A good student observation is like a work of art. You can read it and get a vivid picture of the student on that day. It reflects only what is seen, and it provides a context for the student’s actions. For the literary folks, it is “third person limited,” not “third person omniscient.” It’s a little snapshot in time.
So, why is writing a student observation so hard? There are many things that can contribute to the difficulty. If it’s a student in your class, teaching the class while observing is much harder than it sounds. I would recommend against trying to do that if possible. Deciding what to note and what to disregard can be challenging as well.
Character and Setting
Before you even enter the classroom where you’re observing, a couple of things should happen. First, you should let the teacher whose student you’re observing know you’re coming. Sometimes that can throw a teacher off which may cause a chain reaction and alter the typical behaviors of the student. When you’re talking with the teacher, find out where he or she is sitting and ask for a typical “baseline” student that you can watch, too. The latter is important because you want to note typical and atypical behaviors in your observation, and unless you have an average student to serve as a frame of reference, that may not be easy to determine. This is part of establishing the context I mentioned earlier.
The instant you walk into the classroom with your clipboard and take in the environment, take note of your target student. What do you notice about him or her? You can note their hygene, level of activity, proximity to the teacher, and proximity to other students. Take note of the kind of instruction that’s happening when you enter. Is it a practice activity, whole class instruction, small group work, or a lab? Does the student seem engaged at that moment?
Processes and Interactions
Now the narrative begins. Look at the interactions the teacher has with the class. Take note of what the lesson is, and how they elicit participation from students. Is your student on task? Are they participating (not only in the lesson but with their peers)? Are their behaviors typical of your baseline student’s behaviors? Describe what you see in these areas, and be specific. You’re trying to paint a vivid and descriptive picture of the lesson and the level of activity of the student.
Watching the clock and taking note of the time periodically on your writeup is essential. It will help you determine how long your student’s attention span for the lesson is and the frequency and duration of any behaviors you note. A typical classroom observation will last around 20 minutes, give or take.
The student’s academic skills are an important area to note. More than likely, this is one of the reasons that an observation is called for in the first place. Can the student copy from a faraway board or a close up text? Can they take notes? How are the student’s organizational skills? Are they able to follow directions given orally or written for them?
The last suggestion to note, following directions, deserves a bit more scrutiny. Often, you can tease out whether a student lacks the skills or has a poor attitude for the activity by watching both how well they follow directions and how quickly they follow directions. Keep in mind that poor attitude for a task can often come from the student realizing they have a poor ability to perform the task, so watch both the level of accuracy and the promptness of starting in.
The last paragraph of every classroom observation I’ve done starts with the words, “The teacher reports that…”. This is the opportunity for the teacher, who knows the student the best, to give context and history to concerns about the student. Be sure to note in this section that this is the teacher’s insight, and not necessarily something that you could have directly observed during any given twenty-minute span.
Above all, student observations should always be an honest view of how the child performs in a given context. Explicitly describe the context and the child’s performance. Note the areas where the child matches the behaviors of a typical student in the class, and those areas the child deviates from a typical student. And keep in mind your audience – teachers, special educators, administrators and parents.