’t figure it out. Through the perseverance we did, and look at our site. We have a published site.

Anything else to say about how action research has impacted your practice?

Mollie: I will honestly say that getting some of these systems setups for kids, if that’s where they’re at. Using the tools myself is makes planning super easy. It’s really nice because it’s all just organized, it’s all right there. You get into this flow and this routine. It’s almost as if you’re using the system along with the student. It makes it really nice and organized because it’s just cut and dry and everybody knows what the plan is, and you’re able to do. And that’s it. … I think that that predictability creates a sense of comfort in kids.  

Melanie: That’s key. I think like with this, like the structure I use here I don’t work with some of the intensity, the intense cases that Mollie does. But the kids that I work with this has become empowering because I could do this at night. This is like basically, essentially my lesson plan, right. Everything they need is a live link, right. They just click on it and boom, they’re materials are there. So, that alleviates the material management piece for a lot of our kids with executive functioning issues is a nightmare, it’s a disaster, right. So, everything they need is right here for them. I could share this will all of my students. One student or a multitude of students.

They could work on this not only during their delivery service time with me but during study hall when they’re sitting there with nothing to do and want a game or something like that. The teachers know, “No, I want you to look at your tasks from Ms. Zima.” The most empowering thing I taught them how to do, and maybe I’m overthinking this because I love crossing things out, but I taught them to cross things out on a task list.

I have seen it boost kids’ academic confidence. A student said to me just yesterday: “Wow I finished my first math assignment in two years.” He was in tears two days ago about math but with structure he is feeling successful now.

Mollie: Yes it’s super empowering.

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Life LeGeros

Life has worked in various roles in K-12 education, including classroom teacher, assistant principal, math department head, state agency administrator, and school board teacher representative. His dissertation focused on the impact of math teachers' knowledge on the growth of their students. He believes in teacher leadership, student empowerment, and challenging the status quo. He loves being immersed in tech-rich and outdoor environments, though not simultaneously. Find him on Twitter @lifelegeros.

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