Purpose - This study aims to enable pre-service teachers to cooperate with teachers and to participate in solving classroom problems with the guidance of academic staff in an action research (AR) project. Design/methodology/approach - Eight pre-service teachers took an AR course and simultaneously participated in a collaborative AR project. While learning about the steps and nature of AR, pre-service teachers worked with teachers and designed their own project proposals in order to solve classroom problems. A questionnaire about "doing" an AR and reports prepared by the pre-service teachers were used as instruments. Findings - Pre-service teachers worked on different classroom problems together with the teachers and seven out of eight ARs were presented at a national teachers' conference. Moreover, all the pre-service teachers reported that they were eager to apply AR in their future classrooms and they decided to apply their AR proposals even though the course had finished. Research limitations/implications - The study is limited by the participants and the instruments used here. Practical implications - AR courses enable pre-service teachers to take an active role in authentic workplaces, thereby encouraging them towards workplace learning. Originality/value - The study shows that collaborative AR can enable pre-service teachers to identify and solve classroom problems, thereby providing them with an environment in which to use their theoretical knowledge gained at university. Hence, AR courses could be integrated into teacher training programs in order to fulfil the missing link between theory and practice in teacher training. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.