action learning


Are you looking for new ways to approach challenges and barriers in your PhD research? Does your research leave you feeling isolated and lonely? Do you struggle with procrastination, a short attention span, and a lack of motivation when studying? Are you worried about your relationship with your supervisors, the culture in your office or lab, or the general pressures or demands of postgraduate life? Action Learning may be able to help you find solutions to these anxieties.

Action Learning is an inspiring approach to academic and professional development that offers a small group of peers a structured and reflective way to explore the issues they face. Through reflection, we gain a deeper understanding; and this enables us to meet the challenges we face and manage the process of finding solutions more effectively. Through working in Action Learning Sets, we bring together people from within the same organisation to work through issues, share ideas and challenge perceptions in a trusting, supportive environment. Results are tangible and long lasting.


“Action Learning is based on the relationship between reflection and action … where the focus is on the issues/problems that individuals bring and planning future action with the structured attention and support of the group. Put simply, it is about solving problems and getting things done.”

- Fry, Ketteridge & Marshall, A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (2000) Kogan Page.


Action Learning can support you by:

  • Helping you to step outside of your day-to-day pressures, enabling you to reflect and view your work from a fresh perspective.
  • Offering an open, probing mind and an ability to listen and question underlying assumptions in a respectful and safe manner.
  • Using active listening, questioning and sharing feedback to increase empathy and understanding of self and others.
  • Learning to resist offering advice.
  • Giving you the opportunity to develop ideas and ways forward, see connections and hear about others’ experiences.
  • Providing the right level of support and challenge as the issue owner seeks to find their own solution.
  • Helping you to build trusted networks and partnerships across different parts of the university and beyond, as well as giving you an opportunity to (re)connect with other postgraduate researchers.
  • Offer a space conducive to exploring and progressing opportunities and new ways of thinking, encouraged by the construtive support of your peers and, importantly, away from the intensity of research and writing.

In November 2019, we ran a one day workshop, facilitated by Andrea Rippon, that invite postgraduate researchers to look at the opportunities and challenges that Action Learning Sets will bring to the individual and their research. The Action Learning Set participants (and fully trained facilitators) met together for a full day to get an overview of what the process of Action Learning is. They began by outlining the stages that make up an Action Learning Set and establish the Ground Rules under which we intend to operate. There was some skills practice, so participants got the most out of their Action Learning Set – including Active Listening, Open Questioning, and Challenging. Participants were taught to understand their role and the role of the Facilitator during the Action Learning Set and in the Group Process (reflecting on the learning/other after the Action Learning Set was over). Most of the day was devoted to participating in a facilitated Action Learning Set, so that participants could experience the opportunities and challenges that they pose. After this, participants were invited to commit to further Action Learning Sets, where their Facilitator will liaise with set members about dates and organise room bookings, etc.

Action Learning is intended to utilise and develop a number of individual skills, including:

  • Active Listening – for meaning and feelings
  • Reflecting Back – what was said, using the issue owner’s words or a summary
  • Open Questioning – how, where, when, which, who, what?
  • Challenging – without animosity, with accuracy and in a concrete way
  • Emotional Intelligence - including self-awareness, empathy, motivation, and self-regulation
  • Productive and Effective feedback - impartially aiding problem solving
  • Strategies for Managing Stress

If you have any questions, please contact Bryony Porter, or follow Postgraduate(su) on Facebook and Twitter.