Basic Skills of Observation


  • To introduce observation as a basic skill of research that we use every day
  • To practice categorizing observations


  • Scrap Paper
  • Flip chart paper
  • Markers
  • Access to Friday Night Lights: Season 4, Episode 1 (or another scene)
  • A projector with A/V capacity
  • “Observation Quiz” handout (1 per participant)
  • “Sample Assets and Issues” handout (1 per participant)

Prepare Before

Ensure you will be able to show Season 4 and Episode 1 of “Friday Night Lights.” This may be available through Netflix or Amazon Prime. Alternatively, you may be able to rent it through a public library. Questions are prepared for this specific episode, but you may of course instead pre-screen a different scene and edit the provided “Observation Quiz” and “Sample Assets and Issues” handouts to reflect your selection. The film scene should be one that participants would be interested in, but not one that they might have seen multiple times, lest they will already be familiar with the movie and the objective of the activity will be lost. If you’re using a scene of your own choosing, make sure to develop a list of 10 questions based on the clip that you choose.  Include questions that require listening as well as observational skills, and observations about behaviors, environment, and interactions in addition to the observance of physical characteristics.

Warm Up

How did you get here this morning?   Write as many details as possible about your trip.  What did you see?  Smell?  Feel?  Hear?  Be as specific as possible.

Share a few answers back.  How accurate do they think your memories were?  How hard or easy was it to recall the experience?


During the day, when are you using your listening skills?  Your observing skills? What is a typical situation for you when you might be observing something (e.g., arriving at a party, walking into a class for the first time, sitting in a park)?  These are research skills that you use everyday for your own purposes.   When you are observing, what are you trying to figure out or learn?

You are going to practice your observation skills.  Everyone should have a piece of paper and something to write with.  You are going to watch a 15 minute clip.  Take notes on what you observe.  After the clip, you will have to answer questions based on you’ve seen—you will be able to use your notes.   Observe and listen as closely as possible in order to gather as much information and as many details about what is going on as you can

Show the group the Friday Night Lights clip, or a clip that you have screened and created questions for.  Encourage participants to write down lots of notes as they watch the movie.

Once the clip is finished, tell the group that you are going to test them on their observation skills.  Pass out the “quiz” and using their notes, ask them to answer as fully as possible to as many questions as possible.

These answers should be recorded individually on paper first, and then shared as a group.  Even though participants will think they have watched the video closely, some of the questions should stump them.  Once everyone has shared their answers, let them know what the correct answers are.

After the sharing is over, ask the group to report as many other things they saw and heard from the video as they can remember.  List these on a flip chart and post the pages in the room so the group can see them.

Help the group to categorize their observations in some way.   For the Friday Night Lights clip, for example, the easiest categorization is into Assets (something that benefits or has value to the community) and Issues (an unmet need).  What assets do this community and school/organization have?  What issues do this community and school/organization have?


What is challenging about observing?  Was it harder or easier than you thought?  Did it help to take notes?  If you had to watch again, how would you do it differently?


The two most important research skills are observing and listening. We don’t always see as much as we think we do, and we need to practice looking for information.   Unless we are observing closely, we might not notice non-verbal behavior or other cues that tell us the meaning behind what is going on. Also, we tend to notice what we are already interested in — someone interested in sports might notice the football drills, someone interested in fashion might notice what people wear. Getting accurate information is a problem that comes up in real life and in field research.


In this round of observations, there will not be a quiz at the end.  However, watch the next 15 minutes looking for assets and issues in this community.   An asset is a thing, activity, or idea that benefits or has value. An issue is an unmet need or problem.

Everyone should have a new piece of paper.  Divide it in half between assets and issues.   As you watch the next segment, list as many examples of assets and issues  as you can.  Remember that people are not assets — their behavior is. For instance, instead of saying “Coach” is an asset, write what behaviors he exhibits that are assets.

Once they are done watching, share back what they found to create a master list of issues and assets.

If this was our school/organization’s community, then we have conducted research to better understand our community.  What have we learned about our community?  What might be a research question that we might want to know more about?   What might be an action we could take as a result of our research so far?