Creating an Observation Checklist

The goal for this post is to create an observation checklist for a project that I will be performing in the future. What is an observation checklist? This is a checklist of things i will look for as I observe participants in my study. Observation checklists are used as a record keeping device and to define what things you will look for as you study your participants. You cannot go into an experiment and just jot things down that you see. For a legitimate study, you must define the variable that you are looking to observe and the check them off and expand on them with your observation checklist.

First, let me explain the study that I will be performing. In my study, titled “Social Roles in a Social Group”, I will be observing a group of friends in a natural habitat and how they interact. During this observation, I will determine who is the leader in the group, as well as other roles in a social setting. After the observation and going through my checklist, I will interview each of my participants, starting with the one who I found the be the “beta” role and work my way the participant I presume to be the leader. During the interviews, I will ask each member to choose the roles they consider themselves from a list of defined roles that I have created and to assign roles to each of their friends as well. The goal to this research is to see how people identify social roles and to see if people can accurately identify what roles they themselves fall under.

An example of an observation checklist

So let’s create a checklist:

In order to begin, we need to ask, ” What do we need to know?” Well we want to identify the strongest candidate for the Leadership Social Role. So now we need to decide what qualities make up the Leadership Social Role. I think that a leader makes decisions for the group. The leader is someone who people seek approval from. The leader is also addressed more than any other role, while talking more than some other roles.

So knowing these things we will create the start of the checklist:

Makes decisions for the group

Leads topic of conversation

Amount of times directly addressed

This is a start of our checklist. This is how we will determine who we think the leader is. Using these checks, and more that we will add to the checklist, we can make our assumption for who the leader is. We will also do this for the other roles of the group.

For the Beta Social Role, we will ask ourselves what qualities are found in the Beta Social Role. In this role, the participant will not create new topics for conversation, will not make decisions for the group, and will participate in conversation mostly when directly addressed. We will not have many questions for this role, but will use other questions and rank the participants in order from most addressed to least. The least addressed will help us determine who is in the Beta Social Role.

The checklist is tedious and requires a lot of thought, but it is necessary when using the observation as a research tool. These findings will also help us create interview questions for out participants. We will ask each participant who they consider the leader of the social group. Then we will ask them to assign roles to each of the other participants in their group. Using this new information, we can compare it to our observations and define what qualities are in each role and if we only see the positive roles in ourselves.

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Observation as a Research Tool

One of the most valuable qualities of a researcher stems from their own worldview. How the researcher sees the world leads to the papers they right, the research they conduct, and the theories they hope to test. How they see the world makes their views and observations totally unique. No two people will have the exact same worldview and that leads to a diverse and constantly changing academic world. Observation is a wonderful tool, but difficult to use because of how unique every worldview is.

Observation is almost impossible to separate from your own personal biases. This is actually not a large problem, as there are easy ways to circumvent this. Since everyone has to face the same problems of bias in observation it is expected. Let me provide an example of differences in observation:

A young boy is given three options for a snack. He is given an apple, a marshmallow, and a bag of chips. The boy looks at the bag of chips and holds them in his hand before picking up the marshmallow and looking at it with obvious desire in his eyes. He seems hesitant and looks around before sighing and putting it down. The boy then picks up the apple and, with less desire in his eyes, chooses the apple for his snack. He later asks if he could have the marshmallow as well.

Depending on your own personal experiences, what you observe, and the reasons behind the boys actions, will be different than another researcher. One researcher might decide that the boy chose the apple because his parents always taught him that he must finish healthy food before he could have a treat. Another researcher might observe a boy who feels like he might get in trouble if he chooses the sugary snack, so he chooses the healthy one and hopes he can have the sugary snack later. A third researcher might see a child who knows that an apple is more filling as a snack and, even though the marshmallow is more of a treat, chooses the apple because he is more famished. He still tries to get the marshmallow after he is filled up, though.

Or maybe he was just traumatized.

Again, all these different observations occur because each researcher has had a different life experience and worldview. A researcher that grew up under parents who made them eat healthy food before a dessert would see one thing while a researcher who had very “hands-off” parents might see it differently.

Bias is unavoidable, but as academic researchers, we must do our best to address it and make it known. There are some biases that you will never be able to remove, but if you address it yourself, you are acknowledging it and therefore it can’t be used as an argument to discredit your paper.

The average scholarly debate.

So how do you try to remove bias from your own observations? The easiest way is to have multiple researchers observe the same occurrence and compare their observations. This is a simple way to remove some bias and hone in on the facts. Think of this method like a Venn Diagram. You all observe a participant and use your research to find the common factors that everyone saw. Another way is simply taking a step back and attempting to look at at things from a different perspective. This is handy outside of just research (looking at you ex-girlfriends). Doing this won’t come through specifically in your research, but will allow you to readjust your mind set before you decide your official observation.

Research is difficult and bias makes things even more difficult to present your research in a manner that will stand up to academic scrutiny and analysis.