Action Learning Sets

What is Action Learning?

'Action Learning is based on the relationship between reflection and action ... where the focus is on the issues and 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 et al).

A major advantage of action learning is that participants will be able to look at the real problems which concern them, rather than considering hypothetical ones, and they will be responsible for the selection of the topic(s) / problem(s) discussed. Feedback from previous participants has been very favourable about this aspect of the programme.

Why Use Action Learning on this programme?

Action learning seems to match the philosophy of this project, thus to
• give participants the opportunity to learn from each other and engage in shared learning;
• enhance the opportunities given to learn more about other institutions and institutional practices;
• support innovation;
• allow time for reflection on current practice - but encourage action;
• allow participants to highlight problems / areas where they have special interest, strength or weakness;
• enable participants to deal with the kind of management problems which cannot easily resolved through lectures / seminars;
• give enough time to build up strong relationships and networks outside seminar or lecture based sessions;
• enable participants to write an action plan of at least three points to put into practice after each meeting;
• encourage meetings of participants outside of meetings.

What is an Action Learning Set?

An action learning set is a group of usually 4 - 7 people who get together (on a regular basis) to discuss issues of personal or mutual importance. They are designed to deal with the specific needs of the set members and require agreed action by the end of each meeting. Sets may, or may not, be facilitated, or may start with a facilitator and later become self-facilitating. Whichever the case, it is important for some ground rules to be negotiated at the outset.

Action Learning Sets can enable participants to make commitments to action which they would not necessarily be in a position to do after having listened to a lecture or seminar, or as an individual working in isolation. There are usually three stages: identifying and clarifying the problem; listing possible actions; and selecting which specific action to take.

How will the Action Learning Set sessions be Organised?

• Participants will be organised into small groups on day 1, and will begin to build up relationships with other participants in their group.
• Each participant will bring a real issue or problem to the set, but due to time constraints only one or two issues will be covered each day
• The facilitator will help the group to set up explicit ground rules for the set;
• The whole set will look at each issue in turn; the group question but do not offer solutions to problems.[see the role of the participant]
• The person who has described the issue will decide on at least three action points to address after the module.

Action Learning Sets outside of the Modules

Groups will be encouraged to meet up at times and places organised by themselves, or organise themselves into ‘self-help’ groups with communication by e-mail. Participants will also be asked to report on their experiences of this mode of professional development.

The Role of Participant

Participants will work together on their chosen topics, listening and supporting their colleagues, and helping them to decide on courses of action. Participants will help individuals to understand the problem better and to challenge their underlying assumptions, rather than to offer advice. Each participant will be invited in turn to share their problem. Their peers will look at the problem from their own perspective, and through pertinent questions, discussion and sharing of experience, participants will be helped to move on in their understanding of an issue or problem, and to come to see possible ways forward. Participants will be encouraged to show empathy rather than be judgemental, to listen and provide support for each other.

The Role of Facilitator

The facilitator will help to develop the ground rules for the operation of the set. This will include allocation of time, confidentiality, attendance etc.


Beaty, et al. Action Learning in Higher Education 1 : Definition, Context & Set Work. (January 1997). UCoSDA Briefing Paper Forty-Three

Beaty, et al. Action Learning in Higher Education 2 : Definition, Context & Set Work. (March 1997). UCoSDA Briefing Paper Forty-Four

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

Whetherly, June. Action Learning - developing the person and the organisation (1996).

Whetherly, June. What is Action Learning (1995).