by Nancy Grant, Information Librarian - SAD #41 and Audrey Conant, MEMA Informatioin Skills Chair


What Is Observation?

The dictionary defines observation as the act of noticing or perceiving, or as an instance of viewing or noting a fact or occurrence of some scientific or other special purpose. We are always observing and monitoring students and classes and activities, looking for progress, noticing problems, sensing confusion or closure. We make mental notes and respond to conspicuous behavior.

For example: the Librarian provides a lesson on the wide variety of resources available in the library. Using a scavenger hunt style of listing, the students move around the library, checking off each resource as they find it. Librarian and teacher circulate, listening and /or asking "any problems?" Hearing several "what's a vertical file?" tells the educator of the need for a mini-lesson on vertical files.

Recorded observations verify or discredit less conspicuous impressions through objective, accurate data. Planned observation can reveal valuable clues and information not otherwise available. Seeing and noting what is happening provides details while the learner is in action. Planned and recorded observation can provide the educator with one or more of the following:

Individual student profile
Sequential trail of individual or class behavior during a process
Identification of a trend over a time period
Source for determining future learning outcomes
Exploration points for parents, administrators, and specialists
Concrete support of ideas
Justification of the validity of Information Skills activities and curriculum, and
the role of the Librarian
Source for educators to study their own teaching
Why Do Observation?

The biggest value of periodic observation is to check on how individuals are doing, looking for their progress and discovering their problems. With this information, the educator can diagnose weaknesses and work with students to find solutions. Recorded observation provides a means to see gaps in lessons or where students have misunderstood essential points.

Observations require well-defined levels of concrete behavior that are recorded and evaluated. When this takes place educators find that most of the guesswork of evaluation has disappeared. With practice, the criteria can become internalized, and educators can observe and assess student performance as they teach. Effective, instant help and program modification may look like "flying by the seat of your pants," but is actually the result of a buildup of observational skills.

Recorded observations often reveal that the most successful and the least successful students are the first to be recorded. The quiet student and the inactive student are overlooked. Recorded observation that focuses on all the students forces educators to reflect on each student. This also encourages individual adaptation of the instruction to meet individual needs.

Students need experience in observation for their own development, as well as to understand educator observation of them. Educators should discuss their expectations with students as well as solicit expectation ideas from them. The student involved in the observation and the expectations is more likely to stay on task.

Teaming by the librarian and the teacher to do an observation leads to discussion of the results. This provides deeper and broader observation in place of just one view of the student. This team approach also encourages individual adaptation of lessons to better match student needs.

Letter grades for final products are no longer sufficient assessments of what a student can do. See Process chapter. It is critical to evaluate the entire process leading up to and through the final presentation. The complexity and speed of most process-oriented projects, however, can make effective evaluation difficult. Observation can pick up parts of the process that are not usually graded. Using clear objective tools and working in teams provides a practical approach to assessment. Recording preset behaviors frees the observer from subjective opinions.

Accountability has become a catch-word for the public. The educator can no longer casually "feel" how a student is doing. Using observational tools can provide hard evidence of how a student is doing. This can be shared with parents and administrators. Observational assessments can also be part of the student's process-oriented portfolio.

"Using a combination of observation tools can show a profile of what a student can do, what problem-solving activities are planned, and how they can be achieved. This provides the following positive benefits for the educator:

  1. You feel more on top of things, because you will be.
  2. You will find yourself in closer proximity to the students, without distance or physical barriers between you and the students.
  3. The students will feel you are omnipresent, which usually acts as a discipline preventive.
  4. You will find out what is working that you can build on.

How To Do Observation

Vocabulary. Define your terms, especially if you are teaming with another observer. Be sure you both know exactly what is meant by "on task," or whatever behavior/skill you are observing.

Biases. Understand your own biases and what theory of learning you support. Do you prefer webs or outlines, students in teams or individually, quiet classrooms or active ones, are you a random or linear thinker?

Tools. Decide what tool to use, or design your own. Tools help limit the scope of the observation and keeps the educator from getting overwhelmed. They allow you to focus on one or two manageable skill/behaviors/parts of the process. Examples of the following common tools (A, C-E) may be found at the click of a mouse.

A. Anecdotal record - short, basic action, exact words, strictly objective, one incident.
B. Running record - longer, more detailed, continuous or sequential account, more environmental information, evidence (NOTE: Specialized Reading programs use this term in a different way.)
C. Checklist - numerical form, can have large amounts of information
D. Category systems - preset behaviors to look for
E. Rating systems - preselected behaviors identified and judgments made about the quality of the behavior

If you are designing your own observation tools, consider the following:

Be sure the behavior or skill is defined in narrow enough terms to provide consistency. For example:

Uses key words versus Develops own key words; Adds key words from preknowledge; Adds key words found in resources; Matches key word to resource needs

The first skill definition might be narrow enough for elementary grades or the novice, while the second shows precisely the student's ability to develop and apply a wider range of key words.

Possible Formats for Recording the Observations

1. Loose-leaf folder. Contains day-to-day observations and comments. It could contain a one page checklist for a class working on citations. Carry the page on a clipboard during class sessions. Or, the folder could contain a page for each student during an extensive research project. Carry post-it notes during class, then add these to each student page. Make sure each observation is dated. Comments could include the results of a discussion, behavior, evidence of attitude or effort, understandings, etc. More effective with planned observation, but could include spontaneous observations as well.

2. Self-observation recording page. Attach this to the students' working folder. For student reference and/or recording. Could list goals jointly derived by educator and student. Class goals or educator's. Sequential list or re-ordered by student preference. Gives feedback to student, records progress, keeps goals in mind. Provides basis for conferencing or mini-lessons.

3. Files. A list of information skills could be attached to a student's cumulative file. Each year different colored highlighting indicates progress in selected skills, showing longitudinal development. A more comprehensive approach could be individual cumulative files of selected information problem-solving projects, with the same skills list attached to the file.

First Steps Toward Formal Observations

Choose 3-4 students from a range of skill levels. During a limited time span, observe and record their progress in a specific skill. Team with a partner and repeat the observation, comparing the results.

Videotape the class while you are recording a limited observation. Take notes again as you watch the video. Compare these to your observations during the class.

Fishbowl Formats: Opportunity for Observation

The Fishbowl discussion format provides an opportunity for observing how students are able to apply their research. A fishbowl is a discussion format structured within a topic agenda. A group of discussants are seated within a larger circle of the remaining students. Depending on the topic, the discussion may take the form of role-playing. The teacher is usually in the outer circle assessing the discussants' contributions. Discussion usually concludes after 10 - 20 minutes, depending on topic, grade level, audience attentiveness, level of discourse. Debriefing sessions give teachers an opportunity to discuss and clarify raised issues, reinforce concepts, open up some ideas to the class as a whole. The purpose of a fishbowl format is a satisfying, realistic learning experiece within an even-handed structure.

A set of written agendas provide students with a guide for needed research and note-taking preparation. They contribute as well to the structure of the forthcoming discussion. Usually three to five small groups within a class will each research a different agenda, with suitable subtopics. Mining in the Old West, African Diamond Mining, Mining Today - From Yellowstone to Strip Mining. The emphasis will not be on memorization but on effective use of information. [However, activities engaged in during a fishbowl unit are those which reinforce the integration of research information into long-term memory.] This encourages students to carefully organize and label their information, and to use the agenda during research and during the fishbowl.

Assessment: a simple checklist can be used to speedily record specific individual participation as well as provide guidance for fishbowl behavior and the application of research. Keeping tally as students participate can result in a grade as well as reveal much about individuals' research and collaborative skills. In this functional climate, students take responsibility for their own learning and their own behavior. The teacher's role is much less visible. A fishbowl is structured by the teacher, but not led.

Fishbowl dialogues can include a multitude of information literacy components. Some examples: listening, using evidence of research, application of that research in a challenging and unusual context, questioning skills, indication of appropriate content selection, comprehension of such selections, using research to justify a position; associating information, either researched or heard within fishbowl, in a problem-solving manner.

Fishbowls can also include measurable components of collaboration, an increasingly valued life-learner requirement. Among others: verbal communication, working with a group toward a goal, respect.


Fishbowl Checklist

Group 3
Topic: Child Labor ................. .
Plus Points
Minus Points
Ask clarifying question . Interrupt .
George // Chris //// George Chris //
Amy Donna / Amy Donna
Doug / Marie /// Doug Marie
Make relevant comment . Monopolize .
George / Chris George Chris
Amy //// Donna / Amy Donna
Doug //// Marie// Doug Marie
Use evidence re position Ignore facts .
George / Chris George Chris
Amy /// Donna Amy Donna //
Doug// Marie// Doug Marie

Tally the students' totals on the bottom.

To keep the discussion on a high level and to provide evidence of research, comprehension, and ability to apply, points are given for taking a position with reasonable justification, using evidence and contributing new information, recognizing contradictions or irrelevant statements, making an analogy. Points are subtracted for irrelevant comments or self-contradiction.

Restraints and rewards can be incorporated within the tool to eliminate the need for the teacher to control the discussion. Students get points for drawing another person into the discussion, for asking a clarifying question, for moving the discussion along in a different way, for building upon another's statement. Points are taken away for interrupting, monopolizing, personal attacks, distracting, repeating, not paying attention.

Note how each point is a guide to how to participate in a fishbowl as well as a motivator to garner relevant material.

Some teachers give two grades; one for content, one for behavior. Otherwise, a student could hide behind 'drawing another person into the discussion,' and rack up points while consistently shifting the content reponsibility to others.

Double points can be assigned to areas of special importance to the teacher or to the topic.

One preparation for a fishbowl session: teacher/librarian partners explain a scoring sheet and model a fishbowl discussion as students score. They make sure to use, "I believe" ..and.. "In my opinion" with reasons, to later cue students to taking a stand on a topic. They can also demonstrate that factual information requires a definition, names and/or dates. They can interrupt and immediately back up and excuse themselves: no penalty.

A Fishbowl Example: "Child Labor" at Lincoln Academy

Three high school classes received a running background in child labor during their first two semesters of world history. In their third semester, they explored in depth regional child labor issues they had identified in the context of other assignments. In mid-semester they participated in fishbowl discussions. The teacher and librarian had noticed that the students, although aware of the complexities of the issues, needed to see the 'entanglement,' that solving one problem seemed to enlarge or create another. They also noticed that the students retained a 'distance.' Calcutta and Rio remained remote, and children hand-stitching soccer balls got passing sympathy, not empathy.

To focus on these situations, a case study was found in The Harvard Business Review in which students could play the role of a manufacturer, his sourcing manager, his labor consultant, a human rights advocate, marketing/pr consultant, legal advisor. A fishbowl agenda was written by the teacher and completed via a class discussion that defined case studies, social responsibility as applied to industry, industry's relationships with shareholders. It also contained an extended explanation of each of the roles, both generically and in this American/Pakistani crisis in particular. A separate student group became responsible for each role. The groups studied the agenda and the research they had been doing during the semester; they then discussed their assigned role in context. The teacher and librarian 'floated' between groups, answering questions and helping students to associate concepts to case study specifics.

The fishbowl began with one member from each team in the inner circle, with their team-mates behind them. The teacher entered the inner circle, introducing the case as a current crisis in the T & T Company, and inviting each of the roleplayers to introduce himself. She then moved to the outer circle and the discussion began. She had chosen a variation of fishbowl in which a group outer circle member, able to present a timely point, could change places with her inner circle representative by tapping his shoulder. She then remains in the role until tapped by another team member.

As the simulation progressed, the students discarded the articifial aspects of the study and pursued their roles with flair. More and more team-mates tapped their way into participating. More and more notes were searched for remembered points. The missing role of the child laborer became more and more apparent. Suddenly, one girl stood up and reacted to a comment with "My father will come down here and he wonÍt let you!" Dead silence. Then cheers, for everyone realized how real the simulation had become. Role-playing was renewed with a will.

A debriefing followed the discourse. Any initial disinterest, confusion, or resentment displayed when this assignment was introduced had totally disappeared. The lack of simple solutions was clear to the class. The distance had clearly been minimized. At the end of the semester, some of the action plans reflected realizations begun during the fishbowl. For instance, one student wrote to Senator Harkins suggesting that his proposed legislation [to label goods whose manufacture included child labor] was too simplistic, and spelled it all out for him. This fishbowl activity covered 3 class periods, with 1 class period in between. [Some materials utilized had been collected during the previous month.] Note: these students had had many experiences with collaborative work.

The librarian and teacher compared their scoring sheets and found them almost equal, easy to use, and easy to analyze.

Some other fishbowl options:


If students have not used fishbowl technique before, be prepared for apprehension beforehand. Some students may feel exposed. Slacker students who get poor yet privately communicated grades from written work may feel less comfortable about having their slacking show before their peers. Doing something differently can be unsettling, reflected in resentment. The teacher modeling session should help here. Or, short fishbowl sessions can be practised, with the outer circle scoring the session, but no grades given. Have each student score only 1 or a few other students at one time. Discuss and share participation and scoring afterwards.


Student response after fishbowls has been positive, as evidenced in debriefing sessions. Working together in a controlled setting is also a social event. Students are talking to and listening to each other, building upon each others' comments. Competition recedes. Everyone can be a winner.

Fishbowl References

"Scored Discussions" by John Zola. Social Education 56(2) February 1992 pp 121-125.
"Third-World Families at Work: Child Labor or Child Care?" HBR Reprint 93105 from Harvard Business Review, January - February 1993.

Staff participants: Amy Sanders, History Teacher; Shelly Swayze, Librarian; Audrey Conant, Consultant.

October 1997
Maine Educational Media Associaton