The Pros and Cons of Student and Teacher Observations

May 10, 2019 by

It’s undeniable that teachers possess a long list of skills from educator to communicator to voice of reason. They’re trained and skilled in communicating and listening. In order to perform their job successfully, teachers use a wide range of tools including collaboration, professional development, and years of experience. Unbiased observation is another tool in most teachers’ toolbox. But what purpose do observations serve? And how are they done (right)? Let’s take a look.

What Are Student Observations?

While observation tools vary from one district to the next, the general technique is the same. The teacher follows a template or guidelines detailing what developmental stage students should be at, based on the national average. Milestones are nothing new to both teachers and parents. During each stage of development, a child should hit specific benchmarks for healthy growth. Things like walking by the age of one and have around 20 words in their vocabulary by 18 months of age. But again, these are loose guidelines for development. Some children excel much faster or slower than others. Teachers performing observations in an academic setting are looking for these same types of milestones on a different level.

How Are Student Observations Performed?

This is often the trickiest part of performing student observations and evaluations. Doing so from an unbiased, onlooker perspective. During observations, teachers and students aren’t allowed to interact. The teacher can’t document any details about the situation outside of what they see and hear. You need to remain emotionally uninvolved. This means if you know that Sally tugs on her hair when she’s nervous, you can’t write, “Sally is nervous”, because an unbiased third-party wouldn’t know that personal detail about the student. Instead, the observation should read, “Sally is tugging on her hair.” From this, further assumptions and conclusions can be made. It takes practice to remove yourself emotionally when observing students. Write down your initial observations and then comb through the material to see where you interjected your opinion or previous knowledge. Then, remove these tidbits. Observations can last anywhere from two or three minutes to 15 minutes, depending on the situation. Most curriculums require several observations per child throughout the course of the year. This is done to help monitor change, progress, or regression. Used in collaboration with student evaluations and assessments, educators can ensure students are receiving the required help and resources for success. You can read more here for information on the types of tools teachers utilize.

Pros of Student Observations

Now that you have a better understanding of what observations are and how they’re performed, let’s dive into the many benefits observations offer for both students and teachers.

Identify Developmental Issues

This is one of the main reasons for classroom observations, which are generally performed at a younger age, when children are growing and learning in leaps and bounds. From the infancy to age five, a young person’s mind is expanding at a rapid rate. They’re absorbing knowledge through experience and discovery. Neurons are firing and connections are being made. When there is a lapse in this development or children aren’t learning and progressing at healthy rates, there are signs. Observations help teachers identify and recognize these signs. Whether the issue is with speech, social interaction, or physical ability, even short observations can tell you a lot about a child’s current developmental rate. Early intervention is an invaluable tool for young learner in need of extra assistance. And classroom observations are the first step toward identifying the need for these services.

Evaluate the Curriculum

The curriculum in a classroom is only effective if the children are learning and grasping concepts. Outside of tests and homework, student observations are a great indicator of whether or not the curriculum is resonating with students. Try observing students while they work through a problem or hands-on lesson using concepts you’ve recently learned. Listen to the questions they ask each other and the way they work through the problem. Are they applying key concepts from the curriculum? Or are they completely missing the mark? If it’s the latter, this could be one of two things — either the curriculum isn’t teaching the students how to carry out the knowledge or the student is struggling to comprehend. It’s your job to determine which is the case. But remember, as difficult as it is, you can’t interject, offer help, or answer questions during the timed observation.

Enhance Teaching Practices

This point piggybacks off the previous one. If after your observation, you determine that the curriculum needs adjusting, you can tweak your teaching approach accordingly. If more than one child is struggling, perhaps it was the way in which you presented the most recent lesson that confused the students. Seeing exactly where students are struggling can help you adjust your teaching approach and enhance the learning process.

Better Understand the Child

Sometimes, watching people is the best way to truly see them for who they are. This is how you learn their little idiosyncrasies. What makes them tick — both good and bad. The average classroom in America has 23.1 students enrolled. That’s one teacher for 23 young learners. It’s nearly impossible to learn the in and out of every student, although teachers seem to do it anyway! When you sit back and simply watch, without interacting or interfering, you learn a lot about a person. How they handle stress, their level of empathy, and the type of learner they are. Are they constantly using their hands? Do they reach for a booklet of instructions to build a project? Or are they always writing down their ideas? All of these are small signs into the type of learner a student is and help teachers capitalize on a student’s strengths.

Cons of Student Observations

There are few downsides to performing classroom observations, but in the interest of being impartial, here are a few common (yet infrequent) complaints about the process.

Time Consuming

There’s never enough time in the day in the mind of a teacher. Between greeting students, settling them down, small and large group work, specials, lunch, and recess, the end of the day can easily sneak up on you. And while most observations don’t need to last much longer than a few minutes, that’s a few minutes that some teachers feel they can’t spare. Not to mention, teachers need to perform observations for every child, several times throughout the year. While the results from these observations are extremely beneficial, the entire process can be somewhat daunting. If you’re lucky enough to have a teacher’s aid in your classroom, give them the task of either performing the observations or guiding the students in a structured lesson while you observe. This helps save time and prevents you from feeling overwhelmed (at least when it comes to observations).

Hard to Be Objective

This is another main concern when performing classroom observations. Approaching the entire process with an unbiased and open mind can be difficult. There’s no denying that teachers develop a special relationship with individual students. The key is to being a true professional is never showing favoritism. But teachers must also keep this in mind when performing observations. If Johnny hit David for taking the toy away, as the teacher who has a special affliction for Johnny, your first instinct might be, “Well, David upset him.” This can’t be part of your thought process or reflect in your observation. Avoid using words like “think” or “feel”. These are indications that you’re placing your personal opinion and feelings into the observation. Simply write what you see and hear and nothing more.

Why Teacher Observation are Equally Important

Student observations aren’t the only ones that matter. Performing teacher observations is equally as important. After all, only an outsider looking in can objectively identify areas of improvement. While no one really enjoys being observed, it’s important to remember you aren’t being judged. The purpose of teacher observations is to evaluate the classroom dynamic and determine ways to improve it for both students and teachers. Here are a few other benefits of teacher observations.

  • Helps teachers strive for continued improvement and professional development
  • Supports effective teaching practices
  • Observing teachers learn in the process and are inspired to make their own, personal improvements
  • Enhances both teachers’ knowledge on professional learning
  • The observing teacher gets a different perspective on individual students
  • The observing teacher brings in a new set of skills and knowledge to share
  • Leads to goal setting and increased motivation

Just as the students are constantly learning and growing, teachers are too. And performing observations can help identify areas for improvement and teach all those involved something about their classroom dynamic.

Don’t shy away from the idea of classroom observations — for both students and teachers. Change can be scary but it’s necessary for growth. And the greatest changes come from fresh new ideas and a fresh new perspective on the current situation. Be open to new ideas and teaching approaches as you better yourself and your classroom environment.

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