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date: 29 May 2020

Observing Schools and Classrooms

Summary and Keywords

Qualitative observation is an attempt to view and interpret social worlds by immersing oneself in a particular setting. Observation draws on theoretical assumptions associated with the interpretivist paradigm. Thus, researchers who engage in qualitative observations believe that the world cannot be fully known, but must be interpreted. Observation is one way for researchers to seek to understand and interpret situations based on the social and cultural meanings of those involved. In the field of education, observation can be a meaningful tool for understanding the experiences of teachers, students, caregivers, and administrators.

Rigorous qualitative research is long-term, and demands in-depth engagement in the field. In general, the research process is cyclical, with the researcher(s) moving through three domains: prior-to-field, in-field, and post- or inter-field. Prior to entering the field, the researcher(s) examine their assumptions about research as well as their own biases, and obtain approval from an Institutional Review Board. This is also the time when researcher(s) make decisions about how data will be collected. Upon entering the field of study, the researcher(s) work to establish rapport with participants, take detailed “jottings,” and record their own feelings or preliminary impressions alongside these quick notes. After leaving an observation, the researcher(s) should expand jottings into extended field notes that include significant detail. This should be completed no later than 48 hours after the observation, to preserve recall. At this point, the researcher may return to the field to collect additional data. Focus should move from observation to analysis when the researcher(s) feel that they have reached theoretical data saturation.

Keywords: education, education research, qualitative, observation, ethnography, fieldwork


Observation, as a concept, can refer to many things. Yet, in terms of social research and ethnography, observation is the act of “record[ing] the ongoing experiences of those observed, through their symbolic world” (Denzin, 2017, p. 185). It is an attempt to view and interpret social worlds by immersing oneself in a particular setting—a way to “see from the inside” (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011, p. 3). Observation draws on theoretical assumptions of the interpretivist paradigm, and is associated with methodologies such as ethnography, narrative inquiry, discourse analysis, grounded theory, phenomenology, and symbolic interactionism. It is one of many ways for researchers to understand situations based on the meanings of those involved. The particular approach to observation presented here considers the process and implications of observations in educational settings such as schools and classrooms.

The Interpretivist Paradigm

All research methods and methodologies are based on assumptions about reality and knowledge. In order to understand how one might study a particular research question or explore a phenomenon, it is important for researchers to examine their beliefs about whether the world around them can be objectively known. Researchers who approach their work from the interpretivist paradigm believe that the world cannot be objectively understood, and does not exist independently of thoughts or ideas. Since there is no objective truth, the world must be interpreted (Glesne, 2016). Further, the goal of such research is not just to interpret the social world, but to do so through the lens of actors in that particular setting or context. Through observation, then, qualitative researchers “access . . . others’ interpretations of some social phenomenon” and also use their own lens to interpret the actions and motivations of others (Glesne, 2016, p. 9).

Because interpretivist qualitative research, as described in this article, is centered on interpretation, it is not considered “objective” research. Throughout the observation process, the researcher’s identity and subjectivity are always implicated. Interpretivist research engages participants’ multiple ways of knowing and making meaning, at the same time engaging socially constructed meanings agreed upon by society. Thus, while interpretations may be unique to individuals, to some degree, it is also possible to access the “perspectives of several members of the same social group about some phenomena,” which can “suggest some cultural patterns of thought and action for that group as a whole” (Glesne, 2016, p. 9). In order to collect substantial evidence of such cultural patterns, interpretivist researchers prioritize significant, long-term engagement in the field. While one might observe and use the techniques described in this article on a short-term or ad hoc basis, sustained presence in the field and interaction with participants are vital for interpreting cultural understandings unique to the context.

Nearly every researcher has experienced schooling in some manner, making informal “insider” status somewhat universal for researchers who choose to study education. This amplifies researcher subjectivity such that most researchers entering the field have an a priori vision of what the student experience is like, and how educators are, or should be, in an educational setting. For those who have experienced traditional schooling, their experience is not insignificant, spanning more than a decade of their lives. Additionally, some education researchers are former educators, adding a further layer of knowledge and experience that influences how they engage in observation-based qualitative research. All this is to say that the cultural meanings that each of us bring to bear on educational research are heavily laden with our own schooling experiences and the social powers that shape them. This can be both a benefit and a reason for increased attentiveness or caution.

Another concern regarding observation in the field of education is that there are significant contextual implications for observations in classrooms. Thus, the term is doubly fraught with meaning. Generally, when teachers (or students) think about being observed, they assume judgment. While a fear or wariness about researcher judgment is not uncommon in observational research, the apprenticeship model for teachers invokes observation as a form of evaluation with real professional consequences. This is the case for pre-service teachers and in-service teachers alike. In conjunction with student achievement, observation ratings may also be tied to teacher performance evaluations and merit pay. This discursive and symbolic conundrum can be problematic for qualitative researchers both in terms of gaining entry into the field, and also in terms of managing their own biases toward judgment. In conducting observation in classrooms, the aura of evaluation is ever-present. This is not to say that observation, as associated with educational evaluation, is bad. There are vast benefits to apprenticeship, directed feedback, legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and experiential learning (Dewey, 1938). When it comes to qualitative research, however, there is a necessary translation that must occur to orient both the reflexive approach of the researcher, and the understanding of the teacher or students being observed.

While interpretivist participant observation engages the subjectivity of the researcher, novice researchers are encouraged to take field notes as objectively as possible, reserving analysis and interpretation for a later phase. That said, our experiences as researchers in the field always engage some level of analysis as we integrate what we see and experience into our own extant frames of reference. Denzin (2017) reminded researchers that participant observation “entails a continuous movement between emerging conceptualizations of reality and empirical observations. Theory and method combine to allow the simultaneous generation and verification of theory” (p. 186). This article presents a methodological perspective on how one might conduct participant observation in educational settings, while paying particular attention to the movement between empirical or “objective” observation, subjective interpretation, and further evaluation. While the article focuses primarily on observation rather than analysis, it is necessary to consider how a researcher navigates the continuous push in the field to detach (concrete observation) and connect (understanding emerging concepts). The article thus includes some discussion of preliminary analysis and how it may be recorded.

It is always tricky to lay out methodological procedure when, in reality, the process is layered, cyclical, or non-linear (Spradley, 1980). For the researcher interested in observation, it is important to keep in mind the idea of “movement between” as stated by Denzin (2017). A vital skill for expert qualitative observation is to actually exist and think “between.” This allows for subjectivity and emic or insider understandings to inform, but not supersede, concrete thick descriptions (Geertz, 1973) of interaction in the field. This skill takes significant practice and mentorship. The included examples describe the process of a novice researcher, to show how one might begin to build capacity for observation and subsequent interpretation. Following the discussion of methodological procedure, there is a brief discussion of implications and encouragements for the use of ethnographic observation in educational settings.

Methodological Cycles of Observation

This section breaks the methodological process of observation in school settings into three domains: Prior-to-field, in-field, and post- or inter-field. These domains can be viewed as somewhat cyclical in nature and, realistically speaking, are not always discrete. As the researcher becomes more embedded in the research setting, more familiar with the context, and more adept at the “move between” description and analysis, the lines between the domains become blurry. So while one may separate these domains for the sake of explanation, they should be taken not as singular, but rather as guiding moments in the process of qualitative observation.

In the prior-to-field domain, the researcher examines or states their own epistemological stance toward the work, as well as their own biases toward the setting or subject matter. This reflexive work not only sets the tone for the in-field domain, but also allows the researcher to consider appropriate research questions. In the post- or inter-field domain, the researcher revisits their in-field observations to again navigate between the concrete field notes taken and their own subjective interpretations. This domain also provides opportunity to further focus observation and refine the research questions. Additionally, researchers may consider this an apt moment to check with participants for their own interpretations of interactions observed.


Observation is more than simple data collection and, despite differing epistemological orientations, nearly all sources agree that observation-based research should be rigorously conducted. In other words, data gathered through observation or ethnography is “more than casually observed opinion” (Angrosino & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 468). In more recent iterations of ethnographic methodology, observation is highlighted as a site of interaction. In this postmodern context, researcher subjectivity is acknowledged—rendering the researcher a participant, co-constructor, and co-negotiator of meaning at the study site. Angrosino and Rosenberg (2011) stated, “our social scientific powers of observation must, however, be turned on ourselves and the ways in which our experiences interface with those of others in the same context if we are to come to an understanding of sociocultural processes” (p. 470). This discussion of the nature of observation-based research is a vital starting point since it orients the researcher to the cultural meanings of the study site and encourages them to acknowledge their own subjectivity. As in post-critical ethnography (Noblit, Flores, & Murillo, 2004), this orientation serves to situate the project as theory and methodology that are inextricably intertwined. This means that the researcher needs to be aware of the experiences, meanings, and biases they bring to the field.

From a sociological standpoint, each of us moves in the world based on a number of more or less abstract identity markers that influence how others interact with us. A particular caution for educational researchers exists in the vast differences we know that students have in their schooling experiences. These differences are often based on social markers such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and religion. Schooling, as an institution, mirrors and even amplifies the social hierarchies of society such that some are distinctly privileged in educational settings, while others experience oppression and disadvantage. So, to build on the assertion that nearly all education researchers have “insider” experience with schooling, it is important to note that these experiences can differ greatly. Sometimes parallel or similar experiences may limit the view of the researcher in that they may see only their own experiences, and may not look beyond that feeling to truly engage what others might experience. Additionally, differing experiences or social positioning may result in misinterpretation of cultural meaning. Thus, educational researchers must prioritize the move between social meanings of their own and those of participants observed. This is one reason, in particular, why it is so important to record concrete sensory detail in the field.

When a researcher records concrete details, they are recording what is seen. If a researcher were to record only what they think about the events taking place in the field, this judgment (for that is what it is) may supplant other potential meanings that may be discovered. Recording concrete sensory details allows the researcher the space to later move between their own subjectivity and those of the participants—particularly during the process of writing expanded field notes. This process takes time and practice. Indeed, it takes a vigilant researcher to parse out the expectations overlaid on educational research settings by their own experiences from the experiences of others. In consideration of the ways that a researcher might begin to identify and examine their own biases, a good starting point is Sensoy and DiAngelo (2017). In their book Is everyone really equal: An introduction to key concepts in social justice education, the authors guide the reader through an approachable exploration of concepts such as power, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, privilege, and social construction. Each of these concepts is vital for understanding researcher biases and how they influence interpretations in the field. In general, this examination process is referred to in the field as reflexivity, or “critical reflection on how researcher, research participants, setting, and research procedures interact with and influence each other” (Glesne, 2016, p. 145). Pillow (2003) pointed out that this reflective process does not absolve the researcher of their own biases, yet has important ramifications for the analysis and findings.

Those who have trained and served as educators may have particular insight to offer in the field of educational research. They may understand the field in more depth, having recently experienced the nuance and pressures of policy. To those who say that prior experience in the field may bias the investigation—it does. However, all researchers are biased in that they experience the world in a particular manner and ascribe specific cultural and social meanings to settings and events. It is also necessary to acknowledge here that effective use of this depth of understanding for qualitative observation does not come without caution.

Prior to entering the field, researchers may make preliminary decisions about their level of involvement, participation, and immersion. While older iterations of ethnographic methodology encouraged the observer to participate as little as possible, this can hinder the researcher’s ability to truly understand indigenous meanings of the social situation being observed. Certainly, the lesser-involved researcher will have greater opportunity to record copious notes. However, simply being present in the setting does have an effect on participants and may alter the way that they act or interact. Furthermore, researchers need not see the roles of participant and researcher as two poles. Rather, it is useful to think of these as two ends of a continuum, where the researcher(s’) role is never static.

While research ethics are not the primary focus of this article, it would not be appropriate to advocate for observation without mentioning that participants’ rights and confidentiality should be considered at every step of the process. Prior to entering the observation setting, the researcher must obtain approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB). This is particularly important for research in schools, where participants may be minors and parental consent for participation may be required. Once approval is granted, the researcher should obtain consent from participants and provide a disclosure of nature of the study and time requirements for engaging in the study. Additionally, participants should be reminded that they can opt out of the study at any time. The IRB will also provide explicit guidelines on how all sensitive or identifiable data should be stored to protect participants’ identity.

Another key decision to make prior to entering the field is how field notes will be recorded. While notes can certainly be recorded on paper, or using a word-processing program on a laptop, pervasive use of personal digital technology (smartphones, tablets, etc.) has transformed the available options for documenting the field. As long as one has received approval for photo or video documentation from IRB, digital photography is instantaneous and can help document the research setting in greater detail. Digital videos can record activities and interactions such that the researcher can return to these when expanding field notes for further verification or perspective. Aside from simple dialogue, voice recorders can also record soundscapes, a growing area of qualitative research analysis (Gershon, 2013). There are also a number of app-based note-taking and qualitative-analysis programs helpful for observational research, including: Atlas.ti Mobile, Evernote, EverClip, MAXApp (corollary to MAXQDA), and Indeemo. Additionally, Google Could now offers a free speech-to-text function that can capture dialogue in more detail than one might be able to do on paper or by typing.

The choice of note-taking platform should take into account participants’ wishes, as well as the needs inherent to the setting. This decision is not just a simple question of what will work best for the researcher and their research product. Returning to the prior discussion of educator evaluation, teachers may associate note-taking—on paper or electronically—with recording judgment. When I have mentored student teachers, they have expressed that the tapping sound produced by typing on a laptop can increase their anxiety exponentially. While these considerations may sound superficial, the comfort level of participants is of utmost importance for the researcher in establishing themselves as collegial, and not intrusive. In fact, I have found it to be useful to ask a classroom teacher how they would prefer for me to record my observations. Regardless of their choice, I always assure them that I am “documenting” the events taking place, and not recording judgment.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that any prior-to-field decision-making may shift and evolve throughout the process of the research engagement. Qualitative research, by nature, seeks to understand meaning from the perspective of the actors in a particular context. Thus, the researcher must be willing to follow threads of understanding or thought, even if they are unexpected. For example, one may plan for low participation (Spradley, 1980) in the setting, but one day during the field visit the teacher may invite the researcher to lead a group of students through a math activity. In the interest of building rapport and trust with the participants, it may be necessary to move to a higher level of participation in response to this invitation. This will be discussed in further detail relating to the in-field domain. Emerson et al. (2011) stated that a good participant observer must be both “sensitive and perceptive about how they are seen by others” (p. 4). If the participants see the researcher as detached, unhelpful, or otherwise standoffish, this can affect their level of comfort and shift the insights they choose to share. Changes in the researcher’s level of participation should be recorded in field notes, and do not negate the reliability of eventual findings. In fact, participants may share additional insights with researchers who show interest in their perspectives, actions, and thoughts.


This section details two major considerations for researcher(s) embarking upon in-field observations: What to look for, and how to record what is seen. This is obviously oversimplified, but these two considerations will help to organize the process of collecting qualitative data via observation. These decisions can be made by an individual researcher or by research teams working together to investigate a particular setting or phenomenon.

What Should the Researcher Look For?

The first thing a novice researcher often asks about observation in the field is “What should I be looking for?” This question is loaded, and takes some time to unpack. While there may be something that the researcher hopes will happen, it is important to focus explicitly on what does happen, and how it happens. One of the first skills that a participant observer must begin to hone is explicit awareness of a situation (Spradley, 1980). This awareness can be compared to that of a wide-angle camera lens that takes in as much as possible. The goal, Spradley stated, is to overcome the “selective inattention” most people employ to conduct daily tasks and interactions (p. 55). This explicit awareness is not solely directed outward. Spradley also noted that the researcher must increase their introspectiveness so that they are better able to see and reflect upon the cultural frames and meanings associated with that which is observed.

Using the metaphor of a wide-angle lens, one common way to begin observation is through descriptive observation. In this case, the researcher approaches the observation with very general questions in mind. For example: “What is happening here?” or “What is going on?” These broad, open questions allow for the researcher to see and feel the setting as it is, without overlaying a priori meanings or assumptions.

Table 1. Spradley’s Descriptive Question Matrix





Can you describe in detail all the places?

What are all the ways space is organized by objects?

What are all the ways the space is organized by activities?


Where are objects located?

Can you describe in detail all the objects?

What are all the ways objects are used in activities?


What are all the places activities occur?

What are all the ways activities incorporate objects?

Can you describe in detail all of the activities?

Source:.Spradley (1980, pp. 82–83).

Spradley (1980) outlined a “Grand Tour” as a procedure for descriptive observation. In this overview, the researcher would take note of various facets of the setting and participants including:

  1. 1. Space

  2. 2. Actor

  3. 3. Activity

  4. 4. Object

  5. 5. Act

  6. 6. Event

  7. 7. Time

  8. 8. Goal

  9. 9. Feeling

The first three facets are presented in bold (author’s emphasis) because these three form a meaningful starting point for any observation, and the remaining six provide additional nuance. A diagram can be useful for illustrating the set-up of the space, mapping objects as well as actors. After examining each of these facets of the setting, Spradley recommended creating a descriptive question matrix wherein the researcher integrates observations from two or more of the facets to examine how they might interact. For example, consider how a student who is disabled might interact with a space that is not accessible for mobility. More detail is provided in Table 1.

Emerson et al. (2011) also advocated for a wide-angle lens and prioritized the senses in helping to establish initial impressions. They expanded on the facets listed by Spradley, encouraging the researcher to consider physical space and environment in terms of characteristics such as size, space, noise, and layout. It terms of actors in a setting, they also suggested observing such characteristics as perceived race and gender, dress, comportment, and proximity to other actors. Moving beyond these facets, Emerson et al. also advocate that the researcher ask the question “What is significant or unexpected?” in the field. In other words, what seems out of place or out of the expected flow? Such unexpected moments are often of the most interest, and also represent some of the most significant cultural learning for the researcher. For instance, do the actors in the field react as though the same event is unexpected? If not, the researcher will need to examine the event, activities preceding the event, and those following the event to work to understand the significance. It is also important to register one’s own feelings, as the researcher, when observing in the field. Then, in working to understand one’s own reactions, feelings, and biases in comparison to those in the field, one may reveal cultural meanings unique to the context. It is important to note that the researcher should not take their own feelings as findings. Rather, they should move beyond their own reactions toward an analysis of what those in the setting may find significant (Emerson et al., 2011).

Focused observation takes place after the researcher has been in the field for some time, and serves to limit the inquiry in a meaningful manner. Whereas in descriptive observation, the research questions were general, in focused observation the researcher engages more structural questions (Spradley, 1980). For example: What are all the ways that a teacher asks a student to focus on their work? Focused observations may be conducted as surface or in-depth investigations. According to Spradley, surface investigations examine a number of cultural domains in some depth. In-depth observations are just that, observations where the researcher selects one domain and examines it thoroughly. These cultural domains may be selected based on personal interest, suggestion by informant, theoretical interest, or other strategic reasoning (Spradley, 1980). Additionally, this can lead the researcher to a potential taxonomy of events or codes occurring at the site (selective observation).

While Spradley’s approach can be useful and meaningful, there is also room to hone the initial general research question of “What is happening here?” to a more structured prompt that does not demand taxonomic reduction. An example of such a prompt engages the significant or unexpected events described by Emerson et al. (2011). In this case, the researcher might choose to further examine a particular event or occurrence, asking the questions: When this event happens, how does it happen? What else is happening? What changes? This way, the researcher is not limited to types of interaction, but can also consider the means by which these interactions take place and the dynamics that are set into motion.

Recording Field Notes

Field notes are the first phase of documenting happenings as data via observation—a method of inscription or textualization which later serves as a basis for iterative analysis. Further, according to Emerson et al., “Field notes are distinctively a method for capturing and preserving insights and understandings” (2011, p. 14). There is no best way to record field notes, and none approaches a truly objective accounting of the events that occurred. One observer may choose to record significant events or key phrases that another observer does not choose to record. Thus, when conducting research in teams, it is useful to cross-check notes with others who observed the same events. This can be done in formal calibration meetings or informal conversations post-observation. Cross-checking can also be performed as a type of member check with participants, where the researcher might ask if anything was missed. Subjectivity is always implicated, since each observer filters events through their own cultural meanings and understanding of the social world. Yet, researchers observing in social settings are still encouraged to record what they see as concretely as possible. Taking a step back, researchers must decide the appropriate method for recording notes in the field. In the moment, researchers will need some method to record jottings, which are “a brief written record of events and impressions captured in key words and phrases” (Emerson et al., 2011, p. 29). These quickly written or typed fragments are used to help the researcher as they later created detailed expanded field notes.

A researcher may choose to take notes on paper or another electronic device. When permission is appropriately obtained, the researcher may also create video or audio recordings of the setting. Even when a recording is made, the researcher should still take jottings when possible as a source for both back up and further detail. The choice of paper or electronic device should be made based on the setting and the researcher’s level of participation in the field. In any case, the method used should be as unobtrusive as possible and should not disturb the events taking place. The researcher may choose to take jottings down openly—so that participants can see them writing or typing—or in a hidden manner (Emerson et al., 2011). The decision of how to record jottings in the field is also dependent on a number of other factors, including the nature of the research questions, the skill of the researcher, the mobility required by the setting, availability of power or internet, and the language of the researcher as compared to the participants.

As events in a research setting unfold, the researcher should take down short notes in order to later remember the events when assembling expanded field notes. These jottings may be fragments of interactions, keywords, phrases, or verbatim quotes (when possible). For example:

  • Music Education Class
  • Participants: 1 Instructor, 8 Students (college-aged), 1 researcher
  • 2:15 p.m.
  • Instructor (Dr. Hart) tells class they are making a chart about assumptions
  • Hope: Learning takes place in a building
  • Hart: So, learning should look a certain way
  • Hope: No! Not what I meant
  • Hart says translating to fit in chart
  • Hope: No, no! (shakes head and looks at me)
  • Me: I think she is saying that learning could happen outdoors, or at home.
  • Hope: Yes!!
  • Hart writes “Learning should look a certain way” on chart, ignoring our protestations
  • Hope frowns scrunches eyebrows together. Looks down at phone.1

Jottings may also consist of drawings and diagrams that document the space. Jottings should always show time and date, and it is useful to check the clock and record the time every 5–10 minutes or so throughout the observation. This will help later, when considering and analyzing the pace of events. The question of when a researcher should take down jottings is also worth consideration. If the researcher is involved in a conversation, or is an otherwise active participant in the situation or events, they should prioritize this interaction over note-taking. Tact and rapport are vitally important to qualitative observation, and sometimes note-taking may come across as if the researcher is rude or not listening. Wait for breaks or lulls in the conversation to record jottings. If your participation requires that you move around a room or other space, it may be best to use a small notebook or electronic tablet that is easily carried.

Our inclination as educational researchers is often to provide evaluative feedback on the performance of the educator being observed. When recording field notes, it is important to resist this urge. Jottings should include as much detail as possible, using descriptive and concrete language. Emerson et al. (2011) suggest the following recommendations on how one might document what is observed. First, one should describe all key components of the setting, using concrete sensory details that would help a third-party reader gain a reasonable vision of the actors and events. Rather than stating that a participant looked defeated, for instance, it would be more appropriate to record the details of their bearing that lead you to believe this is the case. In this example, the researcher might record: The participant’s eyes were cast down toward the ground and their shoulders were hunched forward. Additionally, researchers should avoid characterizing events through generalization or summary in field notes, since these represent a form of analysis or judgment. The purpose in avoiding generalization at this phase is to leave the possibility open for alternative interpretation once the full data set is established. It is possible that later events may clarify or alter the meaning of a particular social act.

Feelings and emotions will always be present in a research setting, and should be acknowledged and recorded. Emerson et al. (2011) noted that it can be informative to describe actors’ emotional expressions and responses to the events occurring throughout the observation. They also recommend that the researcher record their own impressions and feelings about the events. Having recorded these feelings and responses, the researcher can compare their own reactions to those of the participants in order better to understand the cultural and social meanings unique to that setting and those actors. However, the impressions and feelings of the researcher do represent a form of analysis, and should be specifically recorded as such.

In field notes, the researcher should differentiate between the types of information they record so that it will be recognizable when they return to the jottings to expand them into completed field notes. Concrete descriptions of sensory details and verbatim interactions should be recorded in one manner or place, and impressions or personal feelings should be recorded differently. For example, some researchers choose to separate these types of jottings into two columns in their notebook before entering the field. Others use the comment function in word-processing software to separate analytic commentary from notes. These parallel notes can also be recorded using the advanced functionality of apps such as Evernote and MAXApp.

Both types of recording are important, and serve to help the researcher remember what they were seeing and feeling while in the field. These reminders will serve as recall prompts when the researcher goes to expand their field notes in to full notes, and later when they use those notes to create analytic memos.

Post-Field or Inter-Field

This domain is dually named to highlight the fact that qualitative participant observers should complete multiple observations over a significant length of time. A single observation is not sufficient for allowing the researcher to understand contextual cultural meanings, and most qualitative methodologists encourage in-depth, long-term engagement in the field. Thus, the inter-field domain name refers to the idea that researchers will likely need to enter and exit the field a number of times. Expanded field notes, notes-on-notes, and memos should be created in between visits to help focus the study. At some point, examination of field notes and other qualitative data (i.e., interviews, documents) will start to seem redundant. In other words, the researcher(s) will begin to see the same phenomena occurring, with nothing new arising in successive observations. In other words, they have reached the point of data saturation (Glesne, 2016). There is not a set number of observations, or a pre-determined length of field observation, necessary for rigorous qualitative observation. Rather, the researcher(s) must determine this point of theoretical saturation for themselves.

Expanded Field Notes

The process of observation does not stop once the researcher leaves the field. One cannot possibly record every detail of the observation in the moment, so jottings should be re-read and expanded after the fact. In order to preserve detail with the freshest memory, a number of sources recommend that the researcher read over jottings and expand them into fully realized field notes within 24 to 48 hours. This expansion process involves recreating a record of the events and interactions observed in full, rich detail (Geertz, 1973). In the field, the researcher may not have had time to record these happenings fully, but the jottings serve to jog the memory so that the researcher can later recall the field more fully. Expanded field notes may take the form of prose (paragraphs), a script of dialogue, figures, or diagrams. Time notations from jottings should be preserved in expanded field notes, and researcher asides or commentaries should also be kept separate from concrete sensory observations. Here is an example of field notes expanded from the jottings provided in the section “Recording Field Notes”:

  • Music Education Class
  • Participants: 1 Instructor, 8 Students (college-aged), 1 researcher
  • 2:15 p.m.
  • The instructor, Dr. Hart asks the students what assumptions we make about learning. Hope, a white woman, raises her hand and says, “We assume that learning takes place in a building.” I feel that I understand what she’s saying and nod in agreement. Though I’ve nodded my head somewhat unconsciously, I notice that Hope has seen me agreeing with her. Dr. Hart says: “Yes, we assume that a school should look a certain way.” She says “No, that’s not what I mean!” and looks at me. Dr. Hart says that he’s going to translate her meaning a bit so that it will fit the chart they’ve been creating, and that, basically, it’s the same meaning anyway [paraphrased]. Hope looks disconcerted, with her eyebrows scrunched together. She is also shaking her head to left and right (as if to disagree) and frowning. She tries to reiterate her point, [paraphrase] “I am saying that learning experiences don’t need to happen in a building.” She again looks at me and I feel compelled to speak up. I say, “I think I know what you’re saying, you mean that you don’t have to be inside a school to learn, that you can learn outdoors, and at home with your family.” She says, “Yes! That’s what I mean!” Dr. Hart says “Oh, Ok!” but then asks John to write-up his original statement of “Schools look a certain way.” Hope slouches in her chair and rounds her shoulders, picks up her phone and begins to type.

In a first visit to a setting, it may be useful to assign pseudonyms or codes to participants to help with de-identifying participant data throughout the field notes. In addition to assigning such codes, the researcher should keep a code book or identifying document, preferably stored separately.

Expanded field notes should include as much detail as possible. Emerson et al. (2011) elaborated on this descriptive writing strategy that “calls for concrete details rather than abstract generalizations, for sensory imagery rather than evaluative labels, and for immediacy through details presented at close range” (p. 58). By necessity, this means that field notes will be long and labor intensive, with the added pressure that the researcher should record them as soon as possible to avoid losing detail. It is important not to skip this step of the process. It is easy to forget the particularities of the social field over time, and expanded field notes preserve complexity and richness of the data. Additionally, expanded field notes are vital when collaborating with other researchers, as they allow the others to experience a full description of events even if they were not present.


While writing expanded field notes, the researcher will inevitably begin to develop preliminary commentary and impressions. These impressions should not be considered findings when they arise from a single observation. Rather, they should be noted clearly so that the researcher may confirm or disconfirm their impressions in subsequent observations, interviews, or document analysis. To do this, researchers should create a short memo containing notes-on-notes for each field observation. Such a memo should move beyond impressions and begin to comment or theorize on what is observed. That said, notes-on-notes should not be considered findings until they have been compared to observations and triangulated with other types of data. Notes-on-notes can help to focus and narrow the research questions, and aid in moving the research project from descriptive to focused observation. Additionally, they may help in generating interview guides for focus groups or individual interviews where preliminary findings can be confirmed or ruled out. This is also a place for the researcher to record their own feelings in more detail. For example, if the researcher is experiencing frustration because they are not able to observe interactions between particular participants, they may note this frustration in the notes-on-notes memo. Notes-on-notes need not be lengthy; sometimes a paragraph or two is enough to express whatever should be noted for follow-up or later confirmation.

The process of qualitative observation is cyclical. Expanded field notes, along with the corresponding notes-on-notes, will most often direct the researcher back to the field to gather further information. The requisite information may represent a broadening of perspective, or a narrowing, depending on the setting and participants. Experienced researchers often begin the analytic process immediately upon entering a field of study, parsing out codes and themes in the data that they can further clarify (and sometimes quantify) as the study progresses. Analysis and coding are not included in this article, though the authors cited herein offer great insight on that topic.


One of the most encouraging aspects of observational research in educational settings is the opportunity to build partnerships and rapport with those who are currently working in the field. Very often there is a perceived divide between academics and P-12 teachers who work in classrooms. Again, the importance of developing rapport, basic trust, as well as collegiality cannot be overstated. Meaningful partnerships across these perceived divides are one of the most productive potential sites for educational change and reform to occur. These are the sites where, together, we might exert the most influence over policy, equity, and curriculum.

Rapport building should be genuine. It is not advisable to fake an interest in a site of study or associated stakeholders simply to benefits one’s own research agenda. Such an approach echoes the exploitative measures of early ethnographers, and is considered highly unethical. Thus, a skill that we have not yet explored regarding qualitative observation in educational settings is the ability of the researcher to seek and build meaningful, ethical relationships with those they study. The conundrum here then becomes that when we establish real relationships with participants, our subjectivity is engaged on yet another level. However, the benefits largely outweigh any potential pitfalls.

Moving beyond the stereotypical idea of one observer recording the events of a classroom, another opportunity is that of participatory action research. By engaging stakeholders in the design and execution of the research, the research may address issues that are pressing or of great importance to participants. This serves to generate educational change regarding issues that are of urgent concern to those engaged in the field on a day-to-day basis. A particular arena of possibility here involves engaging students in research.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, observation in educational settings is a detailed and rigorous process. This process involves self-reflection, attention to concrete and sensory details, and, most importantly, the ability to build rapport with participants. This article has detailed one methodological perspective and approach toward qualitative observation in educational settings. This approach can be used in both traditional and nontraditional educational settings, provided that the researcher maintains flexibility and an introspective approach to observation and, later, analysis. Cornerstone observational studies such as Ladson-Billings’s (2009) The dreamkeepers, Lareau’s (2011) Unequal childhoods, and Willis’s (2017) Learning to labour provide useful examples of the insights that can be gleaned from observation.

The reflective “move between” one’s own subjectivity and that of participants is truly the generative site of observational research (Denzin, 2017). When done well, this moving in between can reveal similarities and differences, and can help people to take the time to understand diverse experiences, rather than approaching them from a stance of judgment and evaluation. Truly, observational research is a place where we have the opportunity to focus deeply on the experience of others. This is not just to walk in their shoes, but to understand the forces and meanings that influence their daily lives. These are some of the most exciting moments of potential change that qualitative research has to offer.


Methodological Texts

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.Find this resource:

Representative Studies

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.Find this resource:

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Willis, P. (2017). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:


Angrosino, M., & Rosenberg, J. (2011). Observations on observation: Continuities and challenges. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (4th ed., pp. 467–478). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Denzin, N. K. (2017). The research act: A theoretical introduction to sociological methods. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.Find this resource:

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Geertz, C. (1973). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. The interpretation of cultures (pp. 3–30). New York, NY: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Gershon, W. S. (2013). Vibrational affect: Sound theory and practice in qualitative research. Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies, 13(4), 257–262.Find this resource:

Glesne, C. (2016). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (5th ed.) New York: Pearson.Find this resource:

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.Find this resource:

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Noblit, G. W., Flores, S. Y., & Murillo, E. G. (2004). Postcritical ethnography: Reinscribing critique. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.Find this resource:

Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175–196.Find this resource:

Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.Find this resource:

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.Find this resource:

Willis, P. (2017). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:


(1.) Expanded field notes from these jottings are included in the section “Expanded Field Notes.”