A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way


Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

10 advantages of self-directed learners in the workplace

There is evidence that, in the workplace, self-directed learners…

1. adapt to changes in their environments better

Guglielmino, L. (1977). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467.

2. remain resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles

Zsiga, P.L. (2008). Self-directed learning in directors of a US nonprofit organization. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 5(2), 35–49.

3. demonstrate enhanced performances in their jobs 

Artis, A.B. and Harris, E.G. (2007). Self-directed learning and sales force performance: an integrated framework. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 9-24.

4. exhibit superior critical thinking and questioning skills

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

5. demonstrate increased confidence and problem solving capabilities

Durr, R.E. (1992). An examination of readiness for self-directed learning and personnel variable at a large Midwestern electronics development and manufacturing corporation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

6. actively share knowledge and build networks with others

Rowland, F. and Volet, S. (1996). Self-direction in community learning: a case study. Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 89-102.

7. show stronger emotional commitment 

Cho, D. and Kwon, D. (2005), Self-directed learning readiness as an antecedent of organizational commitment: a Korean study. International Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 140-52.

8. find their jobs more meaningful

Kops, W.J. (1997). Managers as self-directed learners: findings from the public and private sector organizations. in Long, H.B. and Associates (Ed.), Expanding Horizons in Self-directed Learning, Public Managers Center, College of Education, Norman, OK, pp. 71-86.

9. experience “deep” rather than “surface” learning, and

Stansfield, L.M. (1997), “‘Employee – develop yourself!’ Experiences of self-directed learners”, Career Development International, Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 261-6.

10. are more likely to realize their potential as leaders.

Klute, M.M., Crouter, A.C., Sayer, A.G., & McHale, S.M. (2002). Occupational self-direction, values, and egalitarian relationships: A study of dual-earner couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 139–151.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “self-directed learner”, a reasonable account can be found at http://www.selfdirectedlearning.org/what-is-self-directed-learning

To get an indication of the degree to which you are  a self-directed learner, try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale at http://www.lpasdlrs.com/

A Prezi version of this blog entry is available at http://prezi.com/v8eu6aioif2j/advantages-of-self-directed-learners/

Learning style inventories: Dubious, but useful for learner training anyway?

Learning style theory seems to be on the defensive.

For example, this 2007 article raised questions about the VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic) classification of learners: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1558822/Professor-pans-learning-style-teaching-method.html . Reference is made in the same article to Frank Coffield’s January 2004 review in the Times Higher Education Supplement , in which he cautioned against using learning style inventories to “differentiate between students” and questioned the wisdom of using results from inventories to inform decisions about teaching.

Personally, I have always been wary of learning style inventories; the lower quality ones remind me of horoscopes in that they create the Forer Effect. Nonetheless, as stimuli to provoke reflection on learning strategies, I believe that they might have a positive application, which I will now describe.

I asked two groups of Form 6 students in Hong Kong (ages 16/17) to try the free, online Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (ILSQ) at http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html This generated results like the one below:ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 14 10.16

Balanced between ACTIVE and REFLECTIVE
After students had been assisted to understand their ILSQ results, they discussed the following questions:
  • Do you agree with your ILSQ results?
  • Do you think your learning style is fixed?
  • Does your learning style explain why you are better at certain school subjects?
  • Can knowing your learning style tell you how to study better?

Following this, the students completed a task to select learning strategies, according to their intuition, that suit them best. Finally, it was revealed which strategies matched which of the ILSQ styles, and students could compare their intuitive responses with the strategies recommended according to their ILSQ results.

The above process forced students to reflect on their preferred ways of studying and exposed them to alternative strategies. For these reasons alone, it seemed worth doing, even though the ILSQ has design weaknesses, e.g. two-option responses. Below is the task that was used, adapted from ILSQ’s own resources.


Every day at school you have new lessons. There is always a lot of new information to understand and remember. Teachers do their best to make lesson content understandable and memorable, but they can’t satisfy all learners all of the time. So, how can you help yourself to understand and remember? What can you do after a lesson? Below is a list of possible learning strategies. Tick those strategies that you think work well for you.

Strategy Strategy
1. Summarise the lesson in your own words 2. Summarise the lesson as a mind map (using your own pictures)
3. Highlight key points using coloured pens 4.Try to relate the lesson content to another topic that you have studied
5. Read your notes again to make sure nothing is missing 6. Think of extra questions about the content and ask your teacher later
7. Explain the lesson content to another person. See if they understand. 8. Study multimedia materials about the same topic, e.g. TV documentary
9. Make linear notes with headings and sub-headings to summarise the lesson content. 10. Look at the examples in your course book. Think of extra examples.
11. Review the lesson alone. 12. Summarise the lesson as a flow-chart.
13. Discuss the lesson content with classmates. 14. Find out how this knowledge is used in the real world.

A way to introduce mind mapping tools to students

One of the secondary schools that I consult for is equipped with a large, well-resourced self-access learning centre. The 40 PCs in the centre are loaded with Inspiration mind mapping software for students to use independently.

With guidance, senior students (ages 15-18) can use such software for a multitude of study tasks, for example to brainstorm ideas for project work, to plan oral presentations and written compositions, or to create concept maps that summarise study topics.

To help introduce the functions and potential of this kind of software to junior students (ages 12-14), I created mind maps (or other kinds of graphic organisers) in Inspiration that summarized key concepts for study topics. Here is an example of a timeline that shows 4 stages of Hong Kong’s economy:

Hong Kong Economy1

Once the original had been approved by the subject teacher, I authored two new versions of it. The first new version looked like this:

Hong Kong Economy2

Students could then open this version first and attempt to reconstruct it correctly by dragging and dropping items. After finishing this task, they could request to see the original version.

The second new version focused on vocabulary for that topic. This time, students saw this:

Hong Kong Economy3

Their task was simple enough… just replace the words in the correct gaps. Not thrilling, but good for them to check their retention of key vocabulary items.

To assist students through the process of this learning activity, a laminated instruction sheet was placed next to the PCs.

I hope you find this technique useful and would be very interested to hear of other ways to help learners familiarise with mind mapping software.