What is the second step of direct observation?

In order to continue enjoying our site, we ask that you confirm your identity as a human. Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Observation provides the opportunity to monitor or assess a process or situation and document evidence of what is seen and heard. Seeing actions and behaviours within a natural context, or as they usually occur provides insights and understanding of the event, activity or situation being evaluated.

The key to using observational data as evidence in an evaluation is to take a systematic and consistent approach as you collect, organise and analyse what is observed.

These notes should be read alongside the general advice on understanding quantitative data and qualitative data, as observational data can include both types.


  • Observation is a flexible approach to data collection, suitable for a broad range of contexts.
  • Observation can produce a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. For example, when observing people in a group situation, you might count up how many times certain behaviours or interactions occur (quantitative), while also taking freehand notes about the nature of the group dynamics (qualitative).
  • Structured observation helps provide measures or records of behaviours, without relying on people’s (those being observed) capacity to report what they do or estimate how often they do it.
  • Observation can be a low impact way to collect data. When planned appropriately, the observer may have only a minor effect on the activities or blend into the observation setting.
  • The discussion of feedback from observation can lead to valuable reciprocal professional learning conversations.
  • Teachers can also observe teaching and learning in their own classes using digital recording technologies, such as 360 degree cameras or other appropriately placed recording devices.

Relationship to other methods

Observation can be used as stand-alone data collection tool. Often, however, observational data is used in conjunction with other approaches as part of an evaluation design. For example:

  • Initial focus groups, interviews or surveys might identify a set of behaviours that are of interest. Observation then allows the evaluation team to assess how common the behaviours are, or to look for patterns in the circumstances or triggers that give rise to them.
  • Conversely, an evaluation might start with some exploratory observations, and then follow these up with interviews where participants are asked to comment on their experiences in the situation.
  • Data from interviews or surveys (about classroom management practices, for example) might be used in conjunction with data from observations (of classroom management) to build a more complete assessment of the effectiveness of a strategy being used in the classroom to improve student engagement.
  • Observations can be used in conjunction with other data, such as administrative records or document analysis. After reviewing a mathematics program (document analysis), the evaluation team may use observations to support or challenge claims found in the documents about the effectiveness of the program.

Limitations, and how to manage them

Observation needs to be carefully planned, with a clear understanding of the questions to be answered and the particular behaviours or attributes of interest. This helps avoid being overwhelmed by a vast amount of data, or getting stuck at the analysis stage wishing ‘If only I had kept an eye out for…’.

It is valuable to have two or more people undertake observations, as one person alone might miss things that someone else would see.

Conducting observations can be labour intensive, in preparation, data collection and analysis.

Depending on the rigour required for the evaluation there may be a need to allocate time for pre-observation discussion to ‘calibrate’ the observers. Time may also be needed at the end of the observation for discussion, checking consistency between observers and reflection of what was collected.

Like most measurement in a social setting, the process of collecting observational data will have an influence on what is being measured and can result in unintentional biases that we need to be mindful of.

Skilled observers are good at being unobtrusive or ‘fading into the background’ when they need to. Early data may need to be discarded while subjects are still getting used to the observer, especially if using video to record the activities. The more familiar people are with observation – the more ‘normal’ it becomes – the less this problem arises.

What is the second step of direct observation?

In addition to the information gathered from interviews and rating scales, data from direct observations can offer insight into when, where, and how often a behavior occurs, as well as how long it lasts. A direct observation occurs when someone actually sees the student in the classroom setting and gathers data on the problem behavior. Ideally, an objective observer (e.g., a behavior analyst, a member of the S-Team, another teacher) will collect the data. Direct observations can be used to:

  • Conduct an ABC analysis
  • Collect baseline data about the problem or target behavior


baseline data

The level at which the behavior occurs before an intervention is implemented. This information is gathered at the beginning of an assessment period for later comparative use.

Conducting an ABC Analysis

What is the second step of direct observation?
Recall that the ABC model is used to identify the antecedents (A) that set the stage for the problem behavior (B) to occur and the consequences (C) that appear to be maintaining the problem behavior. An observer might collect data over several sessions before obtaining enough information for a clear ABC pattern to emerge. This usually requires eight to ten occurrences of the problem behavior (except in cases of extreme behaviors, such as fighting or self-injurious actions). In addition to recording the ABC events, the observer should note the setting and the time of day in which the behavior took place, as well as the persons involved. Once an ABC analysis has been completed, the team can develop a hypothesis about the function of the behavior. Click here to see David’s A-B-C analysis results.

The video below depicts an interaction between a teacher and a student who refuses to do his work. During the video, Kathleen Lane conducts an ABC analysis, explaining each step and demonstrating how to fill out the recording form (time: 5:07).


View Transcript | View Transcript with Images | Click to view Cameron’s ABC analysis form

Transcript: A-B-C Analysis

Teacher: All right, so today you have your graphic organizers. We’re going to keep working on our stories. You have pictures on your tables, and I’ll be walking around to check to see if you need any help with your trick, okay? So get to work.

Kathleen Lane (voice-over): Okay, in this first instance you saw that the teacher began by stating to the entire class “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to get started on your task. You’re going to use the trick which you see up on the white board.” She’s got POW already written up there, and that stands for “Pick my idea out, Organize my notes, Write and say more.” She’s clarified the task to the class. She’s told everybody she’s going to be walking around to offer any help. And, immediately, the first instance of the target behavior, non-compliance, occurs. Cameron flips his paper over and begins doing something, but it’s not the task that she asked for. So on your sheet, where you have “behavior,” you can write down “non-compliance” because that is the target behavior. He’s not complying. And if you have a very thorough operational definition of non-compliance, you won’t necessarily need to write more, but you might want to. You could write, “Non-compliance, turns paper over, begins writing.”

The column to the left is the antecedent. That’s what was happening in the classroom right before he exhibited non-compliance. In this case, I would simply write, “Teacher provides direction to the whole class on getting started.” The next thing I would write is that the teacher offers assistance, making it clear that she’s going to be walking around the classroom offering help. And, to the left of that, you have the time column, and let’s say that this happens all at 9:04 in the morning. So right now on your sheet you have “9:04.” You have the antecedent condition being “teacher gives directions, offers assistance.” You have the target behavior listed as “noncompliance/ turns paper over/ starts writing.” And let’s see what the consequence is for him.

Teacher: Cameron, we’re working on this side of the paper. Thank you.

Cameron: I don’t want to do this.

Teacher: Cameron, you can focus. You can do this. Think of this, of the tricks. “I can do this.”

Cameron: I don’t want to do this.

Teacher: Cameron…

Kathleen Lane (voice-over): Now, in the next part of the chain, we saw that the teacher walked over to him and was very clear in her consequence and said, “Cameron, we’re working on this side of the page right now.” And that was the consequence for him, so that’s what happened immediately following his non-compliance. She came over and redirected him. So I would in that column write “Teacher redirects.” Now, that consequence actually becomes the antecedent for the next instance of the behavior. And you could simply draw an arrow, if you wanted to, from consequences to the next line in your antecedent chart. Or you could write the exact same wording again, and this time we then see another instance of non-compliance where he says, “I don’t want to do this,” and he throws down his pencil on top of the desk. And you see this is very quick. It’s, like, maybe not even 9:05 yet. But you could write the next time, or you could write “plus 30 seconds.” And then he again has an instance of non-compliance, and let’s see what the new consequence is.

Teacher: Cameron, you can focus. You can do this. Think of this, of the tricks. “I can do this.”

Cameron: I don’t want to do this.

Teacher: Cameron, do you want to go visit the principal?

Cameron: Sure.

(Students laugh.)

Kathleen Lane (voice-over): Now, very quickly you saw again two more instances of non-compliance. She responded by providing encouragement, saying “Remember, use the trick. You can do this.” But that same consequence again served as a prompt, which was the antecedent for his final instance of non-compliance. And he again refused to do the task. And then her consequence that time was to say, “Do you want to go to the principal’s office?” So in each instance you can see it’s escalating, like an acting-out cycle, which you have the opportunity to learn about in another module. We sometimes unintentionally, teachers and students, can escalate each other to the point where this exact thing happens, that teachers reach the limits for which they’re willing and able to tolerate in the classroom. So the ultimate consequence now in this sequence was that he was offered the choice of going to the principal’s office, and he elected to take that option. So now he’s leaving the class. Now, you may notice that some of the students started laughing at that point. When we look at this ABC chart, at first glimpse, it seems to be super cut-and-dry that, yes, this child is clearly escape-motivated. And then we are kind of left wondering, “Is it possible that maybe this child is also maintained by attention?” That may be, but in this instance it’s to a far lesser extent than the main function, which is escape. Sometimes, kids have certain behaviors that are extremely reinforcing because they’re serving more than one function. When I look at this instance, this one snapshot in time of Cameron’s day, if I was coding I would see that in each instance his behavior was being reinforced by escape from task, ’cause he spent time arguing with the teacher rather than doing the assignment, and ultimately he did get some attention at the end, both from the teacher and from the peer.

This video depicts a scene from Ms. Rollison’s classroom. Use the form below to conduct an ABC analysis of Joseph’s behavior.

Transcript: The Rings of Saturn

Ms. Rollison: All right, everybody, before you start working on your science projects, tell me a little about what you’ve discovered in your research on Saturn. T. J.?

T. J.: Yes. There are more than sixty moons that have been discovered so far…

Joseph [interrupting, sing-song]: Siiiixty mooooons.

[Laughter from the class]

Ms. Rollison: Joseph, please raise your hand if you want to say something about Saturn. T. J., please continue.

T. J.: Okay, here I go again! Over sixty moons have been discovered so far, and Titan is the biggest one of all.

Joseph: They’re at the 20, the 10! Touchdown, Titans!

[Laughter from the class]

Ms. Rollison: Joseph, please raise your hand to be called on, and let’s stick to the discussion on Saturn. [Softly, to Joseph only] That was your second reminder. Next time you’ll have to move your desk away from the group. [To the rest of the class] Alright, what else do we know about Titan? José?

José: It was the first moon discovered because it was so big. Also, it’s so big that the other moons around it are affected. Their orbits are changed.

Ms. Rollison: Very nice! OK, let’s move on to Saturn’s rings. Isaura?

Isaura: Our team has been learning about the Cassini spacecraft. It’s been traveling around Saturn and getting all the details and information and taking pictures. It’ll be passing through Saturn’s rings on Friday.

Ms. Rollison: Let’s remember to check the NASA site later in the week and see if they’ve posted anything new. Marcos, what can you tell me about how the rings were named?

Marcos: Their names aren’t very interesting. They were named in alphabetical order in the order they were discovered, so there’s an A-Ring, a B-Ring…

Joseph: I know what the “B-Ring” stands for: BO-RING!

[Gasps of shock from the class]

Joseph: What?

Ms. Rollison: Joseph, that’s enough. Move your desk up here next to mine.

Class: Ooooh, you’re in trouble.

Collecting Baseline Data

Once a clear ABC pattern of behavior has been identified, further observation can provide baseline data about the problem or target behavior. It is important to select a direct observation method that fits the behavior and is feasible in the classroom. Observers should consider one of four direct observation methods when collecting this type of data:

} if length of time is a measurable factor in the problem behavior
} if the teacher needs to determine how often a behavior occurs

What is the second step of direct observation?
Before implementing the intervention, baseline data should be collected over three to five observational periods to ensure a representative sampling of the behavior. The same data collection procedures should be repeated once the intervention is implemented. This allows the teacher to compare the intervention data to the baseline data to determine whether the intervention is effective. In David’s case, the team wanted to know how much time he spent off-task, so they selected duration recording.

What is the second step of direct observation?
David’s teacher schedules ten minutes at the end of language arts class for students to work on independent writing assignments. Because the information gathered thus far indicate that this is when David is the most off-task (i.e., out-of-seat behavior), an observer—in this case, a member of the S-Team—takes this opportunity to collect duration data. Whenever David leaves his seat without permission, the observer starts his stopwatch. When David returns to his seat, he stops the stopwatch. He maintains this data collection procedure for the entire 10-minute period. At the end of the period, his stopwatch indicates that David was off-task for 7 minutes and 29 seconds. He divides the 7 minutes and 29 seconds by the entire 10-minute independent work period and determines that David was off-task 75% of the time.

The observer makes two more visits to David’s classroom, collecting data during the independent seatwork period. A relatively stable pattern of out-of-seat behavior emerges:

What is the second step of direct observation?

Observation 1: 75% Observation 2: 54%

Observation 3: 61%

What is the second step of direct observation?
The baseline data indicate that David is out of his seat an average of 63% of the independent seatwork time, confirming the teacher’s initial concern that David’s off-task behavior is a problem.

View Description

David’s Baseline Data graph: This double-line plot graph shows David’s Baseline Data. The x-axis is labeled “Observation”; observations 1 through 3 are labeled on the axis. The y-axis is labeled “percent;” 0 to 80 percent are labeled in 10 percent intervals. The first graph is yellow and labeled “Replacement (on-task)” in the key to the right of the graph. This graph has three plot points corresponding with the three observations. The points are at 25%, 45%, and 40%. The second graph is red and labeled “Problem behavior (off-task).” This graph has three plot points corresponding with the three observations. The points are at 75%, 52%, and 60%.