5 Qualities of Effective Classroom Data & Observations

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What makes a good classroom observation?

In my last blog, we learned that observations are crucial tools for teachers to gain insight into their students' learning and guide future instruction. However, not all observations are created equal. In this post, we’ll explore the five qualities to keep in mind while collecting data and recording observations in the classroom.

To be the most effective, all classroom observations should:

1. Be recorded frequently 

Collecting data for report cards and end-of-unit assessments is important, but informal data collected over smaller, more frequent intervals is equally useful. Documenting student progress from the beginning helps teachers create smaller goals along the way to reaching larger, more overarching goals. It lets teachers know if they need to adjust their teaching strategies, spend more time on a subject, or move faster through content if students are mastering it more quickly than anticipated. 

When students see that their progress is being monitored and that their teachers are responsive to their needs, they are more likely to feel engaged and motivated. Knowing that their efforts are recognized and that help is available when needed can boost student confidence and investment in their own learning. Students learn to view challenges as opportunities for improvement rather than defeating failures. Regular reflection on their progress can help students take ownership of their learning.

Take, for example, the goal of writing a five-paragraph essay. Multiple objectives need to be reached before students can successfully complete this task. Students need to know how to craft the overall structure, write a compelling thesis statement, develop cohesive body paragraphs, write a strong conclusion, and revise. If students were only given feedback at the very end, anyone who was struggling along the way might feel like they just couldn’t do it. But if teachers monitored the smaller objectives and intervened when necessary, all students would have a better chance to succeed. 

2. Be understood without context

Any teacher can tell you that collecting data is easier said than done. It’s difficult for teachers to find time to record data on their students, especially when they aren’t all in the classroom at the same time. In addition, learning support teachers and assistants frequently experience scenarios where each student in their caseload is in a different room.

The only way to meet this challenge is for everyone on the team — learning support teachers, classroom teachers, and teaching assistants — to record data and make observations. Especially if observations are coming from multiple sources, consistency is key. Information should be recorded in the same format, saved in the same place, and phrased so that anyone reading it can understand exactly what happened.

Let's say a teacher is observing a student during a math lesson and wants to document their progress in understanding multiplication. A poorly written observation might look something like this:

Kemala did pretty well with multiplication today. She seemed to understand the concept and was able to solve most of the problems.

This observation is not very helpful because it's too general and lacks specific details. What does "pretty well" mean, exactly? How many problems was Kemala able to solve? A reader who wasn't in the room during the observation would have a hard time understanding what happened.

 In contrast, a well-written observation might look like this:

During today's math lesson on multiplying by 6 and 3, Kemala solved 8 out of 10 problems correctly. She showed an understanding of the concept by using repeated addition to solve problems with larger numbers. She struggled slightly with word problems that required her to interpret the problem before solving it. She wasn’t always sure if she should use addition or multiplication after reading the problem.

This observation is much more specific and provides concrete details about what happened during the lesson. Someone who wasn't in the room could read this observation and understand exactly how Kemala performed. This information can be used to make decisions about Kemala's progress and to guide future instruction.

3. Be free from opinions

There is a time and a place for your opinions, like when you are discussing how to adjust a student’s program or what should happen next. But when you are recording data, opinions can’t get in the way of the facts.

Our opinions should not be part of an observation or data because they cloud everyone’s view of the situation. For example, we could ask three people to observe a student in a classroom and then ask for their opinion about why the student struggled to collect the materials they needed and sit at their desk. One person might tell us that the student seemed to be tired. Another might tell us that it looked like the student didn’t eat breakfast. Yet another might tell us that they know the student’s parents are getting divorced, so that must be the reason they couldn’t gather their materials and sit at their desk. 

When you ask for opinions, you are more likely to get varying answers. Factual observations of the student above would be that the student searched for their materials in their backpack without success, moved to their desk to search there without success, then closed the desk and put their head down as the rest of the students all had their materials and were ready to start.

Let's say a teacher named Ms. Lee is observing a student named Ana during a reading lesson and wants to document Ana's reading fluency. A poorly written observation might look something like this:

Ana's reading fluency is not good. She is a slow reader and needs a lot of help.

This observation is not very helpful because it is based on the teacher's opinion of Ana's reading ability rather than on objective data. It also uses judgmental language, which can be discouraging for the student.

In contrast, a well-written observation might be something like this:

During the reading lesson, Ana read a passage aloud at a rate of 63 words per minute with 87% accuracy. She required two prompts to self-correct her errors. She used appropriate phrasing and intonation. The words she said wrong the first time were multisyllabic.

This observation is more objective because it is based on specific data that Ms. Lee collected during the lesson. It also provides specific examples of Ana's strengths and areas for improvement without using judgmental language. By separating facts from opinions, Ms. Lee can provide more useful information about Ana's reading ability, which can be used to guide future instruction.

4. Include direct quotations

If you are observing a student and their comments help paint a picture of what you observed, try to write them down word for word. It is especially helpful to use direct quotes during social interactions. This way, if you hear a positive interaction between your student and one of their peers you can use behavior-specific praise to encourage them later.

I remember a situation where I had just finished reading the data collected by a student’s shadow teacher. Let’s call this student Seamus. I had a social skills lesson later in the day with Seamus, and I was able to be very specific with my positive feedback to start off the lesson. I told Seamus, “When you asked your friend at morning recess, ‘Would you like to play with me?’ other people could see your friend’s face change from a sad face to a happy face. Your words made them feel included. I’m proud of you for asking a friend to play!”

This very specific praise makes it so much easier for the student to understand the actions that we want them to repeat in the future.

5. Be specific

Finally, your observations must be specific. You should include the time, place, surroundings, and other factors that may be affecting the student when recording an observation. The more specific you can be, the more helpful it is to those reading the observation later.

You're familiar with the phrase, "You can't compare apples to oranges," and the same principle applies to collecting data. For instance, if one person is collecting data in a quiet, one-on-one setting while another is doing so in a classroom full of 23 other students, we can't expect to see identical results. Whether we're measuring academic or behavioral outcomes, there are numerous variables at play. Our students' lives are far from sterile, and just like in science class, we can't simply flip a switch to manipulate all the variables in their environment. That's why it's essential to collect detailed information when documenting data. By doing so, we can account for the many factors that impact our students' performance.

Let's say a teacher named Mr. Chen is observing a student named Dmitriy during a science experiment and wants to document Dmitriy's ability to follow directions. A poorly written observation might look something like this:

Dmitriy did not follow directions well during the science experiment today.

This observation is not very helpful because it lacks specific details about what happened during the experiment. It also doesn't provide any context for the observation.

In contrast, a well-written observation might look like this:

At 2:15 pm during the science experiment on April 6th, Dmitriy was instructed to measure out 20 ml of water using a graduated cylinder. Despite the instructions written on the board and a demonstration, Dmitriy poured in 30 ml of water. When reminded of the directions, Dmitriy corrected his mistake but appeared hesitant and unsure of his measurements for the rest of the experiment.

This observation is much more specific and provides concrete details about what happened during the experiment. It includes the time and place of the observation, as well as the context of the task. By being specific, Mr. Chen provided a clear picture of Dmitriy's performance, which can now be used to guide future instruction and support Dmitriy's learning.

By making frequent observations that can stand alone, are free from opinions, detailed, and specific, teachers can gather objective data on student progress, communicate this progress to students and parents, and make informed decisions about how to support their students' learning. Ultimately, effective observation can lead to improved communication, higher expectations, and better outcomes for students.

Stay tuned for my next blog, where we’ll cover how to set clear goals and objectives based on the data and observations you’ve gathered. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with any questions.