Skip to main content


OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

Observations are a type of primary research that involves spending time watching people or other creatures interact with each other and the world around them. Observations are used in nearly every scientific field and can be incredibly useful in gathering information.

Types of Participation

Before observing, consider how you as an observer may alter the event being observed.

  • How fully will you participate in the event?
  • Will you simply sit, watch, and take notes with no interaction?
  • Will you interact with the participants?
  • Will you become a participant yourself?

These different choices can radically change what you end up observing. The mere presence of an observer may alter the events--and if you interact with participants, you further risk changing what takes place. The other side to this is that by not participating in an event, you may not gain a complete understanding of that event.

How to Observe

When observing, it is especially important to separate observations from your feelings or reactions to observations. A good way to do this is to take your observations in a double-entry notebook. A double-entry notebook has two columns, one for what is directly observed and one is for what the observer interprets from the events. Here is an example:

Observation: The teacher walks around the circle and speaks to each student individually.

Interpretation: The teacher seems to want to make sure that each student understands the assignment.

If you are observing a group that is not found in public (such as a group of card players, a sports team, or a special-interest group), it may be wise to plan to spend multiple sittings with the group. This will allow the group some time to adjust to your presence (and hence, for you to get more accurate observations).

Recordings vs. Note-taking

How will you be observing? Will you be taking notes in a notebook? With a laptop? Will you be recording your observations in some way (with a cell phone, digital camera, video camera, digital recorder, etc.?)

How you choose to observe is another important consideration that can affect the quality and results of your observations. Remember that you cannot capture everything that takes place with a recording or even by taking detailed notes.

What to Observe

Observational skills require some practice! The key to being a good observer is to pay attention to the details of a situation, write as much as you can, and write it as detailed as possible.

Before you observe, you should consider how you will focus your observations--because you can't focus on everything!