As part of a science methods class, we’ve been assigned to create an observation tool to assess students. I’ve seen many articles and suggestions online for helping students become good observers and tools for administrators to use when observing teachers. But I haven’t seen much on teachers observing students. What can I assess by watching students?
—Kendra, Columbia, South Carolina
I would check with your instructor about the assignment. Did he or she provide any examples, guidelines, or a rubric? Could you model a type of data collection used in your methods class?
Teachers continuously observe students informally, scanning the classroom or watching students as they work. They often look for students who seem confused or engaged in off-task, unsafe, or disruptive behaviors, which is certainly important in a science class. It sounds like your task is to add to this observational “research” in a systematic and purposeful way.
Your question did bring back memories of my methods course when we were given a similar assignment. We were asked to design an assessment that did not require students to use pencil and paper. (This was long before the Internet and digital technology!) I was puzzled at first, but then I created a protocol for observing students during a lab and assessing their ability to use a microscope. I made a table with a list of students’ names for each section, and across the top I listed several behaviors to look for that would let me know that students could use this tool appropriately (e.g., focus a prepared slide, create a wet mount slide, carry it back to the shelf safely, clean the lenses). I shared the expectations with the students, and as I circulated through room during a lab, I would check off the behaviors as I noted them. It did take a few lessons before all the students had check marks, and I had to specifically ask some students to show me what they could do. My instructor loved it!
As with any assessment, the value is not in just collecting the data but using the data to guide instruction or improve class activities. This data provided more information than a written test on parts of a microscope, and unsafe behaviors could be addressed immediately.
In the following years, I used this protocol for many other student observations. For example, during group work, I noted which students were the leaders/facilitators, the take-over types, the quiet observers who did contribute to the activity, or the ones left out of the process. I used this data to intervene where necessary or create lab teams for the next unit.
You could also study what kind of questions students ask during an activity: procedural (What are we supposed to do now?), confirmational (Are we doing this right?), off-task (May I use the restroom?), clarifying (I’m not sure about…), or extending (We’re wondering about… What would happen if…?) From this I learned to wait a few seconds before responding to students who asked a lot of procedural questions. Often they or their partners answered their own questions.
You can use an observation checklist to identify content skills or lab techniques (such as measuring or graphing) in which students are successful and those in which they may need additional guidance or instruction. Record your observations as you walk around while students are working independently or in groups. Spend a little time with each group to observe their work, ask a few questions, or provide any clarification. Rather than waiting for a written test, you can identify misconceptions or incomplete understandings right away.
I could see this protocol being adapted for a tablet or smart phone in place of my sheet of paper–you could also add photos of the students at work.