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The Use of Observation in Two Courses

I teach the skill of observing and interpreting behavior through two courses, one on Parenting Education and the other on Child Development. In each course, students have off-campus placements for the semester where they can make direct observations of child or parent-child behaviors. Weekly assignments to write observations help the students learn to apply the course concepts to extract greater meaning from what they observe. That is the primary aim of the observation assignments: to learn to see the world through the course constructs, and thereby to see it with greater meaning, and to really understand the concepts. A second purpose is to learn to write in a way that clearly and consistently separates our objective observations from our subjective interpretations (a skill that, for example, physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists, and others must master). Lastly, students produce a professional product, usually a newsletter for their placement site, at the end of the semester.

The basic assignment is simple. Write an observation that illustrates one or more concepts from the course, breaking the written report into two parts with these subheads: “What we saw,” and “What it means.” The first part, the observation, should be objective, descriptive, and clear. It should use exact quotes if people spoke, and provide details and descriptive language to communicate unobservable factors such as emotional states (“Her eyes opened wide” rather than “she was surprised”). A great observation tells a small story.

The second part of the written report is the interpretation. I ask students to use one or more concepts from the course to interpret and add meaning to the observation. They should highlight and unobtrusively define the concepts they use, and refer back to the specifics of the observation to justify each concept. A really good interpretation will provide a larger context and significance to the observation by explaining why this particular part of parenting or child development is important (e.g., how it predicts later outcomes). The sample observations below show how succinctly this can be done. And writing succinctly is our aim.

In some classes, I have the students bring to class 3 copies of their one- page observation report, and in groups of three they critique each other’s writing. Students then revise their observations before turning them in.

The in-class writing lab is especially useful for the weaker writers in the class, as they see firsthand what the excellent writing of other students’ looks like, and they understand why it is good writing by having to critique it. Each week, I also show 2-3 observation reports that have noteworthy strengths (making sure to share one from every student over the course of the term), projecting them on the overhead screen for discussion. Besides discussing the exemplary aspects of each, we also play the game of guessing what meaning the writer extracted from their observation. For example, read the first paragraph of the sample observation from one of my students shown below. Cover the second paragraph (“What it means”) with your hand. Try guessing what meaning you might extract from this observation and then lift your hand to see what the writer did with it. Doing this as a class consistently led to unexpected insights and meanings that I had not anticipated. It also led to two consistent insights: (1) observing takes active effort, the opposite of passive activities like watching TV or listening to music; and (2) even very simple and short observations can generate great amounts of meaning to a person who is prepared with the concepts of our field.

 
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