Memos to myself: A Tool to Improve Reflection During an Action Research Project

© 1997 Shankar Sankaran


According to Kemmis and McTaggart (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1988: 10) " To do action research is to plan, act and observe and reflect more carefully, more systematically and more rigorously than one usually chooses in everyday life".

In doing action research I had to go through the steps of planning, acting, observing and reflecting in a way which was somehow different to my usual routine. I found this was not as simple as it seemed, at first. As a busy manager and a researcher I wanted to find a way to improve the quality of my reflection. I had tried several methods to do this including an action learning guide that I developed from my managers, diaries and journals. However I felt that in using these tools I am unable to distinguish between my roles as a manager and researcher. My thoughts as they were recorded were quite muddled.

In a book on qualitative research design, Joseph Maxwell, advocates the use of memos to aid research. He writes that " memos are one of the important techniques to develop your own ideas... You should think... of memos as a way to help you understand your topic, setting or study... Memos should include reflections on your reading and ideas...Write memos whenever you have an idea that you want to develop further... Write lots of memos, throughout the course of your research project" (Maxwell, 1996:12). I read this and became excited about using personal memos to improve the practice of reflection in my own action research.


According to Mills every researcher should write regularly and systematically about his or her research " just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends" (Mills,1959:198). Maxwell says that any writing that a researcher does in relationship to the research other than field notes, transcription or coding can be called a memo. It can range from:

A brief marginal comment on a transcript

Theoretical idea recorded in a field journal

A full fledged analytic essay.

Strauss defines theoretical memos as "writing in which the researcher puts down theoretical questions, hypothesis, summary of codes etc. - a method of keeping track of coding results and stimulating further coding, and also as a major means of integrating theory" (Strauss, 1987: p 22). Strauss and Corbin define memos as "Written records of analysis related to the formulation of theory" (Strauss and Corbin,1990: 197). A common thread is that they are ways of getting ideas down on paper and using this as a way to facilitate reflection and analytic insight (Maxwell,1996: 11-12).

According to Miles and Hubermann memos are essential techniques for qualitative analysis. They do not just report data but tie together different pieces of data into a recognisable form. They consider memos to be a powerful "sense-making" tool in the hands of a researcher. (Miles and Huberman, 1994: 72). Maxwell recommends regular writing of memos during qualitative analysis. He says that memos facilitate analytic thinking to stimulate analytic insights in addition to capturing your thinking. (Maxwell, 1996: 78).Strauss and Corbin also say that "memos represent the written form of our abstract thinking about data". They recommend that memo writing should begin from the inception of a research project and continue until the final writing. They also state that memos help you to move away from research data to abstract thinking.

Julie Corbin (in Chenitz and Swanson, 1986: 102-109) says that memos are generally written "by the analyst for the analyst" She also says that there is "no other way than memos for the analyst to keep an account of developing theory and to compare and verify findings as he or she proceeds".

From the literature regarding memos it appeared that memos could be powerful tools at any point in a research project. Memos could be written to clarify ideas, do data analysis by standing apart from data, integrate the theory and much more as explained by the various authors referred to in this section of my report.

Action Research Design:

I used memos to stand apart from the daily going ons in a manager's life and put down my thoughts as a researcher to interpret that various activities I was carrying out in my research project along with my manager's job. For the purposes of this project I split myself into a manager and researcher. A manager doing his daily job and learning about management learning and as a researcher to draw out my ideas to put them down on paper to write my doctoral thesis.

Edward de Bono asks "Have you ever tried to balance a book on the top of your head, juggling with two balls with your left hand and unwrapping a chocolate bar with your right hand" (Edward de Bono, 1993: p 74). De Bono adds that doing a lot of things simultaneously is difficult and confusing. This is how I felt when I started out writing my thesis. I even found it very difficult to differentiate between management outcomes and research outcomes of my research. My idea of wearing the two hats came from De Bono's famous six thinking hats method. Edward de Bono, 1990). I felt that I had to wear a seventh hat to do my reflection and I call it the silver hat to signify that it is the hat of reflection. I came across the notion of the 'silver reflecting hat' when I attended an Action Research conference Sydney.

My thesis supervisor, BD, sympathising with my struggles to write up my research, had suggested some time ago that I try writing through e-mails to myself form the office to home. I had not explored this idea further. When I started my AROW project I thought I will also put BD's suggestion into action in using email as an aid to write memos to myself to aid reflection.

My idea of writing memos came from reading Joseph Maxwell's' book titled "Qualitative research Design - An Interactive Approach". ( Maxwell, 1996). In his book Maxwell has suggested various exercises to come out with a research proposal by writing memos to oneself. I thought I would do these exercises and conceptualise my thesis, at the same time, through these memos.


Maxwells' book contains the following exercises (Maxwell, 1996:11):

Reflecting on your purpose: A memo about why you want to do the study you are designing.

Reflecting on your experiential context: A memo to explain the relevance of your experience to your research

Creating a concept map for your study: a memo to explain the phenomenon you are studying using a tool.

Developing your research questions.

Reflecting on your research relationships: On how you plan to contact the people with whom you are doing the research.

Questions and methods matrix: Link up your research questions and your research methods and also gain experience to us a matrix as a tool.

Dealing with validity threats to your study.

Developing an argument for your proposal.

Although the exercises in Maxwell's book finish up with a proposal for research I planned to use the exercises to write a 'core' of my research thesis around which I will build my main thesis. I thought that this would give me a holistic view of my thesis rather than write it in parts chapter by chapter. In a way this was systems thinking for a systems engineer like me.

"Reflective" Memos:

I planned to complete the core of my thesis before the end of the course by writing reflective memos using the exercises in Maxwell's book. IH and BW wrote that they thought that my project was very elegant and could be completed within the time frame of the course. IH felt that it was topical and relevant. I wrote the following memos and e-mailed them to myself. I copied them to others who were attending an Action Research course called AROW (Action Research on the Web conducted by The University of Sydney which I had joined. I also encouraged other students attending this course to write reflective memos.

1. Reflecting on the purpose of my thesis
Date: 4/9/96
Memo from S. Sankaran, Director to Shankar, PhD Student.
2. Background to the next two assignments
Date: 11/9/96
Memo from Shankar, Action Researcher to S. Sankaran, Technical Director
3. Reflecting on your experiential context
Date: 3/10/96
Memo from S. Sankaran, Technical Director to Shankar, PhD student.
4. request
Date: 9/10/96
To: Dr. SA (Practitioner) from Shankar, PhD Student

This memo was not part of the exercise from Maxwells' book nor was it a memo to myself. It was triggered by a request from Dr. SA to write about four aspects of my thesis - organisation, project, purpose of my study and processes that were taking place.

5. Excuses
Date: 22/10/96
From: S. Sankaran the Manager to Shankar the researcher
This was a short memo playing for some time and jokingly chiding myself for making excuses.
6. SIM/ALARPM Workshop
Date: 26/10/96
From: Shankar the harassed researcher To: S. Sankaran - The impatient manager
This memo was also an exercise from Maxwell's. It came out of my frustration that I had not produce enough reflective memos. It was a summary of the lectures I had heard at the plenary sessions of an Action Learning/Research conference in Singapore.
7. Reflecting on your experiential context (continued)
Date: 3/11/96
From: S. Sankaran - Director to Shankar - Researcher
This was a follow up of my earlier exercise where I tried to answer some questions to get to the next exercise.
8. The Vee Heuristic
Date: 6/11/96
As I read the book Learning to Learn by Novak and Godwin to understand concept mapping I fell in love with their other tool the Vee heuristic. (Novak and Godwin,1984:5 , 55-74). I wrote a memo explaining my research using the Vee heuristic including a method to triangulate my findings.
9. How to write?
Date: 10/11/96
To: PS who's struggling to finish her thesis from Shankar who is struggling to begin This was to encourage my fellow action learner PS to encourage her to write her thesis by quoting from Walcott's book "Writing up Qualitative Research" (Walcott, 1990: 13-16).

Memos written by others:

1. IH:

Memo from IH to All participants
IH did not use a reflective memo to himself but used it as an aid to reflect on BW's reflection.
Memo from IH - Action Researcher/Evaluator to Mr. IH - Subject Co-ordinator.
In this memo IH tried to follow my style of addressing personal memos. He lamented the fact that he did not have enough facilities.
Memo from IH - Action Researcher/Evaluator to Mr. IH - Subject Co-ordinator
In this memo IH tried to get himself out of his lethargy in replying regularly
Memo from IH -Action Researcher/Evaluator to Mr. IH - Subject Co-ordinator
This was a self reflective memo on the course itself with suggestions for improvement.

2. BW:

Memo from BW - Project Worker to BW - Research Advisor
BW wrote this memo to whip himself up into action and it was written in a humorous way.

3. GG:

Memo from GG to GG the student
In this memo GG was criticising herself for getting unmotivated due to resource problems and pushing herself into a motivated state. GG also said that she tried to use different heads like me, and was not successful.
Memo from GG to GG the student
GG was again criticising herself for not doing enough work and started thinking about combining the assignments. She also reflected upon what she had read about action research from Carr and Kemmis.
Memo from GG to GG the student
GG continued her reflections on hat she had read about action research. This time she was reading Kemmis and McTaggart

4. SW:

Memo from SW to SW:
Sally was encouraged by GG's attempt to write a reflective memo. SW was also using the memo to motivate herself to take small steps to understand action research

Reflections on my memos:

What happened that I expected?

I think I got a fair handle on how to write reflective memos. I thought GG did well to increase the understanding of action research from his readings. Ian also was able to reflect on the course itself.

What happened that I did not expect?

I did not complete all the exercises. Although most of the memos written by myself were to myself I wrote at least two to others. Most of us tried to use the memos to motivate ourselves through these memos. Many of the memos carried a sense of humour indicating that memo wiring did actually relax the researcher and made him sit back from the tedious work.

Summary and Conclusions

I found that memo writing was an excellent tool to reflect on my thesis and integrate my thoughts. They could also be used to interpret my readings to increase my understanding and as a tool to motivate myself to improve my action in my research. All the memos need not be written to oneself using different hats. They can be written to others as well when it is appropriate. It requires more than reflective memos to write up a thesis although it does help. More than writing memos self-discipline is required for the researcher.

In this project, the property of memos was tested only as a tool for reflection. From the literature it is clear that memos can be used for many other purposes in a research project itself. A mastery of how to write good memos would be very useful to researchers.


The writing of reflective memos did help me to break my resistance to start writing. I have now actually been able to write a few chapters. Recently I read a book "You and Your Action Research Project" by Jean Mcniff, Pamela Lomax and Jack Whithead have suggested writing memos to yourself about a particular book or article that you read in connection with your action research project. (McNiff, Lomax and Whithead 1996: 77) I found this idea useful in summarising a book written by Alan Mumford to help me write a chapter on managerial learning for my thesis. I am now carrying out a learning process with one of my managers using ideas from Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. (Argyris and Schon, 1996). In this mode I am also using reflective memos to capture my learning through dialogues with this manager.


Argyris, C, and Schon, D. (1996), Organisational Learning II - Theory. Method and Practice, Addison Wesley, Reading.

Corbin, J. 1986, 'Coding, Writing Memos and Diagramming', in From Practice to Grounded Theory - Qualitative Research in Nursing, ed. W.C. Chenitz and J.M. Swanson, Addison Wesley, Menlo Park.

Edward de Bono, 1990, Six Thinking Hats, Penguin, London.

Edward de Bono, 1993, Teach Your Child How to Think, Penguin, London.

Kemmis, S and McTaggart, R, 1982, The Action Research Planner, Deakin University, Victoria,

Maxwell, J.A., 1996, Qualitative Research Design - An Integrative Approach, Sage, Thousand Oaks.

McNiff, J., Lomax, . and Whithead, J. (1996). You and Your Action Research Project, Routledge, London.

Miles, M. B. and Huberman, A.M., 1994, Qualitative Data Analysis, Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Mills, C.W. 1959, 'On Intellectual Craftsmanship', in The Sociological Imagination. ed. C. W. Mills, Oxford University Press. London.

Novak, J.D. and Gowin, B.D. 1984, Learning to Learn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Strauss, A. 1987, Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Strauss, A and Corbin, J. 1990, Basics of Qualitative Research - Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques, Sage, Newbury Park.

Walcott, H.M. 1990, Writing up Qualitative Research, Sage, Newbury Park.

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Copyright © 1998 Ian Hughes, The University of Sydney
Last updated:
24 August, 1999