Observation Guidelines

  • Observational Research

    by Janet Waters  (revised 2017)

    Planning the Observation:

    Plan as much as you can before you begin your observation. Choose the age group, (e.g. a particular child, adolescent or adult), or a behaviour setting (e.g. a playground, school or home). Then choose a topic which you wish to observe. Before the observation, read about the topic you are studying (the applicable chapter in your text), and plan your observations. Think about the behaviours you will be looking for that are within your topic area. You may wish to prepare a checklist of target behaviours within your topic in advance. (Make sure you leave a column titled "misc" for behaviours you hadn't anticipated). Also, check that your audio/video recorder, if you will be allowed to use one, is working properly.

    Research Ethics for Observational Research: As with all research methods, make sure your research proposal has been approved by your instructor or supervisor before conducting your experiment. Your research proposal must include how you plan to gather data on your participants, and a copy of your consent form if one is needed. (Naturalistic observation in public doesn't require signed consent, as participants in public know they are able to be observed). For other observations, go over the consent form with your participants before they sign, and ensure their anonymity and confidentiality is protected in your research process (within the legal requirements).

    Guidelines for Conducting the Observation: Some guidelines for carrying out an observation:

    • Be unobtrusive: Because people behave differently in the presence of others (the Hawthorne effect), it's important to make sure your participants don't notice you. If observing children, and you can't remain unseen, you may wish to spend some time before the observation sitting quietly in a corner to allow the children to get used to your presence. (If a child tries to engage you in conversation, you could explain you are doing some work, and can't play or talk now). 
    • Be objective: The language you use to describe the behaviours you observe should be clear, accurate, & formal. Focus on the behaviour, not on your interpretation of it. Keep your language objective, avoid hyperbole or descriptive language, which may exaggerate the behaviour or mislead the reader. For example, "the kids were bouncing off the walls" would be vague and overly descriptive. A better description would be: "The children seemed excited; two boys were energetically chasing each other, while two of the other children were wrestling and shouting." 
    • Be specific: Your observations should describe behaviour as specifically as possible. Generalities are vague and don't give a clear picture. For example, an observation that "the five children were each engaged in gender-biased behaviour" is too general, it doesn't specifically identify what the children were doing, and such a description will likely vary according to era and culture. "As the observation began, two of the three girls were sitting quietly at the crafts table, while the third girl pretended to cook dinner in the play kitchen. All three boys were building a fort with large wooden blocks." This gives a more accurate picture to your reader of the specific behaviours you may be typing as "gender-biased".
    • Be scientific: Your observations should be accurate; they should be thorough and complete and should include nothing but your observations. (That is, unless you observed it, avoid speculations about the possible sugar consumption that may have preceded the children's excitement).

    Beginning the Observation:

    As you begin your observation, record the following:

    • Setting: Describe the setting (e.g. in the kitchen of the child's home) and the context. Indicate roughly what the setting was like, size, facilities, number of people. In other words, include anything that might have an influence on the behaviour you are going to observe.
    • On-going Action: Indicate what is happening and who is involved in the action at the time you begin your observation.
    • Brief description of the observed person: Indicate the number of people you observed, their approximate age and gender, and any notable features relevant to your topic. You will include the description of your setting and your participants in the Method section of the research report.

    During your observation:

    Record as full a description of the person's behaviour and responses to that behaviour as possible. It's a good idea to make notes every thirty seconds, even if you are recording with video or audio equipment. You can use a prepared checklist, or write a narrative of the behaviour - you can invent your own shorthand for notes during the observation, then expand on your shorthand notes as you transcribe the notes soon after. Be as thorough & complete as possible.

    Analyzing the Observation:

    Once you have finished the observation, you will have to make some sense of your data, and present your results in the Results section of your report. If you had a checklist, you would total the columns and present the frequency totals of each variable (or type of behaviour) in a table form. You may wish to convert these totals into percentages in some cases. If you are typing behaviour into a stage or category according to a theory (e.g. Piaget's cognitive development, or Kohlberg's moral development), list the behaviours that typify each category or stage, and identify why you think so. Then present these in a table. If you have a narrative, you would code it for specific behavioural patterns or themes, total these, & present them in a table.

    As an example, in an observation of adult-child interactions, the researcher is observing child-initiated interactions with an adult. The researcher wrote a good narrative record of observations of all the child-initiated interactions that took place within the hour's observation and then coded the observations according to the following criteria, totaled each type and presented them in a frequency table. 

    I: Child Approaches to Adult - a) type of approach: P (physically), V (verbally), O (Other – e.g. body language, eye gaze, etc). 
    b) content of child's approach: includes the following subcategories: request to adult; question; wants to show adult something; wants to involve adult in play; expression of emotion or physical state; aggression; complaint; etc. (List as many types as you find). 
    c) valence of approach: + (positive), - (negative), n (neutral). 
    d) intensity of approach: quiet vs loud, etc. 

    II: Response by Adult to Child: a) type of response: as above 
    b) content of adult response: includes the following subcategories: complies with request; answer to question; expression of empathy; reprimand/ discipline; etc. (List as many types as you find). 
    c) valence of response: + (adult responds verbally, smiles, picks up child, etc.); negative - (adult refuses child's approach verbally or non-verbally); n (neutral - approach not noticed or ignored). 
    d) intensity of response: as above

    III: Response by Child to Adult's Response: as above.

    Presenting & Discussing your Observations:

    The standard APA style research report can be used to present your case study. In the Introduction, briefly review past research & theory in your topic question (e.g. summarize current research on child/adult interactions from a Child Development textbook and/or research journal article). Use APA referencing style to cite your sources. In the Method section, under Participants, present a general description of the participants you have observed (age, etc.). In the Materials & Equipment section, describe any materials or equipment you may have used (e.g. audio or video recorder), and in the Procedure section, describe your general research strategy (naturalistic observation, structured observation, or possibly an experiment) & describe your methods of data collection (observation).

    In the Results section of the report, present your 2-4 page summary or analysis of your observations, as noted above. Generally, avoid excessive interpretation of your observations in the Results section. Simply present the observations, in a table if possible. No citations would occur here, since you are describing your results.

    Finally, in the Discussion section, you should integrate your results to theory & past research findings in your topic. Relate your observations to what you have learned from previous research about that topic. For example, you have observed that there were 50% more instances of physical aggression among the boys than the girls, and 40% more instances of verbal aggression among the girls than the boys. Explain these findings with reference to research & theory on gender differences in aggression and verbal behaviour. If your findings contradict current research or theory, or if you observed something unusual or unexpected, you could suggest reasons why your observations may differ from the expected findings.

    @ Janet Waters (2017)