Observation: An Overview

Observation is a data collection method often used to assess hard-to-measure “soft” skills and behaviors.

To collect reliable and accurate data through observation, the approach and process need to be systematic.
  1. Decide what you want to measure (see below for guidance).
  2. Create an observation rubric (like a matrix) to measure and track what you are seeing among participants in your program using specific dimensions and ratings.
  3. Observe your designated program participants (either one time or at several specific and intentionally selected points during the program).
  4. Record the data in a consistent way, filling out your observation rubric as soon as possible after the observation (which may require detailed note-taking).

Learn about the strengths and limitations of observation.

Please note
There are several ways to approach observation. This toolkit assumes that you or another member of your staff are measuring individual participants at one OR two points in time (to compare change over time).

What to measure through observation

To measure outcomes effectively through observation, it’s important to unpack what each outcome looks like in practice or in terms of behavioral manifestations. In other words, what does it look like when you see it? Determine 3 to 5 different actions or events that tell you that the outcome is occurring. These actions or events provide metrics of progress toward outcomes.

Once you have determined the items for observation, you can begin to build an observation rubric.
Articulating outcomes for observation

  • What outcomes are highly subjective based on self reporting? Could these items be observed as behaviors?
  • How do you expect participants’ behaviors – from words to actions – to demonstrably or visibly change over the course of your program?
  • Are there ways that participants demonstrate learning or skill building through behavior? What would that look like in practice?


Outcome: Participant takes pride in their local parks

Observation Items (metrics)
  • Participant volunteers ideas in group discussions about how to contribute to maintaining their local park
  • Participant exhibits stewardship behaviors (e.g., picking up trash, conserving water) while in the park
  • Participant laughs, smiles, and exhibits other positive behavior expressions while spending time in the environment
  • Participant encourages others to care for the park


Click on the image below to access the
Observation Rubric Example 2E.

Objective observation

Follow these tips to make data from observation more objective. When observing one’s own program, the natural tendency may be to have an overly positive (or overly critical) bias. Following these tips can help observers overcome biases.
Remember that observation is about learning, not about getting a “good grade.” This message is perhaps the most important for avoiding positive/negative bias in observers.
Set aside enough time for documentation. Allocate 30 to 45 minutes after each observation or set of observations to capture what you heard and saw. Then, fill in the observation rubric for each individual participant observed. Taking notes before filling out your rubric can help you stay in the “objective observer” role.

Coordinate with program staff. If you have other staff at the program, have them lead program activities on the days you are planning to engage in observation. Make sure staff understand that the observation is for learning purposes regarding participant progress – not for assessing the performance of participants.

Think of yourself as someone who is videotaping a movie and playing it back. You “videotape” by observing and listening; you “play it back” by writing down notes of what you have seen and heard.

Use a “wide angle lens.” Try to take in the whole visual field. Note whether you personally tend to filter what you see as “negative evidence” (where behaviors do not meet standards you expected) or as “positive evidence” (where behaviors do meet your expectations).

Use the note-taking guide to ensure that your record of the observation is accurate and objective.

Complete the observation rubric

Once you have taken thorough notes about the program day or activity/ies you observe, set aside sufficient time to complete the rubric.

Rely on your observation notes, not just the information you remember off the top of your head. Focus exclusively on information you gathered on the day of observation.

Write detailed rationales and examples. This is the best way for you to be able to go back and make meaning of your data later.

It is okay to select a low rating (or a high one). Learning comes from honest and realistic assessment of where participants are, relative to desired progress and outcomes. Resist the urge to stay in the middle or high end of the rating scale.

If you need to leave an item blank, explain why in the rationale column. If you observe again, this can help you go back and understand whether or not this item is applicable to your program. It will also help you recall and understand the data in the future when it may not be as fresh in your mind.