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Lesson 4: Observation Techniques

There are several observation techniques that are used within the schools to record student performance or behavior. This lesson will describe six such observation techniques, ways to report the information and the role that the paraeducator can play in the observation and recording of students' performance and behavior.

These techniques include:

All of these techniques rely on precisely identifying the behaviors in observable and measurable performance terms (as discussed in the previous lesson) to make the results meaningful and reliable.

The Paraeducators' Role in Observations

As long as the planning for obaservation has been done by a teacher, anyone that is able to make accurate observations can perform the actual observation of the behavior. This can include paraeducators, with training in the observation technique and also a knowledge of the behavior being observed.

The Observations

When developing an observation period, the teacher will take the following considerations into account. A paraeducator should be aware of these considerations in order to make consistent and accurate measurements during the observation.

Defining the Behavior

The target behavior will need to be defined in a way that it is observable an measurable to anyone that may be observing that student. It is possible that both the teacher and the paraeducator could observe the same student at the same time and note different behaviors. Clearly identifying specific behaviors being observed makes communicating and interpreting the results of the observation more accurate.

The teacher should be the one to identify and define the behavior. However, the paraeducator needs to have a clear understanding of the specific behavior.

Where the Observation is to Take Place

Certain behaviors occur in specific locations thoughout the day. It is up to the teacher to determine where behaviors are occurring so that the time observations take place will coincide with the behavior. If a student is kicking other students on the playground, then observing them in the classroom will not provide an accurate observation. However, if a student is talking out in class, the classroom would be an appropriate location. The teacher needs to establish the location in order for the observer to collect accurate information.

When the Observation is to Take Place

The target behavior will also determine the time of the observation. The teacher should schedule the observation during a time in which the behavior is likely to occur and for a length of time that will allow opportunity for the behavior to occur.

What Observation Technique is to be Used

In determining the observation technique to use, the teacher will take into consideation the specific behavior and the information that they will want to gather from the observation. A paraeducator will need to have an understanding of these techniques and practice them before they can use them in an observation.

Observation Techniques


Frequency counts are a record of the number of times a specific behavior occurs within a specific time period. Frequency counts are useful for recording behaviors which have a clear beginning and ending, are of relatively short duration, and tend to occur a number of times during the specified time period.

In order to perform a frequency count, the following are required:

A tally sheet is usually used to identify the behavior being observed and to record the the frequency or the number of times which the behavior occurs. Below is an example of a tally sheet and how the frequency of a behavior might be recorded.

Sample of Frequency Record Form

Student: Billy Smith

Behavior: Leaving seat during science class

Date Time
Start / Stop
Tally of Observations Total Count
2/14/97 10:50 am 11:50 am xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx 15

Some examples of a frequency count could be the number of math problems completed on a math worksheet within 15 minutes, the number of times a preschooler intentially communicates in an hour, the number of times a student raises their hand during a 10 minute class discussion, and the number of times a student leaves their seat during science class are all examples of frequency counts.

A frequency count would NOT be used for those behaviors that occur at a high rate, such as tapping a pencil on a desk, or when the behavior occurs for an extended period of time, such as when a student sucks their thumb.


Rate is very similar to frequency. Recording rates of behavior included gather information on both the frequency of the observed behavior and the length of the observation time. Rate is the ratio of the number of times a behavior occurs within a specific time period AND the length of the time period. The ratio is computed by dividing the number of events by the number minutes, hours, or days that the observation occurred. The frequency or number of times a student leaves their seat during math class may be reported as a rate if the length of the class or the length of the observation period is known.

The rate of a behavior can also be averaged across a number of observation period to report an average rate. From a series of observations it may be determined that a student's average rate of "out of seat" behavior may be twelve times per hour.

For example, if the list contains 20 words and the student requires five minutes to write the list, the rate would be four words per minute.

An example follows of how one might record "out of seat" behavior as rate.

Sample of Rate Record Form

Student: Billy Smith

Behavior: Leaving seat during science class

Date Time
Start / Stop
Tally of Observations Total Count
2/14/97 10:50 am 11:50 am xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx 15
Rate (count/Length of time) = 15/1 hour = 15 times per hour


Recording the duration of a behavior is done by recording the starting and ending time of a behavior and computing the length of time that the behavior occurs. This technique is usually used to observe behavior which occur less frequently and continue for a period of time.

An example of duration recording could be for a student who has crying episodes in class. Everytime the student cries in class, you would record the beginning and ending times, and then calculate the duration of the crying episode. A few other examples of when duration recording could be used include how long it takes a student to finish a math assignment, the length of time a student takes cleaning up, or how long a student spends continuously tapping their pencil on the desk.

Sample of Duration Record Form

Tally Sheet for Duration of Behavior
Student Name:
Date of Observation:
Observed Behavior:
Starting Time:
Ending Time:

Interval Recording

Interval recording is a technique that measures whether or not a behavior occurs within a specific time interval. The total observation time is divided into smaller intervals, and the observer records whether or not the behavior occurrs within that interval. By using the interval recording technique, the teacher can get an estimate of both the frequency and duration of the the behavior. The observer marks only once whether the behavior occurred at anytime within that interval. Interval recording requires the observer's undivided attention, since the observation is continuous for a set period of time.

An example of interval recording could be for a child who throws their toys during free-time. If the free-time lasts for 15 minutes, then that time could be broken into 1 minute intervals. If in the first minute, the child throws the toy the the interval is marked. If in the next minute, they don't throw a toy then the interval is not marked. However, if in the third minute, the child throws three different toys, the interval is only marked once again.

Interval Recording Sheet

Interval Recording
Student Name:
Date of Observation:
Observed Behavior:
Starting Time:
Ending Time:
Total Observation Time

Other examples of when interval recording may be used include, a student who talks to other students around them during work time, the amount of socializing that a student does at recess, or if a student is attending to a book during personal reading time.

Interval recording will work for any behaviors that can be observed, however there is a strong time demand upon the observer which may make this technique inappropriate or undesirable to use.

Time Sampling

Time sampling is similar to interval recording in that the observation time is divided into intervals, however in time sampling, the behavior is recorded only if it occurs at the end of the time period. When the specified amount of time has expired, the observer looks at the student and determines whether or not the behavior is occurring. In general, this technique is used for behaviors which are longer in duration.

For example, if the behavior is identified as "being out of seat", the observation time might be 15 minutes with intervals of 1 minute. The paraeducator would mark at one minute intervals whether the student being observed was out of his or her seat.

Sample of Time Sampling Record Form

Since with time sampling the observation is done intermittently, the observer, such as the teacher or paraeducator, is able to observe a behavior without having to set an amount of time aside to observe continually. Thus time sampling is a practical way of getting an estimation of the overall occurrence of a behavior.

Some other examples of behaviors that time sampling can be used with include, a student reading a book, nail biting, participation in a game during recess, or working on math assignments.

Time sampling would generally NOT be used with behaviors with a short duration such as hitting, kicking or spitting. If the behavior does not have a long enough duration, then it may not be observed at the specified intervals.

The observer may utilize a timer or a tape recorder with beeps to determine when to record if the behavior is occurring. In a variation of this technique, tapes with random beeps are sometimes used to record observations at random times during the observation period. With this variation the observer and the student do not know ahead of time when the recording will occur.

Anecdotal Records

Anecdotal records are written notes describing events or incidents that occur. These notes usually become part of a student's file. Anecdotal records may be used to document:

If a paraeducator is working with the student at the time of the incident, they may be asked to assist in completing the anecdotal record.

Effective Anecdotal Records

The purpose of the anecdotal record is to document the event as clearly and accurately as possible. The following guidelines should be observed when writing the record:
  1. Record observation at the time behavior is observed rather than at a later time.
  2. Utilize a standardized anecdotal record form to record the information to help insure that all relevant information is included.
  3. Record what is actually observed rather than your feelings about the incident.
  4. Use performance terms to describe behavior.
  5. Be careful about including information about other students (by name) in the record.
  6. Be aware that parents and other professionals will have access to the record.

What should be included in an anecdotal record?

Anecdotal records are usually recorded on preprinted forms to insure that all relevant information is included. These anecdotal record usually includes the following:

  1. Name of the observer
  2. Date of the incident
  3. Time when the incident occurred
  4. Name of the student involved
  5. A description of the incident
  6. Location/setting where the incident occurred
  7. Notes/Recommendations/Actions taken (be careful here)
  8. Signature

Sample Anecdotal Record Form

Image of sample anecdotal recording

Reporting Information

The following are not specific techniques for observing behaviors, however they do allow the observer to interpret the information that is gathered during the observation. By calculating the percentage and average, a large amount of information about the behavior's occurrence can be summarized briefly.


Percentage is the ratio of the number of times an event occurs to the number of possibilities for that event to occur times 100. For example, if we are interested in determining the percent of math problems a student does correctly while completing a math worksheet, and the student gets fifteen of twenty items on the sheet correct, then the percentage would be the ratio of the number correct (15) and the number possible (20) times 100 or 75 percent.

You may be familiar with using percentage in recording academic work, but percentages are also used with observing behaviors. Following are some of the observation techniques presented in this lesson, and how a percentage can be calculated with the information gathered in the observation.

Time Sampling Reported as Percentage

Time sampling a technique which relies on observing behavior at specific intervals during a predetermined time period. A specific time period such a ten minutes might be divided into 10 equal intervals of one minute. At the end of each one minute interval the paraeducator would record whether a specific identified behavior was occurring. At the end of the ten minute period the number of intervals at which the behavior was occurring divided by the total number of intervals times 100 will give the percentage of time that the behavior was occurring. Using the same "being out of seat" behavior, the paraeducator would mark on a recording sheet at each one minute interval whether the student being observed was in his/her seat or out of his/her seat. If the student was out of their seat at six intervals during the ten observations then it would be determined that the student was "out of seat" 60 percent of the time.

Percentage may also be determined when observing behaviors of longer duration. If we observe a student for ten minutes and record whether the behavior is occurring at each minute, we can compute the percentage of observations (out of a possible ten) that the behavior occurs. This is discussed further in Time Sampling. Percentage might be a more effective method for reporting the extent of behaviors which are of a longer duration, such as writing, thumb-sucking, or crying.

Duration Reported as Percentage

If the observation using a duration technique is done during a specific period of time, the percentage of time that the behavior occurs may also be computed. All occurrences and length of time the behavior occurred are recorded. For example, if the behavior being observed was "being out of seat", the paraeducator could use a stop watch to measure the number of minutes and seconds during a 30 minute period in which the student was out of his/her seat. If the number of minutes and seconds is divided by 30 minutes and taken times 100, the percentage of time that the student was out of his/her seat can be determined.

Again, recording the percentage requires that the observer record the number of possible attempts or opportunities divided by the number of times that the student meets the criteria. The result is then taken times 100.


Averaging Frequency/Rate

The frequency/rate of behaviors can be averaged across a number of observation periods to determine the average. For example, if one looks at the student who calls out without raising their hand during a class for a week, we can calculate an average rate. If on Monday one tallies 17 times, 5 times on Tuesday, 8 times for Wednesday, 9 times on Thursday, and on Friday one tallies 11 times, then the average frequency is calculated as follows:

Average Frequency = 17+5+8+9+11 = 50 times total

50 times / 5 observations = an average of 10 times per observation

The following form can also be used for recording and computing the average rate of behavior over a number of observation periods.

Average Rate Calculation Sheet of Behavior
1 2 3 4 5 Total
Rate (Count/Length)
Average Rate
Total Count/Total Length

Averaging Duration

The duration of behaviors can be averaged across a number of observation periods to determine the average. For example, if we look at the student who sucks his or her thumb during school for a day, we can calculate the average duration for the time they are observed, as follows:

If the student sucks their thumb for 10 minutes, 7 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, then one calculates the average duration of thumb sucking as follows:

Average Duration = 10+7+4+3 = 24 minutes total

Divide 24 minutes / 4 individually observed incidences = an average of 6 minutes

One can summarize that she or he sucks their thumb on the average six minutes at a time.


Although the techniques and strategies for recording behavior are not difficult, carefully developed procedures and practice are essential in gathering accurate data. The following guidelines may be helpful:
  1. Describe as precisely as possible the behavior you are recording before you begin to record it. Discuss examples of the behavior to make sure that you have the same understanding of the behavior as the teacher.

  2. Prepare the recording technique ahead of time. Make sure you are familiar with the form and the method for recording.

  3. Carefully observe the time limits and time intervals used in recording.

  4. Try to prepare so that you need to make the fewest judgments while recording. Record the behavior every time it occurs, regardless of how much it occurs. For example, if you are recording how often a student touches other students, you should record all touches whether they are gentle or hard. If you can't tell whether a behavior fits the criteria you and the teacher need to further refine the criteria so that it matches the intent of the observation and is observable and measurable.