Participant observation

McKinney (2007) explains that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is an inquiry process investigating teaching in your own classroom. Therefore, if you are teaching then you are a participant within your own study. So learning the qualitative processes behind the ethnography approach of participant observation would be beneficial. 

An ethnographic approach requires you to:

  • Have a setting in mind where you will carry out your fieldwork
  • Secure appropriate access
  • Recognize that you are, in the first instance, asking the question, ‘What is going on here?’ and ‘What are the cultural influences that are driving it?’
  • Identify one or more precise questions to focus on
  • Acknowledge that what you find will be at least partially different from what anybody else might find because of your own cultural, political and psychological preconceptions or background
  • Accept the idea that you will be a part of what you are observing and reporting – and that your presence in the field will have an impact on what goes on
  • Have a high-quality system worked out in advance for recording your observations – notebook (paper and/or electronic), diary, portable audio recorder
  • Develop and commit to draft the central ideas and themes that emerge from your observations from the moment you enter the field (Davies, 2007)

Participant Observers can conceal their research function or explain their research role to participants within the research site (Davies, 2007). Explaining your research role is more commonly used within the scholarship of teaching and learning context. With this explanation, the teacher and students can learn from each other through the research process. With this distinction, you may take on the role of participant as observer or observer as participant (Lodico, Spaulding, & Voegtle, 2006; Ely, 1991). Your level of participation will dictate your role. For example, a teacher participating in the lesson while researching the lesson would be a participant as observer and a co-teacher observing his/her partner in the classroom may be classified as an observer as participant. The main task of a participant observer is to observe and take copious notes of what is seen and heard. Traditionally, notes are then shared with participants to make sure bias was not introduced during note-taking, such as an inference recorded instead of an observation. Organizing and classifying the notes to identify themes would be the next step, the analysis.


Davies, Martin Brett. (2007). Doing a successful research project: Using qualitative or quantitative methods. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Ely, Margot. (1991). Doing qualitative research: Circles within circles. London; New York: The Falmer Press.

Krueger, R.A. & Casey, M.A. (2009). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Lodico, M.G., Spaulding, D.T., & Voegtle, K.H. (2006) Methods in educational research: From theory to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Lofland, John & Lofland, Lyn H. (2004). Analysing social situations: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis. London: Wadsworth

McKinney, Kathleen. (2007). Enhancing learning through the scholarship of teaching and learning: The challenges and joys of juggling. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Saam, Mack @ FACET, 2014

Web-based Resources

Indepth information from Duke Assessment office (pdf)

Discussion of history, ethics and process of participant observation from Institute for Qualitative Research