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Qualitative and Quantitative Observations in Education

Features and Connections Between Qualitative and Quantitative Observation

Both qualitative and quantitative types of observations are common when teachers work with students. Qualitative observations usually serve a descriptive function. They can be used to describe behaviors and their contexts. An observer studies the behaviors often without preexisting notions and memorizes the events that occurred during the observation. These events are then combined into a narrative, which can be presented as anecdotal records. While these types of records do not provide precise information, they can give a complete description of the behavior and its context. On the other hand, quantitative observations focus on precise data.

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Behavioral observation consists of five steps: definition of the behavior, specification of characteristics, development of recording procedures, section of time and location, development of assessment procedures. The differences between the two types lie like their results. Qualitative results often describe things that are not measured in numbers, while quantitative results provide measurable results (Suen, & Ary, 2014). As the case study shows, the first part was focused on the description of Zack’s behavior and the context in which it was happening. The second part was focused on finding the frequency of Zack’s wanderings and comparing it to average students (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2013).

Part 1 of the study is qualitative as its only function is to observe and describe the behaviors of Zack. However, it has a strong connection to the second part that may not be apparent at first glance. By doing qualitative research first, the teacher can provide a detailed anecdotal definition of the behavior that is required for further quantitative research. This connection persists in other research too, as the topic of research always needs to be defined to provide precise observation data. For example, if the teacher did not make sure to exclude all the cases where Zack left his seat with her permission, the results would be inaccurate (Salvia, Ysseldyke, & Bolt, 2013).

Example of Anecdotal Observation

Mitchel is generally a well-behaved student except during the times when he was to work by himself, especially during tests. When this time arrives, he often spits little clumps of paper at his fellow students through the tube of his pen. His behavior is unpleasant to other students and distracts them from performing tests. His reactions to scolding and punishments are mild, but he does not seem to want to stop this behavior. Qualitative research over the next few days might provide a better explanation.

Day: Monday

Context: Individual written test on the topic covered in class. All the students are present and seated. Mitchel had shown interest in the topic and correctly answered questions before the test started.

Antecedents: I give out the test forms to the class and tell them to finish it before the end of the hour.

Behavior: Mitchel spends a few minutes looking at the test but does not write in it. Subsequently, he disassembles his pen and starts using it to spit paper at his classmates.

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Consequences: Jerry, the student that seats in front of Mitchel, ask him to stop and I scold Mitchel and remind him about the importance of the test. Mitchel does not finish the test in time.

Note: Mitchel has shown that he is interested in the topic before the test.

Day: Tuesday

Context: Analysis of the learned material. The students are working on using learned information to analyze a text passage. Everyone is present and seated.

Antecedents: I give the instructions to analyze a specific passage of text using the information learned over the last few lessons.

Behavior: Mitchel starts to read the passage but stops midway and starts spitting paper again.

Consequences: Jerry asks me to make Mitchel stop it, and I make sure that he does not do it again after scolding him. Mitchel stops for the rest of the assignment. Mitchel did not complete the assignment.

Day: Wednesday

Context: Small individual written test on today’s lesson. All students are present and seated.

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Antecedents: I explain the requirements of the test and give out the test sheets.

Behavior: Mitchel spends longer on the test than previously but stops before finishing it. He disassembles his pen and proceeds to spit at his classmates again.

Consequences: I make Mitchel wait for the end of class outside the classroom. He does not finish the test.

Preparation for a Quantitative Observation

I define Mitchel’s spitting as “spitting balls of paper at other students.” This behavior happens only when he has to take an individual test and is characterized by him disassembling the pen and using it to spit at other students. I decide to record the frequency of this behavior by marking it in a personal notebook. These recordings would be done over three days – Monday through Wednesday because they all involve individual exercises. The classroom would serve as the location for research. To provide a comparative assessment, data on two average students will also be recorded.


Both qualitative and quantitative observations are crucial research tools. They differ in their purpose but work together to provide results. Both can be done through the use of simple techniques that need to be followed to gain accurate information.


Salvia, J., Ysseldyke, J., & Bolt, S. (2013). Assessment in special and inclusive education. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Suen, H., & Ary, D. (2014). Analyzing quantitative behavioral observation data. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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