Video vs. Traditional Observations

Communicator January 2016, Volume 39, Issue 5

January 2016, Volume 39, Issue 5

In-person teacher observations have some inherent challenges: They are extremely time consuming and rely on the administrator’s notes, and students are often “on their best behavior” because an administrator is in the room. Can video technology transform classroom observations for teachers and principals, making the process easier and more reliable? That is the question that researchers from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research set out to determine, summarizing their findings in The Best Foot Forward Project: Substituting Teacher- Collected Video for In-Person Classroom Observations.

Researchers studied 347 teachers and 108 administrators in four states, who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Teachers in the treatment group video-taped themselves presenting a lesson and then submitted the lesson to their administrators (and, for the purpose of the study, outside observers as well). To level the playing field, the teachers were able to choose which lesson videos they submitted.

Teachers valued the video approach, 96 percent completed all of their observations using video. Even though the official requirement was to submit five videos, teachers averaged 13.

The video teachers were much more critical—and, perhaps, honest with themselves—than those observed in the traditional way. On average, they rated their performance lower. Forty-six percent also caught student behaviors that they otherwise missed.

Was the teaching of better quality because teachers were allowed to “put their best foot forward” and choose their videos? The outside observers noted little difference between the videos the teachers submitted compared to the ones they did not. If a teacher was struggling on their un-submitted videos, they were likely struggling on their “good” ones as well.

Finally—of primary concern to administrators—the teachers and administrators both benefitted. The video teachers believed their observation process to be fairer and were more likely to agree with what the administrator observed on tape. Not surprisingly, administrators appreciated the time flexibility. Most accessed the videos during non-instructional hours.

Although this was only one study, conducted over one year, the findings indicate that the benefits of video observations outweigh any perceived disadvantages. According to the study’s authors, “It boosted teachers’ perception of fairness, reduced teacher defensiveness during post-observation conferences, led to greater self-criticism by teachers and allowed administrators to shift observation duties to quieter times of the day or week.” Read the full report at

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