Scholarly Teaching Series Part 5: Document Observations

This is the fifth post in the Scholarly Teaching Series. Building off the work of Richlin (2001), we will highlight various projects at the MN-COP to illustrate each step in the Scholarly Teaching process.

ST Figure Step 5Documenting Observations

Let’s review the first four steps in the Scholarly Teaching process:

Step 1: Observe a Problem or Opportunity and Document the Baseline

Step 2: Consult Literature

Step 3: Choose and Apply an Intervention

Step 4: Conduct Systematic Observation

Once a plan for systematic observation has been outlined, Step 5 is to Document Observations. There are a variety of ways to document observations, but the key is to be systematic.  The purpose of the documentation is to capture a point in time, preserving memories of what took place.  Documentation can then be used as a basis for future decisions.

Peer Teaching of Evidence-Based Medicine

In the Pharm.D. curriculum, second and third year students participated in a peer teaching experience where the third year students taught the second year students how to appraise a clinical trial and how the data contributes to clinical guidelines. The students were assigned to groups of four for the peer teaching and spread across five classrooms on two campuses (Twin Cities and Duluth). The planning team wanted to gather and document observation data from the facilitator in each classroom.

After the session, each facilitator was asked to respond to three common questions used to gather observations, or field notes. These questions (Sunstein & Chiseri-Strater, 2012) were also discussed in Part 1 of the series.

  • What surprised you?
  • What intrigued you?
  • What disturbed you?
Laura Palombi

Once the responses for all five facilitators were gathered, they were compiled anonymously and sent back to the entire group to review and as a means to better understand the peer teaching session as it occurred in the other classrooms. After documenting her observations, one of the facilitators, Dr. Laura Palombi stated:

Documenting my observations forced me to think more critically about what went well and what could have gone better in the classroom. What was most helpful was reading others’ observations and comparing them to my own: this helped me to think more critically about my teaching approach and how I could have better prepared for the class session to meet the needs of a broader group of learners.

The Connection to Your Work

If you choose to develop instructor’s field notes, try keeping your observations and your interpretation of the observations separate. It is natural to try and interpret, or explain why, something happened or what you think it means.  In addition, you may find yourself thinking about methods for changing things in the future. Consider recording the observations in one font style and also documenting your observations alongside in a different font style (e.g. italics).

Observation: During the body of the lecture, almost every student was looking at papers on his or her desk and not at the instructor or the slides.

Interpretation: The students could have been studying for an exam later that day. The students may have figured they could re-watch the lecture later without missing anything.

Action:  In the future, consider adding something interactive to the lecture at every 15 minutes to help engage students.

In addition to instructors’ field notes, observations can be collected by visitors to the classroom.  External observers can be used to watch and record key behaviors (e.g. asking questions) of either instructors or students.

Whether you are collaborating with a team or working on your own, documenting observations can be a key source of support for your scholarly project.


For more information:

Project Lead: Shannon Reidt, Pharm.D., MPH

Additional Team Members: Laura Palombi, Pharm.D., MPH, Michael Swanoski, Pharm.D., Scott Chapman, Pharm.D., Anne Schullo-Feulner, Pharm.D., Claire Kolar, Pharm.D., and Kristin Janke, Ph.D.


Richlin, L. (2001). Scholarly Teaching and the Scholarship of Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2001(86), 57–68.

Sunstein, Bonnie Stone and Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth. FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research. 4th edition. 2012 Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, MA

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