ARTICLE 81: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Observation: Part 1 of 2 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I could live for ever just seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling things.

Astronomers must have a wonderful time trying to figure out the universe.

As do microbiologists trying to make sense of the micro world.

They, and all the natural and social scientists between these two extremes can use observation to collect data for research.

I discuss direct, indirect, structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation in this article.

In a way, all data collection techniques involve observation of some kind. Observational research methods refer to a specific method of collecting information that is different from interviews or questionnaires. As a technique for collecting information, the observational method relies on seeing and hearing things and recording those observations, rather than relying on a subject’s self-report responses to questions or statements. You can also use your other senses to observe things.

The role of the observer is to remain detached from the group or process, and thus act as an observer only. You may, for example, wish to study the way students express their dissatisfaction with study-related issues by observing what they do and how they behave in such situations. You, as the observer, must not participate in the activities but rather just observe and record the information (an etic approach). It is, however, also possible to observe from the inside, i.e. as a member of the target group being observed (an emic approach).

Your role as an observer depends on the degree of inference or judgement that is required. At an extreme, you may make high inference observations, which require you to make judgements or inferences based on the observed behaviour.

What is recorded with high inference observation is your judgement as the observer. For example, a high inference observation of a teacher would be a rating made by the principal on factors such as classroom management, facilitation skills, enthusiasm, etc. You need to summarise the main points made or main developments at the event that you are observing. The principal would observe the class and make a rating of excellent, good, fair, or poor on each of the criteria measured.

Low inference observation, on the other hand, requires the observer to record specific behaviour without making judgements in a more global sense. Thus, the principal might record the number of rebukes or cues used by the teacher as information that is used subsequently to judge classroom management. Low inference observation usually is more reliable, but the approach that you follow will largely depend on the purpose of the research. Whatever the purpose of the research, it is important to report all observed outcomes as accurately and impartially as possible. It will mostly be necessary to present critical comment on strengths and weaknesses of the event, supported with reasons.

Observation always takes place in a specific context, with the result that different observations made at different locations and times will seldom deliver the same results. Such scenarios will mostly be one of the following five possibilities:

  1. Direct observation versus indirect observation.
  2. Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.
  3. Participant observation versus non-participant observation.
  4. Overt observation versus covert observation.
  5. Self-observation versus observation of others.

I will discuss the first two (direct observation versus indirect observation and structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation) in this article. The remaining three scenarios (participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others) in the second part of the articles on observation.

Direct observation versus indirect observation.Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork. As such it offers you the opportunity to gather ‘live’ data from naturally occurring situations. The use of direct observation has the potential to yield more valid and authentic data than would be the case when making use of any ‘indirect’ source of information.

Field observation is fundamental to most qualitative research – direct, eyewitness accounts of everyday social action and settings taking the form of field notes. Field observation is especially favoured by research based on ethnomethodology. Qualitative field observations are detailed descriptions of events, people, actions, and objects in settings.

Field observation is used in interactive data collection, such as participant observation and in-depth interviewing. In the former, you will rely on careful observation as you will initially explore several areas of interest at a site, selecting those to study in detail, and searching for patterns of behaviour and relationships. In the latter, you will note the nonverbal body language and facial expressions of the interviewee to help interpret the verbal data.

Indirect observation would be observation that takes place in unnatural, artificial settings. An unnatural setting would, for example, be observations in a laboratory, observation of video footage, photos, etc.

Direct observation coupled with indirect observation, for example video and audio recordings that you took, provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon. Some people would rather be observed than to complete a questionnaire or answer questions during an interview. Furthermore, the duration of observations can be measured quite accurately when it is necessary, for example when it is important to know how long an individual spoke, a crowd rioted, etc.

Video recordings of observations can also show body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, extreme (or not) reaction to a question, attack, insult, etc. You can also test your interpretation of your observations by asking others to air their views or perceptions of what you video recorded. Video recordings can be replayed as many times as you wish.

Video recordings are not without challenges. Lack of control when observing and recording a natural setting may limit the value of your observations. What happens ‘outside’ the picture can often shed a completely different meaning to the images than what you see. Measuring lengths, heights, distance and width can be difficult if you do not have known images in the footage.

Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation. A highly structured and systematic observation is based on proper and detailed planning. It can also be pre-ordinate, meaning that you will decide in advance what kind of pictures you will be looking for. In this instance you will already have formulated your hypothesis, problem statement or problem question so that you will know what kind of data you need. Collecting information in image format systematically means that you should work according to your plan, which might include venues, time, type of images to collect, etc. Structured observation is often directed at collecting qualitative data although the collection of quantitative data is also possible.

A semi-structured observation will be based on some planning, possibly even an agenda or at least a list of the images that you need. Your modus operandi, i.e. the way in which you will seek for and collect images, might well be haphazard, hoping that you will have some luck in finding what you are looking for. In this case you might have a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question although collecting images might trigger an issue to conduct research on.

An unstructured observation would be where you do not quite know what kind of images you are looking for. In this instance you will probably work in an unsystematic manner, relying on coming across useful images by chance. You might, for example, happen to have your video camera with you when something happens that you can use in your research. In this case you might not even have decided to embark on research yet. The image or images that you come across might trigger in your mind the need for research. Therefore, you will only now formulate a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question.


All data collection techniques involve some observation.

Observation relies on what you become aware of through the senses.

As an observer you will mostly remain detached from the target for your research.

It is, however, also possible to observe an event while participating in the activity.

You can act as an observer to make high or low inference observations.

In high inference observation you will need to make judgements or inferences based on your observations.

In low inference observation you will record your observations of specific behaviour without judgement.

You must always report all observations relevant to your research as accurately and impartially as possible.

Observation always takes place in a specific context, or scenario.

Scenarios for observation can be:

1.         Direct observation versus indirect observation.

2.         Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.

3.         Participant observation versus non-participant observation.

4.         Overt observation versus covert observation.

5.         Self-observation versus observation of others.

Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork.

Indirect observation takes place in unnatural, artificial settings.

Direct observation coupled with indirect observation provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon.

Structured observation is deliberately decided on and planned.

Some planning is needed for semi-structured observation.

You might, however, identify and select images haphazardly as and when you come across them.

An unstructured observation is where you do not plan the observations.

You will observe events and phenomena that you come across by chance.


I will discuss participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others in the second part of my articles on observation.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 75: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Quantitative Data Collection Methods

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Hello, I am Hannes Nel and I will discuss quantitative data collection methods in this video.

It is not possible to deal with all the intricacies and formula that natural scientists use to process data for research purposes.

Most, if not all, dedicated computer programmes use five basic calculations to analyse data, namely the mean, standard deviation, regression analysis, sample size determination and hypothesis testing.

It would not be possible to discuss even a fraction of all the computer programmes that are available for data analysis.

And I do not think there are many researchers who know and use many such software.

The data collection methods that I discuss can also be used with qualitative research.

But then the data will be processed and analysed without making use of statistics.

Or the statistical analysis will be simple enough so that dedicated computer software will not be needed.

Quantitative research deals with statistical and other numerical data collection methods and requires the processing of data which can require the use of dedicated computer software. Structured observation, questionnaires, paper and pencil tests, and alternative assessment are some of the more popular and simple quantitative data collection methods which can be used in combination with qualitative research.

Structured observation. In structured observation the researcher directly observes some phenomenon, and then systematically records the resulting observations. The observer doing research on, for example, guidance and support provided to students can record how many times students ask questions, how long the lecturer took to respond to the questions, etc. It is used to record predetermined categories of behaviour.

Questionnaires. Questionnaires encompass a variety of instruments in which the subject responds to written questions to elicit reactions, beliefs, and attitudes. You choose or construct a set of appropriate questions and ask the subjects to answer them, usually in a form that asks the subject to check the response. This is a common technique for collecting data in most research methods, and most survey research uses questionnaires.

Questionnaires are not necessarily easier than other techniques and should be employed carefully. Even so, questionnaires are one of the most widely used qualitative research techniques. The idea of formulating precise written questions, for those opinions or experiences you are interested in, seems an obvious method to use. However, if the questionnaire is not correctly developed you might not obtain the data that you need or people might not respond to it and you might need to start all over again.

There are several ways in which questionnaires can be administered. They can be sent by post to the intended respondents, who are then expected to complete and return them. They can be administered over the telephone or face to face. You can personally deliver them or have them delivered and collect them once they have been completed. You can also ‘facilitate’ the process of completing the questionnaires so that you can answer questions and collect the completed questionnaires afterwards. You can also send and receive them by email. Questionnaires can also be placed on a web site where people can complete them voluntarily. 

Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages. Face-to-face surveys may get a better response rate, but are more time consuming for you as the researcher. Postal and email surveys are likely to have lower response rates, and possibly poorer answers because the respondent has no one available to answer any queries; but they may allow a larger number of people to be surveyed.

The following are examples of the nine basic question types that you can use in your questionnaire:

1.         Quantity or information: How many years’ experience do you have in conducting assessment of learner performance? ……………………………….

2.         Category: In what capacity are you involved in facilitating learning?




3.         List or multiple-choice: Do you regard workplace-learning as any of the following?

A waste of time

Not learning at all

It improves productivity

It promotes lifelong learning

Other – please specify: ……………………………………………………………………..

4.         Scale: How important is quality assurance for university education?


Very important

Not sure

Not very important

A waste of time

5.         Ranking: What do you see as the main purpose of your studies? Please rank the following starting with 6 for the most important to 1 for the least important.

Personal development

Subject interest

Career advancement


Intellectual stimulation

Social interaction

Other – please specify: ………………………………………………………………….

6.         Complex grid or table: How would you rank the benefits of your studies for each of the following? Please rank each item.

                                                Positive          Neutral           Negative        Very negative

For you

For your family

For your employer

For the country

For your friends

7.         Open-ended questions: Please give me your opinion of the social life at your university in one short paragraph.


8.         Closed-ended questions: Do you think the lecturers who teach you are sufficiently qualified? (The answer should only be “yes” or “no”.)


9.         A combination of question types. You can, for example, ask respondents for their opinion on an issue, inviting a choice between either “yes” or “no”, followed by a multiple-choice question in which options to choose from are given. Here is an example:

Question 1: Do you think the lecturers (at the university where you study) provides enough guidance and support to students? (yes or no)

Question 2: How can the guidance and support provided to students be improved?

  1. Appoint more suitably qualified psychologists.
  2. Schedule special classes where students may ask questions on study problems that they encounter.
  3. Insist that lecturers allow each student a one-hour private appointment per month to discuss personal study challenges.
  4. Task a post-graduate student to do research on student guidance and support at the university.

Paper and pencil tests. In a paper and pencil test the respondent is asked a series of questions that are objectively scored. Typical items include multiple-choice, matching item, true-false, and completion. The resulting test scores are used as data. Because these types of tests are well established and have strong technical qualities, they are often used in educational research as a measure of student performance.

Alternative assessment. Alternative assessments are measures of performance that require the demonstration of a skill or proficiency by having the respondent create, produce, or do something. One type of alternative assessment is performance-based, such as making a speech, writing a paper, making a musical presentation, demonstrations, athletic performance, and other projects. Portfolios constitute another type of alternative assessment. Many alternative assessments are authentic, reflecting real-life problems and contexts. While alternative assessments have become popular in recent years, as a technique to use in research these approaches are fraught with technical difficulties. This is primarily because of the subjective nature of the scoring of the performance or product.


Structured observation entails observing a phenomenon.

Relevant observations are systematically recorded.

Conclusions can be made from recorded observations.

Questionnaires can be used to collect responses to written questions.

Questionnaires can be distributed by post, electronically or be delivered to the members of the target group for the research.

Face-to-face surveys mostly achieve better response rates than surveys by post or electronically.

There are nine basic question types that you can use in questionnaires. They are:

  1. Quantity or information.
  2. Categories.
  3. List or multiple-choice.
  4. Scale.
  5. Ranking.
  6. Complex grid or table.
  7. Open-ended questions.
  8. Closed-ended questions.
  9. A combination of question types.

In a paper and pencil test the respondent is asked a series of questions that are objectively scored.

Alternative assessments evaluate the demonstration of skills or proficiency.

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