Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Classroom Observations: A how-to guide

A while ago, I wrote a post where I described the way my students and I approach classroom observation, and what things they are encouraged to look for. This belated follow-up adds some information about how to actually approach the challence of classroom observations.

It goes without saying that what follows is not a prescriptive list of things that one must follow for a classroom obervation to be effective or meaningful. What it is, is a structured series of actions that my students and I have found helpful, and I hope that they are of some use to you as well.

Note: Some of the content that you will read was developed as part of my involvement in the Language Education for Refugees and Migrants MA programme. You can read more about LRM in the post below.

By the way, if you scroll down to the end of the post, you will also find this content in a .pdf form, which you could use in your own teaching.

Introductory Meeting

The first contact you will make with the school that will host your observation is the introductory meeting(s). This is an opportunity for you to learn about the school and for the school to learn about you. This is also the opportunity to make sure that both you and the school have similar expectations regarding your classroom observation. Another purpose of this meeting is to address any outstanding ethical and administrative issues connected to your classroom observation. Finally, this is a chance to familiarise yourself with the school premises. We will look at all this information in the sections that follow.


During your initial meeting(s), you will have the chance to get to know the key people with whom you will have to work during your classroom observation. While every school has a different structure and policy, these are likely to be (a) the school head, (b) the classroom teacher(s), and (c) administrators.

You can use the initial meeting(s) to introduce yourself to these people and to explain to them the purpose of your observation. In the context of this discussion, you can find out what their expectations are, and you should also help them to understand what your needs are. The school might have hosted teachers such as you in the past, so they might have some pre-conceptions about what your role is; or you might be their first visitor. Either way, it is important to go over these details, to ensure that there are no misunderstandings.

You should also make sure that you know how to contact the school and the classroom teachers: this involves finding out their contact details, whether they prefer to be contacted by telephone or email, and how far in advance they need to be contacted for various situations. Conversely, you also need to ensure that they know how to get in touch with you: again, this involves letting them know your contact and availability details.

Establishing expectations

The school might have hosted visiting teachers such as you in the past, so they might have some pre-conceptions about what your role is; or you might be their first visitor. Either way, it is important to go over these details, to ensure that there are no misunderstandings.

One set of expectations that can be helpfully clarified from the outset pertains to the timeframe of your visits and the information that you want from the school. For example, you might need to have lesson plans for every lesson you are observing in advance of the lesson; or you might want to spend some time with the teacher for debriefing after each lesson. It is helpful to remember that such requests are not self-evident, and many teachers might find it hard to accommodate them because of their busy schedule. But on the other hand, it is also likely that they will be happy to provide you with such information, if they know that it is useful to you.

A second set of expectations to be clarified involves your role in the classroom. Depending on the course programme in which you are involved, you might be expected to take on a non-participant or more participating observer role. This means that you could spend your time in class observing the lesson in an inobtrusive way, or you could act as a teaching assistant; you might help the teacher with task such as marking papers, proctoring an exam, facilitating a lesson, or acting as a resource / conversation participant. There is nothing to prevent you from taking on these roles, if they are helpful for your own development; however, it is useful to clarify any such expectations before the beginning of the classroom observation.

Ethical issues

When visiting a classroom, your presence will have an effect on the lesson, whether you notice it or not, and whether you want it or not. From an ethical standpoint, this creates a requirement that everybody affected needs (a) to be aware of what is happening and why; and (b) to have no objections. Together, these two requirements form the principle of informed consent.

It is good practice to have a written record of informed consent, and many schools have a formal procedure for doing so. Typically, this procedure begins with communicating the purpose of your observation (why are you visiting the classroom?), the procedures of the observation (will you be using notes, audio or video recordings), and issues connected to data use (how will the data be stored and reported?). You can use the initial meeting to deliver this information orally to the head teacher and teacher(s) whose class you will be observing; you could also ask them to deliver an info-sheet to the learners. The second step involves getting a written statement from the teacher(s) and learners that they are satisfied with the information you have given them and have no objections to your presence. Different schools will have different ways of dealing with this, and you should use the introductory visit to find out what the policy of your school is.

Familiarising yourself with the school

A school is both a physical space and an institution. One last thing you should therefore do during your introductory meeting is to familiarise yourself with both.

If possible, arrange for a brief orientation in the school premises. You will want to find out where the classrooms are, and how to get there from the teachers’ lounge. You will also want to find out where the supply room and the staff toilets are, and who has the keys to them. You could also find out what equipment is available in the classroom, and how to use it. You may also have access to additional equipment, and you should find out what the procedure is for checking it out and returning it.

An introductory meeting is also a good opportunity to learn more about the school’s policies. Some of the information you could find out include when lessons start and finish, when breaks take place, and whether there is a school policy on tardiness. You could find out whether there are any special policies, e.g., a dress code, or rules about socialising with students.

You might spend weeks in a school before you know much about how it really works, so there is no expectation that you learn everything during an introductory meeting. However, it is never too early to start.

Planning your classroom observation

A classroom is an environment that is very dense in information. This means that it will prove overwhelming if you try to notice everything during your classroom visits. You will probably find it easier to focus on specific aspects during each visit.

You can use this classroom observation planner as an aid to help you plan an observation strategy. Read through the classroom observation framework, and decide what information is most useful for you. Then, use the classroom observation planner to set two or three goals (e.g., “understand how each language is used in class”) for each classroom visit. You will want to make sure that your plan has adequate coverage (i.e., that you get some information about all the aspects of the framework). It is also prudent to build some redundancy in your plan: this means that you should aim to observe important aspects of the framework more than once. It is good practice to share this planner with the teacher of the class you are visiting. This will help them understand your role; sometimes this helps to take pressure off them, by reassuring them that you are not focussing on their teaching competence.

Conducting a classroom observation visit

A classroom observation visit ideally consists of three stages: (a) preparing for the observation, (b) the actual observation visit, and (c) retrospective reflection.

Before the observation visit

On the day before the visit, you will want to invest some time thinking about its purpose. Try to express this purpose in the form of two or three observation questions (e.g., “How appropriate is the coursebook for this group of learners?”). You can use your planner and the classroom observation framework to focus your thinking. You will also want to visualise the kinds of behaviours that are associated with your observation questions (e.g., “If the learners find the lesson topic uninteresting, they will probably spend a lot of groupwork time in off-task discussion”).

If possible, you should try to arrange a pre-observation meeting, or briefing, with the class teacher, to discuss the lesson plan and materials. You can use this meeting to ask probing questions about the rationale of the lesson (e.g., “Why do you think that this speaking task should come before reading the text?”). This will give you some insights into the learner’s strengths and needs, and about the materials. You should also use the pre-observation briefing as an opportunity to ask where the teacher would like you to be during the observation, and if they have any special requirements from you.

During the observation visit

What you do during the observation visit will depend a lot on factors such as whether you are a participant or non-participant observer, and what you are trying to find out. This will also shape your choices about how to record information. You can download an example of a structured fieldnotes template, or you can design one of your own; or, if you want to keep your observation less structured, you can use a blank notepad.

Some teachers feel more comfortable if they can treat the observer like a student. Others prefer to use the observer as a back-up resource … Still others prefer the observer to be a quiet friendly presence. The observer should be sensitive to the teacher’s style, perhaps asking beforehand what the teacher prefers.

(Richards & Farrell, 2011, p. 99)

Settling in the classroom

The place from where you will conduct your observation will generally be decided by the teacher whose class you are visiting. However, it is best practice to choose a good vantage point somewhere unobtrusive, ideally at the back of the classroom. This will help you see everything that is happening, without distracting the leaners. Some experienced observers recommend sitting sideways, so that you can see the students’ faces rather than the backs of their heads – whether you take this advice or not depends a lot on the preferences of the class teacher and the layout of the classroom.

Interacting with learners

Learners are likely to be curious about you. It may be a good idea to make yourself available before the lesson, and talk to them about your role, as long as the school and visiting teacher are happy with this. If learners try to engage you in conversation during the lesson, be polite, but defer answering their questions. Do not be secretive about your notes, as this might trigger further curiosity, but try to be discreet.

Unless previously agreed with the teacher, you should avoid standing up, walking around, and interacting with individual students. This also applies to situations when students ask for your help, are engaging in off-task behaviour, or being disruptive.

If the teacher is happy for you to walk around and observe individual groups of learners, try to do so as a passive, unobtrusive observer, rather than as a participant. This will help to preserve the group dynamics; otherwise, learners will want to interact mainly with you. When visiting groups, respect the students’ privacy; do not look at their notes and classwork. If it is important to do so, ask for their permission to read these notes after the lesson.

Observing and Taking notes

  • One way to record your notes is to write down brief key words and phrases that summarise the lesson (e.g., “Listening: ss using mobile devices to listen to podcast & take notes; teacher working individually with one learner”).
  • Be especially attentive of the following points in a lesson: beginnings, transitions, critical incidents, and endings. Also, take particular note of any instance where the lesson is deviating from the lesson plan. Record what seems to have triggered the deviation, and what is happening instead.
  • At this stage it is probably best if you limit yourself to ‘low inference’ observations: this means recording what is happening, who is doing it, and how it is being done, but not attempting to guess why. It is also best to avoid any evaluative comments.
Low-inference notesHigh-inference notes
T. addresses student A by name.  No response; teacher repeats question in L1, says name again & points to student. Student corrects pronunciation of his name, answers question. T. acknowledges answer, repeats name correctly, louder voice.Teacher asks student whose name she has forgotten (?). The student corrects the teacher and answers the question correctly. The teacher is annoyed but acknowledges his answer, repeating his name angrily.
As T. the text, students interrupt her frequently asking what various words mean. Much whispering among them as they suggest various translations in their L1.The text is too hard, and the students are confused.
Examples of classroom observation notes
  • If you find something puzzling, make a note (e.g., a question mark or an asterisk) on the margins of your observation, but do not let this divert your attention from the lesson you are observing.
  • Try to alternate your attention between the observation questions that you have defined (focused observation) and between periods with a broader focus.

After the observation visit

After the lesson has been concluded, there are still two things to be done. One is to spend some time with the teacher, discussing the more salient aspects of the lesson. The other is to spend some time relecting on the lesson and making sense of what you have observed.

The post-observation debriefing

If possible, arrange for a post-observation debriefing with the class teacher. One way to structure the debriefing is to give the teacher a short account of the lesson based on your notes, and to ask them to add any remarks of their own. Some other questions that you could ask include:

  • (Avoid) How do you feel about this lesson?
  • (Better) Was this a typical lesson for this class?
  • (Better) Was the student’s behaviour different? How so?

You can also use the debriefing to discuss any critical incidents that happened during the lesson. This is something that requires a certain degree of sensitivity: however well-intentioned, why questions can make teachers defensive. One way to approach this is to phrase your questions as requests for advice:

  • Why did you ignore those students in the back row who kept talking?
  • What should I do if students are talking during the lesson?

If the teacher asks for feedback on aspects of the lesson, you can give them an honest, but constructive opinion. Focus on what aspects of the lesson went best, and to encourage them to think about alternatives for aspects of the lesson that were not very successful. Limit your feedback to those aspects of the lesson that are easiest to improve, and respect the methodological frame that the teacher has chosen to work within.

Reconstructing the lesson

After the classroom visit, you will also need to invest some time reflecting on the lesson. One common way of approaching this task involves two steps. First, re-read the lesson plan and your field-notes. As you do, make a note of how these might answer your observation questions, and what aspects of your questions remain un-answered. Look for patterns in your notes, sometimes spanning more than one lesson. As a second step, use your notes to re-construct the lesson as a narrative. As you do so, you should gradually move towards higher-inference remarks, i.e., attempt to address the whys of the lesson you observed.

Field notesLesson reconstruction
T. addresses student A by name. No response; teacher repeats question in L1, says name again & points to student. Student corrects pronunciation of his name, answers question. T. acknowledges answer, repeats name correctly, louder voice. … T. nominates student A to read text. She repeats his name in a markedly louder voice, making eye contact. Student reads text; interrupted by t. (“thank you, (NAME)”)Something interesting happened when the teacher was checking homework. While nominating students, she mispronounced a student’s name; the student initially ignored her and then corrected her – I am not sure whether this was an act of defiance. For the rest of the lesson, the teacher kept asking him questions, always making sure she pronounced his name in a marked way. At the time it seemed like bullying, but she later (debriefing) said that she felt embarrassed and was trying to learn his name.

Reflecting on your observation

By the end of your observation, you will have multiple pages of notes and considerable experiential insights about the classes you visited. The new challenge that you will now face will be how to translate all this information into actionable insights about your own teaching.

You can use copies of this form to provide structure to this process. The document has been designed to focus on an individual aspect of the framework. This means that you will need at least three documents to record your emerging thinking about the context, the learners’ strengths and needs, and the methods (or seven, if you have a lot of data and take a more granular approach). You can record the focus of each document (e.g., “methods”) at the top of the page.

Completing the document itself is a three-step process. First, you record all the information that you have collected about this aspect of the framework under the heading entitled Observation. It is also helpful to cross-reference this information with your fieldnotes. You can do this by adding the date or number of the field notes sheet under Date. For each observation that you have recorded, you should add what the main implications are for your own teaching. You can record these under Implications.

22/9, 25/9
Attendance of students is irregular. Several students absent or tardy.Ensure that there are many revision opportunities
Extended group projects will be hard to implement

Once you have completed the table with information from all your fieldnotes, re-read the observations and implications and summarise this information in a short paragraph. What advice would you give to a teacher who was about to teach in this class?

How to use this guide

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I hope that this series of steps provides you with some useful ideas for planning your classroom observations. That said, every school and every class is different, and it is more than likely that some aspects of the guide will need to be modified to suit your situation. In fact, if that is the case, I would be very interested in learning how you have adapted this work.

If you’d like a printable version of this content, you can download a pdf file by clicking on the button below.

I’m also very keen to hear how these materials can be improved. If you spot something that needs to change and/or have an idea that can make these materials more useful, please let me know.


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