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Classroom Observation

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A classroom observation is an act of watching a teacher’s performance in their classroom or learning environment.  Classroom observations are a quantitative way of recording and measuring teacher behavior and mastery by systematically watching and recording them in action.  There are two basic types of observations, the first of which is when a school administrator watches a teacher’s performance as a part of a formal job-performance evaluation at a regularly scheduled interval (often annually).  The second is an observation performed by a teacher’s peer or peers, instructional specialist, or coach with the stated goal of providing the teacher with relevant feedback based on their interactions with students and their execution of teaching methods with the primary goal of making improvements in their classroom management and instructional techniques.  Typically, it is new general and special education teachers who are the focus of classroom observations as they have less experience and stand to benefit the most from the process. That said, experienced teachers can benefit from the feedback and insights gained through observation as well as provide another perspective on their performance that may shed light on techniques that they are using improperly or not at all.  A classroom observation can be as brief as a few minutes or as long as an entire school day or more.  

Purpose of Observation

The fundamental purpose of classroom observation is to improve student outcomes by improving the instructional prowess of the teacher.  A secondary purpose of observation is to perform an investigation into possible inequities in instruction among different groups of students.  This allows teachers and researchers to identify biases in how different groups of students are treated based on their gender, socio-economic standing, or other differentiating factors to help eliminate them.  A final purpose is to provide researchers with information on current educational practices and to identify instructional problems. 

Observation Methods

There are many different ways for an observer to effectively perform an observation.  Some utilize homegrown in-house methods while others deploy nationally recognized models created by educational experts and further validated by research-based data.  It really depends on the standard operating procedures of the school and the person performing the observation in which methods are used in a specific circumstance.   

Observation Elements

Good classroom observation will contain most or all of the following elements:

  • a stated purpose for the observation
  • a specific observational focus
  • operational definitions of all the observed behaviors
  • training procedures for observers
  • an observation schedule
  • a setting
  • a unit of time
  • a method to record the data
  • a method to process and analyze data 

Video Observation

Traditionally, all classroom observations were performed in person.  Technology is now regularly being used to make the process more accessible and effective.  The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets that have high-quality recording devices have made the video recording of classroom performances not only possible but easy and cost-effective.  There are also subscription-based online services that are capable of providing another level of observational functionality and data analytics that are difficult to reproduce using the more traditional face-to-face observation and paper recording methods.

Observation Techniques

Checklists, charts, rating scales, and narrative descriptions are examples of observational techniques that have proven to be effective ways of examining a teacher in action.  However, the most prevalent procedure for systematic observation is the use of interactive coding systems. The reason they are used so often is that they allow the observer to document almost everything that happens between the teacher and their students during the observation.  They are a widely used tool because they are objective and they are designed in a way that helps keep the observer’s personal judgments or inferences from skewing the data collected over the course of the observation. Interactive coding systems can readily identify and capture specific and easily identifiable behaviors in a way that lends the data to easy coding and categorization which is especially helpful for analyzing the data and providing the teacher with objective feedback. 

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