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Conduct research

Observation

Overview

Observation refers to the systematic examination of real-time processes or operations with the goal of identifying needs/challenges or improving processes and practices—that is, what can be seen.  Observations typically incorporate a prescribed protocol containing specific measures of observable behavior and the narrative recording of the program activities and their context. Types of observational approaches include: check lists, scaled ratings, interval observations, and narrative comments. [more]

Suggested uses of observations:

Limitations of observations:

Resource requirements

Implementing this method requires moderate resources: developing an observational protocol, hiring an experienced assistant or finding a colleague to help conduct observations, taking the time to discuss each observation with the observer, and compiling and analyzing the data gathered. [more]

Plan your observation

STEP 1. Identify the educational research problem or topic

Identify a research problem or topic from everyday life experiences, practical issues, past research, or theory.   Pay attention to the feasibility of your research problem or topic and whether it can be researched systematically.  Determine the resources needed to conduct the study, your interest level, its size and complexity, as well as the value of your results or solution for both theory and practice.

To thoroughly describe the research problem or topic, create a statement that includes the educational topic or specific problem and the justification for research. 

STEP 2. Review prior research

The literature review will help you gain an understanding of the current state of knowledge pertaining to your research idea.  It will inform you of what data collection methods have been used for similar research and to help make sense of the findings from these methods once data analysis is complete.  Try to specifically explore previous research that has used observations for research problems or topics similar to your own. 

To review prior research, the most effective and efficient way is to search educational journals through electronic computer databases such as ERIC, PsychINFO, or Google Scholar.  Searching other library databases is also recommended.   

STEP 3. Determine the purpose, research question(s) or hypothesis(es)

Identifying a clear purpose helps determine how the research should be conducted, what research design you will use, and the research question(s) or hypothesis(es) of your study.  

For observations, the purpose of your study will generally be more explorative or descriptive in nature rather than testing a hypothesis.  However, observations can also be used to explain (and triangulate) findings obtained from other methods.  For example, if we determine from an experiment that A is better than B, an observation can be used to help us understand why A is better than B.  In addition, some observational approaches (e.g., scaled ratings) can be used to predict or explain phenomenon. 

Once you have created your research question(s) or hypothesis(es), specify or match which question(s) observations will help to answer, or which hypothesis(es) observations will help to triangulate or test.

STEP 4. Consider the research implications of observational findings

Implications are the practical ways your research will assist the field of education. These are the underlying goals, the rationales for, or the importance of your study.  Implications are linked to your research problem or topic, research purpose, and research question(s) or hypothesis(es) of your study.  Therefore, once you have matched the research question(s) or hypothesis(es) that observational findings will try to answer, determine the implications of these results and how it will aid the field of education.  This will help you keep focused and maintain a clear vision when planning observations (e.g., which observational form to use), conducting observations, and interpreting results. 

STEP 5. Determine the observational types you will use

Create an observation form appropriate to context, purpose, and use that will answer your central questions.  If you have more than one investigator or observer, you may want to conduct a pilot observation with the form to ensure interobserver reliability, or the level of agreement between observers.  Plan to conduct multiple observations of the activity or setting for various times and days.

View a discussion facilitator observation form
View a classroom behavior observation form   

Additional information

Lofland, J. & Lofland, L. H. (1995).  Analyzing Social Settings:  A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth.

Page last updated: Sep 21 2011
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