Observation as an Assessment Tool


Pat Nickell and Angene Wilson

The students in Mr. Kim’s high school U. S. History class worked in pairs to prepare a presentation describing how multiple perspectives on an event of their choice in twentieth century American History often did not support one another. He wanted to grade their presentations.

Ms. Sharp’s middle school civics class wrote and performed skits in small groups to illustrate the various cases handled by local courts. Each group drew court case descriptions at random until they found one that would have gone first to a lower court. Once they found such a case, they were to prepare a skit to illustrate the criminal or civil activity that led to the case, highlights of the court proceedings, how the case was decided, and why it was the purview of this court. This task required knowledge and skill, and Ms. Sharp believed students deserved a grade.

Miss White’s primary students worked in groups to create interview questions for members of the community to find out how they felt about a tax increase to support school technology. Each group selected a “school friend” and a community official to interview, but first they needed to come up with good questions. How might Miss White report her students’ work to their parents?

Observation is an accepted research method for qualitative research, but we may hesitate to use such a seemingly subjective yardstick to measure and report student progress. These authors believe that, given practice, a good instrument, and a thorough explanation of the method to parents and students, observation should be used often and with confidence. As adults, our students will be judged by their ability to ask questions, apply information, think, express themselves well, lead, work well with others, and solve problems. They will not be judged by a multiple-choice test on these skills, but how they can use these skills in real-world social and work settings.

The observation instrument on page 351 is just one model. You will want to make your own to suit your own needs. Your own instrument might change slightly depending on the activity to be observed (e.g. whether small group or individual work is involved). We encourage you to develop an instrument that can be used over and over. You might want to allow students to “practice” the activity to be observed with one another, reversing roles as observer, using your instrument. They will provide valuable insights for you about the instrument while better preparing students for comparable tasks.

The teacher may not observe all students during one lesson, but all students should be observed, for example, at least twice during a grading period, or three times per semester. To be as fair as possible, you may want to decide ahead of time that you will formally observe “every fifth student,” or “those who choose a particular side of each work station,” or “only those who volunteer to present.” This further keeps you from appearing to be arbitrarily “selective” in choosing whom to observe.

You will want to be careful not to list too many scoring criteria, for that will further limit the number of students you will have time to observe. Obviously, scoring criteria should have a direct relationship to the stated goals of your district, school, or class. They should be clearly stated and easily observable.

Just as administrator observations of teachers are to be closely followed by conferencing, the same holds true here. Students will be eager to know what the teacher thought of their performance. Conferences and space for student comment on the observation form should also invite reflections from the student. We chose progress-based rankings (e.g. “Strong Progress”) to suggest that students be compared only against previous work and to enable students to observe their own growth over time, because these kinds of rankings have become particularly important in standards-based environments. Static rankings (e.g. “Excellent,” “Good”) tend to suggest a comparison of the student with others.

Teachers cannot help but take note of student actions, reactions, and communication on a regular, if informal, basis and these observations weigh on how they report student progress. Parents and students, however, want some record of what was observed in more specific terms. What a teacher sees is not always what parents see and vice versa. Thus, formalizing the process provides documentation to support teachers’ thoughts and concerns.


Pat Nickell is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, which she joined after a twenty-seven year career in public schools. She served on the NCSS task forces that developed the national social studies curriculum standards and standards for teaching and learning, and has written and trained in the areas of character education, curriculum development, instruction, and assessment in social studies. In 1996-97 she was President of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Angene Wilson is a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Kentucky, where she works especially with secondary social studies preservice teachers. She has focused her career on the area of global education.



Student ________________________________
Activity _________________________________


Not Expert Strong Some Needs

Observed Progress Progress Practice

Shows preparation for task

Shows gains in content knowledge

Demonstrates skill development in:


Expresses self effectively

Listens well to others

Contributes to work in group

Demonstrates progress in knowledge

Teacher Comments:



Student Comments:

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.