Observation<ref name="Ross">Mahoney, Colleen (1997). User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations.Retrieved October 13, 2006, from http://www.ehr.nsf.gov/EHR/REC/pubs/NSF97-153/start.htm</ref>
Observational techniques are methods by which an individual or individuals gather firsthand data on programs, processes, or behaviors being studied. They provide evaluators with an opportunity to collect data on a wide range of behaviors, to capture a great variety of interactions, and to openly explore the evaluation topic. By directly observing operations and activities, the evaluator can develop a holistic perspective, i.e., an understanding of the context within which the project operates. This may be especially important where it is not the event that is of interest, but rather how that event may fit into, or be impacted by, a sequence of events. Observational approaches also allow the evaluator to learn about things the participants or staff may be unaware of or that they are unwilling or unable to discuss in an interview or focus group.
When to use observations.
Observations can be useful during both the formative and summative phases of evaluation. For example, during the formative phase, observations can be useful in determining whether or not the project is being delivered and operated as planned. In the hypothetical project, observations could be used to describe the faculty development sessions, examining the extent to which participants understand the concepts, ask the right questions, and are engaged in appropriate interactions. Such formative observations could also provide valuable insights into the teaching styles of the presenters and how they are covering the material.
Exhibit 3: Advantages and disadvantages of observations
- Provide direct information about behavior of individuals and groups
- Permit evaluator to enter into and understand situation/context
- Provide good opportunities for identifying unanticipated outcomes
- Exist in natural, unstructured, and flexible setting
- Expensive and time consuming
- Need well-qualified, highly trained observers; may need to be content experts
- May affect behavior of participants
- Selective perception of observer may distort data
- Investigator has little control over situation
- Behavior or set of behaviors observed may be atypical
Observations during the summative phase of evaluation can be used to determine whether or not the project is successful. The technique would be especially useful in directly examining teaching methods employed by the faculty in their own classes after program participation. Exhibits 3 and 4 display the advantages and disadvantages of observations as a data collection tool and some common types of data that are readily collected by observation.
Readers familiar with survey techniques may justifiably point out that surveys can address these same questions and do so in a less costly fashion. Critics of surveys find them suspect because of their reliance on self-report, which may not provide an accurate picture of what is happening because of the tendency, intentional or not, to try to give the "right answer." Surveys also cannot tap into the contextual element. Proponents of surveys counter that properly constructed surveys with built in checks and balances can overcome these problems and provide highly credible data. This frequently debated issue is best decided on a case-by-case basis.
Recording Observational Data
Observations are carried out using a carefully developed set of steps and instruments. The observer is more than just an onlooker, but rather comes to the scene with a set of target concepts, definitions, and criteria for describing events. While in some studies observers may simply record and describe, in the majority of evaluations, their descriptions are, or eventually will be, judged against a continuum of expectations.
Observations usually are guided by a structured protocol. The protocol can take a variety of forms, ranging from the request for a narrative describing events seen to a checklist or a rating scale of specific behaviors/activities that address the evaluation question of interest. The use of a protocol helps assure that all observers are gathering the pertinent information and, with appropriate training, applying the same criteria in the evaluation. For example, if, as described earlier, an observational approach is selected to gather data on the faculty training sessions, the instrument developed would explicitly guide the observer to examine the kinds of activities in which participants were interacting, the role(s) of the trainers and the participants, the types of materials provided and used, the opportunity for hands-on interaction, etc.
Exhibit Four: Types of information for which observations are a good source
- The setting - The physical environment within which the project takes place.
- The human, social environment - The ways in which all actors (staff, participants, others) interact and behave toward each other.
- Project implementation activities - What goes on in the life of the project? What do various actors (staff, participants, others) actually do? How are resources allocated?
- The native language of the program - Different organizations and agencies have their own language or jargon to describe the problems they deal with in their work; capturing the precise language of all participants is an important way to record how staff and participants understand their experiences.
- Nonverbal communication - Nonverbal cues about what is happening in the project: on the way all participants dress, express opinions, physically space themselves during discussions, and arrange themselves in their physical setting.
- Notable nonoccurrences - Determining what is not occurring although the expectation is that it should be occurring as planned by the project team, or noting the absence of some particular activity/factor that is noteworthy and would serve as added information.
The protocol goes beyond a recording of events, i.e., use of identified materials, and provides an overall context for the data. The protocol should prompt the observer to
- Describe the setting of program delivery, i.e., where the observation took place and what the physical setting was like;
- Identify the people who participated in those activities, i.e., characteristics of those who were present;
- Describe the content of the intervention, i.e., actual activities and messages that were delivered;
- Document the interactions between implementation staff and project participants;
- Describe and assess the quality of the delivery of the intervention; and
- Be alert to unanticipated events that might require refocusing one or more evaluation questions.
Field notes are frequently used to provide more indepth background or to help the observer remember salient events if a form is not completed at the time of observation. Field notes contain the description of what has been observed. The descriptions must be factual, accurate, and thorough without being judgmental and cluttered by trivia. The date and time of the observation should be recorded, and everything that the observer believes to be worth noting should be included. No information should be trusted to future recall.
The use of technological tools, such as battery-operated tape recorder or dictaphone, laptop computer, camera, and video camera, can make the collection of field notes more efficient and the notes themselves more comprehensive. Informed consent must be obtained from participants before any observational data are gathered.
The Role of the Observer
There are various methods for gathering observational data, depending on the nature of a given project. The most fundamental distinction between various observational strategies concerns the extent to which the observer will be a participant in the setting being studied. The extent of participation is a continuum that varies from complete involvement in the setting as a full participant to complete separation from the setting as an outside observer or spectator. The participant observer is fully engaged in experiencing the project setting while at the same time trying to understand that setting through personal experience, observations, and interactions and discussions with other participants. The outside observer stands apart from the setting, attempts to be nonintrusive, and assumes the role of a "fly-on-the-wall." The extent to which full participation is possible and desirable will depend on the nature of the project and its participants, the political and social context, the nature of the evaluation questions being asked, and the resources available. "The ideal is to negotiate and adopt that degree of participation that will yield the most meaningful data about the program given the characteristics of the participants, the nature of staff-participant interactions, and the sociopolitical context of the program" (Patton, 1990)<ref>Patton, Michael Quinn. (1990). Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, 2nd Ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.</ref>.
In some cases it may be beneficial to have two people observing at the same time. This can increase the quality of the data by providing a larger volume of data and by decreasing the influence of observer bias. However, in addition to the added cost, the presence of two observers may create an environment threatening to those being observed and cause them to change their behavior. Studies using observation typically employ intensive training experiences to make sure that the observer or observers know what to look for and can, to the extent possible, operate in an unbiased manner. In long or complicated studies, it is useful to check on an observer’s performance periodically to make sure that accuracy is being maintained. The issue of training is a critical one and may make the difference between a defensible study and what can be challenged as "one person’s perspective."
A special issue with regard to observations relates to the amount of observation needed. While in participant observation this may be a moot point (except with regard to data recording), when an outside observer is used, the question of "how much" becomes very important. While most people agree that one observation (a single hour of a training session or one class period of instruction) is not enough, there is no hard and fast rule regarding how many samples need to be drawn. General tips to consider are to avoid atypical situations, carry out observations more than one time, and (where possible and relevant) spread the observations out over time.
Participant observation is often difficult to incorporate in evaluations; therefore, the use of outside observers is far more common. In the hypothetical project, observations might be scheduled for all training sessions and for a sample of classrooms, including some where faculty members who participated in training were teaching and some staffed by teachers who had not participated in the training.
Issues of privacy and access.
Observational techniques are perhaps the most privacy-threatening data collection technique for staff and, to a lesser extent, participants. Staff fear that the data may be included in their performance evaluations and may have effects on their careers. Participants may also feel uncomfortable assuming that they are being judged. Evaluators need to assure everyone that evaluations of performance are not the purpose of the effort, and that no such reports will result from the observations. Additionally, because most educational settings are subject to a constant flow of observers from various organizations, there is often great reluctance to grant access to additional observers. Much effort may be needed to assure project staff and participants that they will not be adversely affected by the evaluators’ work and to negotiate observer access to specific sites.