After a few weeks of observations and jotting down notes in your log, you may decide that you need to expand or change the ways in which you collect data. There are a number of terrific books available to teacher-researchers about collecting data. Most of the ideas presented in these books teachers already do in the normal course of teaching. Brenda Miller Power's book, Taking note: Improving your observational notetaking is an excellent resource.
Power stresses that the first step in taking good observational notes is to gather your supplies. Experiment with materials to find what works best as you observe and write about what is happening in your classroom. One great suggestion is using "sticky notes." Keep a sticky-notepad on your desk to grab quickly when needed to make a few notations. Then stick the notes inside your journal to serve as a reminder to write an expanded version of what you observed. Don't forget to do a "free write reflection" later in the day when you can find a quiet time to yourself to expand about what you have written on the sticky note.
Power also mentions that notes keep you focused on the parts of your job that really matter which are your students and their learning. She suggests that you:
- Keep thoughtful records of student learning.
- Build confidence in what you are doing.
- Get into a cycle of reflection and change.
- Write narratives about your students without making too many sacrifices in other areas of your life. (In other words, do not let teacher research consume everything you do!)
Give yourself permission to write freely. What you might write about may seem trivial and should not be polished thoughts. Free writes are raw data and thoughts that will provide insights and are "raw nuggets of truth that will shape the rest of your note-taking agenda."
Power's article provides many other useful note-taking strategies such as using video recordings and audio recordings to capture students' talk and actions, surveys, work samples, portfolios, tests and quizzes, interviews, and creating record-keeping forms (such as checklists for recording tally marks on frequency of behaviors). She stresses that it is important to get into the habit of taking daily notes. She acknowledges that a teacher's time is short and the needs of students are great, but even with those constraints, teachers can still systematically analyze and improve their observational skills with daily note-taking practice. Remind your fellow research colleague or Teacher Research Team (TRT) members to periodically review their notes and consider these points:
- Why do you think you thought these notes were important enough to write down?
- How do these notes connect with earlier entries?
- Based on what you are seeing, what actions do you think you should take in collecting data in different ways, or change the way you are teaching?
Ruth Shagoury Hubbard and Brenda Miller Power have a chapter entitled, "The Artist's Toolbox" in "The art of classroom inquiry.". The chapter goes into great detail about how to collect baseline data before conducting interviews and then how to structure your interviews. They say that many teachers like to use Burke Reading and Writing Inventories (Weaver 1988) to gather information about their students. The chapter gives a number of examples of such interviews.
Another form of a formal interview for collecting baseline information is a sociogram. Jacob Moreno (1953) developed the sociogram to better understand peer networks and relationships. This form of data collection is useful in case studies since a researcher can better understand a case-study student within the social context of the class.
When videotaping or audiotaping student interactions or interviews you will want to do transcriptions later on. Be sure to label the tapes with the setting, time and dates or order the tapes in some way so you can easily reconstruct events during the data analysis stage. "The Artist's Toolbox" gives tips on recording events in segments and taking notes quickly as each segment rolls and exchanging notes with colleagues who will take notes on the same segment to add to your data collection.
NVivo software is designed to combine subtle coding with qualitative linking, shaping and modelling. A fine-detailed analyser, NVivo integrates the processes of interpretation and focused questioning. Rich text records are freely edited and coded and linked with multimedia. NVivo goes beyond coding and retrieval by supporting fluid interpretation and allowing theory to emerge. Visit QSR at: http://www.qsrinternational.com/
Hubbard, Ruth Shagoury & Power, Brenda Miller (1993). "The art of classroom inquiry." Portsmouth, NH: Heineman Publishers, p.9-49.
MacLean, Marion S. & Mohr, Marian M. (1999). Teacher- researchers at work. Berkely, CA: National Writing Project, p. 36-55.
Power, Brenda Miller Power (1996). Taking note: Improving your observational notetaking. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.