Tips for observing and taking field notes in qualitative studies

Kathryn Roulston

Recently I was in a field setting observing a classroom. I thought about taking notes on my tablet or laptop, but I thought that might be distracting for those in the classroom. I went old school – I took a pad and hand wrote notes, and began by drawing an organizational map of the classroom. In the evening, I typed up the notes on my computer, and included as many details as I could recall. With permission of the administrators in the setting, I also took some photos in the classroom that provided context for my descriptions of what went on. Back in my office, I transcribed the interviews that I’d conducted within the next few days and then reviewed the transcripts slowly in order to write up a narrative about what I had learned and include relevant photos. What ended up in my field notes?

I included information about the physical artifacts in the room and what was on the walls; took note of who was in the classroom and how the furniture was arranged. I wrote down what was written on the whiteboard; and described the classroom interactions that occurred among teachers and students. As much as possible, I wrote down conversations verbatim. When I came to writing the narrative that reported what I had learned from the interview participants, I found the field notes incredibly helpful to fill out and provide context for what interviewees had told me. Since this research is part of a group project, I was able to talk about what I had done at the next group meeting, and be reminded of what I still had to do (e.g., write a letter of thanks to the participants, send them copies of the draft narratives for review and feedback along with small tokens of appreciation). Discussing the project with others was helpful, since it allowed me to think about what I had learned within a larger framework, and gain feedback on the kinds of information that I still need to gain.

It’s simply not possible when conducting observations in field settings to observe and record everything that is going on. Initially, it can be difficult as a newcomer in a setting that one is observing to make out what the most important things are to attend to. Neither do multiple researchers observing the same events in a single setting necessarily “see” the same things (Reid, Kamler, Simpson, & Maclean, 1996). There are all sorts of good reasons why observers notice different things.

Numerous scholars provide guidance on what to observe and how to take field notes (for some key texts, see DeWalt & DeWalt, 2002; Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995, 2001; Goodall, 2000; Lofland, 2006; Spradley, 1980). In the study that I described above, interviews are the primary source of data, with observational data providing contextual information. If you are doing a study in which observations are the main source of data,  it is important to be systematic in note-taking from the very beginning of a project. Once you have have fieldnotes, you must begin to make sense of these. Miles and Huberman (1994, pp. 51-53) provide guidance as to the kinds of questions that one might ask of fieldnotes, and present these in a “contact summary form” (for an updated version, see  Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014, pp. pp. 125-126). I’ve used Miles and Huberman’s questions from their contact summary form to generate an observation summary guide, also drawing on Spradley (1980), who reminds us that each social situation involves a place, actors and activities (pp. 39-41).

Observation Summary

Observer: _________________                     Date of observation: ________________

Time:____________________                       Today’s date:______________________

Place: _______________________________________________________________

Actors: _______________________________________________________________

Activities: ____________________________________________________________

  1. What were the main issues or themes that struck you in your observations at this setting?
  2. What questions could be asked concerning the place you observed?
  3. What questions could be asked concerning the actors you observed?
  4. What questions could be asked concerning the activities you observed?
  5. For each of the elements of the social situation (i.e., place, actors, activities) you observed, identify the main information that you got (or failed to get) for the questions above.
  6. Was there anything else that struck you as salient, interesting, illuminating, or important?
  7. If you were to undertake another observation in this setting, what new questions would you consider?

(These questions are adapted from Miles & Huberman, 1994).

Reflecting on what one has observed and noted in fieldnotes throughout the life of a project by asking these sorts of questions assists with preliminary data analysis, and can also guide further data collection and generation.

If researchers spend lengthy periods of time in a fieldsetting, then it is likely that at some point their role as “observer” will become somewhat more “participatory”. In methodological writing about ethnographic observation, readers are alerted to the spectrum of possibilities that observers might occupy — from full participant engaging with participants in a setting to a visitor. Emerson et al. (1995, p. 11) remind us of four important implications of the participatory process involved in writing fieldnotes:

  • What is observed and ultimately treated as ‘data’ or ‘findings’ is inseparable from the observational process.
  • In writing fieldnotes, the field researcher should give special attention to indigenous meanings and concerns of the people studied.
  • Contemporaneously written fieldnotes are an essential grounding and resource for writing broader, more coherent accounts of others’ lives and concerns.
  • Such fieldnotes should detail the social and interactional processes that make up peoples’ everyday lives and activities.

The authors I’ve cited here each provide much guidance in how to begin taking field notes and what to do next.  I hope these ideas from authors who used participant observation as a method provide a helpful start to thinking about what to observe in a field setting.


DeWalt, K. M., & DeWalt, B. R. (2002). Participant observation: A guide for fieldworkers. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2001). Participant observation and fieldnotes. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 352-368). London: Sage.

Goodall, H. L. (2000). Writing the new ethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Lofland, J. (Ed.) (2006). Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis (4th ed.). Wadsworth/Thomson Learning: Belmont, CA.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd. ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Reid, J.-A., Kamler, B., Simpson, A., & Maclean, R. (1996). “Do you see what I see? Reading a different classroom scene. Qualitative studies in education, 9(1), 87-108.

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. Holt Rinehart and Winston: New York.

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