117 How to Improve Observation Skills in Your Science Classes

August 8, 2022

Nicole recounts a day this summer when she was teaching summer school. She planned a simple observation activity and was surprised that her students struggled with simple observation skills. Around the same time, a listener asked how to improve observation skills in her students.

So, we put together our top tips to help you help your students improve this skill.

How to Improve Observation Skills – Lead With Your Why

Often, students don’t understand the significance of observation skills. Some feel it is a pointless task. However, observation skills are fundamental to the practice of science. So, it’s important to convey the importance to your students before you begin.

Erin suggests starting by explaining the importance of phenomena at the beginning of the school year. Then, show how observations are used to explain phenomena.

It’s okay if students don’t fully understand the significance right away. However, if you continue to refer to the relationship between observations and phenomena throughout the school year, their understanding will improve.

To learn more about phenomena, click here.

Common Problems with Science Observations

As Nicole described, her students rushed through their observations. They made simple, low-level observations. For example, they stated the colors they observed. However, they didn’t include quantitative observations. Also, they left out detailed observations.

It’s not uncommon for students to rush through observations. In part, this is because they don’t understand the significance. But also, they lack the skills.

So, we’ve come up with several ways to help. But, before we go there, let’s talk about pre-assessments.

The Importance of Pre-Assessing Science Observation Skills

As Nicole stated, she wasn’t aware of how poor her student’s observation skills were before she started her lesson on observations. However, you also can’t assume that your student’s observation skills will be poor.

Instead, pre-assess your students. There are many ways to do this. For example, give students an object to observe. Then ask them to write as many observations down on an exit ticket before they leave the class.

This way, you will have a better idea of where YOUR students’ skills are. You don’t want to waste precious class time reteaching a skill that students already have. But, you want to build foundational skills if students are missing them.

How to Improve Basic Science Observation Skills

Once you pre-assess students on their observation skills, you might see that they need additional support. So, we have several ideas to get you started.

Using the Five Senses

The base of observation is to use the five senses. Of course, this is an elementary-level skill. However, we’ve found that many middle and high school students come in without being able to do this.

Usually, they record visual observations. But, they leave out observations involving their other senses. So, ask students to make initial observations without providing much instruction. Then, ask them to use one of the senses they didn’t use to make additional observations.

Close up from overhead of a girl with freckles and a jean jacket smelling daisies.
Starting with the five senses is a great place to start if your students have poor observation skills.

Of course, make sure it is safe to use all 5 senses. Lets them know which aren’t safe to use. For example, you might need to tell them not to taste or smell certain objects.

Notice and Wonder

We love using asking students what they notice and what they wonder. Often, we find our students struggle with coming up with questions about phenomena. We believe this is because they have negative associations with asking questions in a classroom setting.

However, using the notice and wonder framework reframes the practice of asking questions. To learn more about using Notice and Wonder in your classroom, click here.

Less is More.

Don’t provide too much instruction about initial observations. Instead, ask students to record their observations. Then, have them compare with their peers. Finally, ask them what they notice and wonder about the observations.

For instance, some students will use pictures to record observations. Others will use words. Some students use a combination. Ask students to discuss the benefits of each style.

Practice Makes Perfect

Focus on observation skills throughout the year. These activities shouldn’t only take place at the beginning of your school year. Instead, bring them back throughout the school year.

Person holding round magnifying class.  Text reads "students need time to practice observation skills".
Give students opportunities to practice their observation skills throughout the year.

For example, provide students with phenomena in your bell ringers. Then ask them to write down observations.

How to Further Improve Observation Skills

There are several ways to take students’ observations to the next level. Here are a few to get you started.

Using a Minimum Number of Observations

One easy way to push students’ observations a little further is to require a minimum number of observations. Erin likes starting with around 10 observations because this isn’t a number of observations that is easily reachable.

At first, the observations are easy to make. However, as students start getting closer to 10, it becomes more difficult. Students must push themselves to make more detailed observations.

Peer-to-Peer Feedback

One of our favorite ways to help students improve their skills is to give them opportunities to provide peer-to-peer feedback. This can be as simple as having them share what they have observed with each other. Usually, students have different observations.

Have students pair up to share their observations. Then, have them pair up with another group or switch partners. Each time they work with other students, ask them to write down any observations that they didn’t originally make.

Structure ways for them to make suggestions.

Provide sentence frames or other scaffolds to help students make suggestions to each other. Then, as a group, ask students what makes observations really good. Then, record their ideas and use these suggestions the next time they make observations.

Quantitative and Qualitative Observations

Often, your student observations are qualitative. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with qualitative observations. In fact, they are extremely important in science. However, quantitative observations are also important.

Nicole suggests asking students to make observations using numbers to start. Allow them to decide what numerical information they use. Then, once they make the observations, introduce the term “quantitative”. And, show them other ways that they can use measurement to record observations.

Support Stations

Some of your students will need a refresher on how to take measurements. But, not all of them will need this support. So, we suggest using support stations.

For example, a support station could include instructions or videos that show how to use a particular piece of equipment. Students are able to use the station if they need help. But, this allows students who already have this skill to move on.

For more information about how you can use stations, click here.

If you don’t want to use stations, you could also provide support videos in Google Classroom or on another learning management platform.

Nature Journaling

In this episode, Nicole mentioned that she has been practicing nature journaling with her students. She highly recommends the book How to Teach Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws and Emily Lygren. There is a version that you can download for free here.