Observation is particularly useful for understanding how or why something occurs within a natural setting, and can be a particularly effective data collection approach when self-reported information (what people say) is likely to be different from actual information (what people really do) (Savin-Baden and Howell Major, 2013, p. 392).  

Observation can take many forms across a broad spectrum (ranging from exhaustive or unstructured to highly selective and/or highly structured): all of which carry advantages, disadvantages and involve very particular ethical and practical considerations. There are also various level of participation that a researcher can assume (Savin-Baden and Howell Major, 2013, p. 394) and this can have an important bearing on the nature of the data collected and the form that the analysis will take.

At the very least, researchers need to very carefully consider their position in relation to the participants and the various ethical dilemmas this can raise; as well as the need to consider and practise the different skills involved in carrying out an observation (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2018).

"Overriding the issues of which specific method of observation to use… [we suggest that] it is insufficient simply to describe observation as a non-intrusive, non-interventionist technique and thereby to abrogate responsibility for the participants involved. Like other forms of data collection in the human sciences, observation is not a morally neutral enterprise. Observers, like other researchers, have obligations to participants as well as to the research community."
Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2018, p.562

Educational research at Imperial

Elizabeth HaukeDr Elizabeth Hauke
Principal Teaching Fellow
Field Leader Global Challenges
Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication

The aim of my study was to identify how the students engage with and make sense of the Global Challenges courses. The learning environments in these courses are designed to challenge the students to work independently and to develop an authentic engagement with the world and global issues. This learning experience is unlike their core studies at Imperial College, and I wanted to find out how the students viewed themselves as learners and whether this changed during the course; how the students approached learning in groups; and how the students were able to frame their own learning having been given a very open brief.

There were different types of observation undertaken – observation of live classroom activity, observation of the students working and interacting online, and interrogation of the products of learning. The data from these various observations was triangulated to provide deeper insights into particular phenomena that occurred during the course.

The observations formed an ethnographic study, aiming to explore particular aspects of a culture. I wanted to see how my research questions above were reflected in the student culture within my classroom.

The most interesting thing about conducting this study was being aware of my own preconceptions and ideas about what I thought might be occurring for the students, so I included my thoughts, expectations and impressions in the observation as “first person narrative”. By keeping my position as researcher acknowledged, documented and transparent, it was actually easier to then try to think about my observational data more objectively. I also conducted three stages of data analysis – one immediately following the observation, one two months later and then a further analysis another month later. I found that the distance of time allowed me to find new ideas and perspectives in the data that I might otherwise have missed.

If you are undertaking a participant observation, it’s a good idea to practise observing while you are teaching and see what type of observational data you can capture. I had practised a lot and I knew what I would and would not be able to focus on before I began. This allowed me to structure my observations in a meaningful way.

Further reading

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2018) Observation. In: Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (eds), Research Methods in Education. 8th edition. Abingdon, Routledge (pp. 542-562).

Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C. (2013), Observation. In: Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Theory and Practice. Abingdon, Routledge (pp. 391-402).

Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS) from the Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative