The first step in gaining awareness is to pay attention to what’s going on. On the surface, this sounds simple enough. However, the devil is in the details. You must be intentional about looking for, and noticing, different components of your classroom. (Hall & Simeral, 2015, p. 52)
This summer was all about the Olympics and as I watched events like gymnastics and diving, I couldn’t help but think about the power of observation. Judges in these events are tasked with closely watching a performance and evaluating it based on specific and clear criteria. The athletes are aware of the criteria ahead of time and work for years to perfect each element through practice, feedback, video review (documentation), and goal-setting. The process is accepted as essential for the highest level of professional athletics. So, why are many of us reluctant to accept observation as a way to assess learning in our schools?
Observation is clearly the bread and butter of daily learning, but to discuss it in relation to assessment can feel slightly taboo. However, we never question an early learning teacher’s right to assess students through observation. We accept that physical education teachers use observation as the foundation of their assessment practice; coaching requires observing. However, for some reason, as learners get older and move into other areas of study, we feel obligated to assess a thought or skill only if it is written down. This decision removes a critical approach to formative assessment that truly gets at the heart of thinking processes and skill development, through which some of our greatest ability to impact a learning trajectory lies. Using observation honors the professional knowledge and experience of the teachers who engage in it and the diversity of the learning experiences of students in classrooms everywhere. Observation just makes sense!
When we observe learners, we are looking for thinking patterns, processes, and approaches. We are tuning into hesitations and missteps. In effect, we are watching learning as it develops, noticing the ways our learners make decisions and take action in moments of confidence and in times of challenge. Through observation, we can intervene, re-direct, praise, and reinforce. We can differentiate instruction and offer timely and specific feedback. Observation is a method of assessment that increases instructional agility and student investment, impacting achievement in highly meaningful ways.
Using observational assessment in combination with the examination of data (demographic, academic, behavioral) and student artifacts (work samples, photographs, videos) allows us to triangulate assessment information, and ensure accuracy and robustness in our assessment practice. It also allows us to get at the root of thinking—to see learning as it unfolds throughout an experience, and make plans with our students to keep learning moving in the direction of learning goals.
When we engage in observation as an assessment tool, we need to be clear about our learning goals (standards, outcomes) and the individual targets we are practicing and developing in our journey toward proficiency. That way, we can be focused in both the context and timing of our observations. We also need to be clear about what proficiency sounds and looks like, as well as the behavior, skills, and knowledge that indicated development. With this information in hand, we are able to capture learning “in the moment” and assess the degree to which it is approaching the goal.
Observation is richest when it occurs in the context of a complex learning experience. When students are solving rich problems, applying their learning, and engaging in creative processes, the conditions are ripe for rich observation. In these circumstances, students are often heavily engaged and this offers us the opportunity to remove ourselves for a while, sit back, and capture their learning through focused observation and documentation.
There are key practices that ensure our observations are aligned to learning and attentive to both our own needs and those of our learners. When assessing through observation, keep these things in mind:
- Describe what is happening without judgment or analysis (this will come later). As Rodgers (2002) explains, “I define description as the process of telling the story of an experience. It is the differentiation and naming of an experience’s diverse and complex elements so that it can be looked at, seen, and told from as many different perspectives as possible.” (p.237) Record language and behavior that may indicate learning, as accurately as possible. Ex: Sophie placed her blocks in a red-black-blue-red-black-blue sequence.
- Record the date, student name, and context of the learning experience. Ex: Oct. 3: The class was designing an experiment to test variables that contribute to corrosion.
- Have a copy of your learning targets on hand, including criteria for proficiency. You will need them when you analyze your observations and make decisions regarding feedback and instruction.
- Give yourself time to observe regularly, particularly on learning goals that offer challenge for learners. Your observations could make or break learning success in both the immediate task and those that follow.
- Allow yourself to be proud when you see learning, growth, and success. Share your pride with the learners. Describe what you are seeing and hearing to indicate proficiency. This is the joy of assessment that leads to student confidence, hope, and investment.
Observation is a powerful assessment tool that offers teachers insight into the processes our learners employ when engaging in learning experiences. The use of observational data allows educators and learners to impact learning and intervene, or celebrate in timely and targeted ways. We need to feel able to use every single assessment tool available to us, including observation, in order to advance learning when it matters most.
Hall, P. and Simeral, A. (2015). Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Rodgers, C.R. (2002). Voices inside schools: Seeing student learning: Teacher change and the role of reflection. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 2, 230-253.