Participant and Nonparticipant Observation: A Study of Instructional Support Liaisons


Determining the researcher role is an important, yet challenging decision for any project. It is especially difficult for new educational researchers whose prior experiences as teachers, administrators, and students may make it challenging to disengage from participant roles. In this case, we offer an example of a research project in which we struggled to negotiate participant and nonparticipant observation roles. We describe the project and our data collection efforts including our mistakes and eventual solutions. We present the benefits and challenges of engaging in participant and nonparticipant observation, specifically for those in the field of education. Finally, this case highlights the importance of thoughtfully selecting one’s role in observational data collection.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Explain the difference between participant and nonparticipant research
  • List implications for data collection when the researcher chooses a participant role over a nonparticipant role and vice versa
  • Describe challenges in participant and nonparticipant observation research and how to negotiate those challenges
  • Given a research context, make a choice about which observation role to use and why

Project Overview and Context: Instructional Support Liaisons and Researcher Roles

As prospective teachers learn to teach, they must navigate between the teaching described in their university coursework and what they see in their field placement experience. Peter Smagorinsky, Leslie Cook, and Tara Johnson (2003) described the challenges of this task: university courses may advocate for teaching in ways not present in field classrooms, while mentor teachers may not see the benefit of theories promoted by university teacher educators. We participated in a project, called Beyond Bridging, which was designed to address this situation. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Beyond Bridging worked to support prospective teachers, mentor teachers, and teacher educators in making connections between the university and K-12 classrooms (see for more information about this project). This case explains how we studied one particularly important component of the project, our instructional support liaisons (ISLs).

We felt that our prospective teachers and mentor teachers needed classroom support in order to translate ideas from university coursework into useful classroom applications. We hired two experienced teachers who served as instructional coaches: meeting, planning, modeling, and co-teaching with our prospective and mentor teachers. We found, however, that the job title, instructional coach, had a negative meaning for our teachers. In their district, instructional coaches were assigned to intervene in classrooms with problematic teaching. Our mentor teachers were reluctant to be seen as needing instructional coaches, so we chose to call our coaches ISLs.

Our ISLs quickly became essential to our project and we decided to find out more about how they were supporting teachers. In our initial study design, we tried not to interfere with the work of the ISLs. We thought that we could learn quite a bit about what they were doing by having them make a list of what they had done during the day. In the excerpt below, Melinda, one of our ISLs, described her activities over several days. Note that Melinda and Marleen are the real names of our two ISLs (all other participant names are pseudonyms). We are using their real names with their permission. We feel this is important as they have been co-researchers and co-presenters on this project and we want to honor their contributions. We have labeled the different roles of people mentioned in Melinda’s log using [MT] for mentor teachers and [PST] for prospective teachers:

October 3, Thursday

11:15 Stuart [Elementary School]

Darcy [MT], Marleen, and Katarina [PST] meeting. I kept eye on students while meeting was taking place with ISL, teacher, and Katarina. Students on computer while they are able to meet. Then we met with Ivy [PST] and Vivian [PST] to discuss article for newsletter following their attendance at TARC [a conference].

October 7-11 School district fall break

October 13, Sunday

Prepared materials for Roxie’s [MT] class, group task, Rosa’s Robot.

October 14, Monday

Met with Katarina [PST] and Noelle [PST] to discuss [state teacher certification] math testing. Researched questions for both. (Noelle on “Ɵ” and Katarina on changing bases, doing operations.) Handed over materials I got at district Science Center and my own study guide. Took unitary status training as required by district for my continuing employment.

October 15, Tuesday

10:15 District Science Center, met with Marleen

12:00 Longdale [Elementary School]

Roxie’s [MT] classroom to do group task, Rosa’s robot

1:30 Stuart [Elementary School]

Dice game in Harrietta’s [MT] room. Marleen and I both attended to connect with Rae [PST].

While these logs were useful in terms of making sense of how the ISLs were using their time, we found that they lacked specifics. For example, we knew Melinda and Marleen met with Rae on 15 October, but we knew nothing about the conversation with Rae including why they both felt the need to connect with her and what that connection looked like.

We realized that our data collection needed to be more intrusive. We needed to know what ISLs were doing as they interacted with prospective and mentor teachers in school settings. However, gathering this more intimate data resulted in several quandaries, many of which centered around the roles of the ISLs and of the researchers during data collection. For example, we worried that asking the ISLs to record their interactions would focus them on the recorder and distract them from their work with teachers. We also worried that having an outside person record conversations between the ISLs and teachers might make the teachers nervous and would thus also disrupt the conversation.

In addition, we struggled with who would be best positioned to collect ISL data and how that person would negotiate their different roles relative to the larger project and to this particular research. Many of the staff on the Beyond Bridging Project (researchers and ISLs) had multiple roles that included research and non-research responsibilities. For example, Marcy, the first author of this case study, was an instructor, teaching the prospective teachers in their math methods course and leading professional development for the mentor teachers. She was also a project researcher. Likewise, the ISLs were members of the project team, helping us design professional development activities and providing feedback on school activities. They were also teacher supports, providing a safe place for prospective and mentor teachers to reflect on their classroom activities. These overlapping responsibilities meant that it was sometimes unclear when members of the project team were research participants, engaged in supporting teachers, and when we were researchers, collecting data on other aspects of the project. It was also unclear whether it was even possible to truly step out of the participant role and entirely into a researcher perspective.

We suspect that these kinds of questions about researcher and participant roles are not isolated to our project. Instead, because many educational researchers are current and former teachers, we anticipate that many of us might have questions about who we are when we collect data in classrooms and schools and how to determine and maintain our roles in our research settings.

Theoretical Framing of the Research Quandary

We framed our questions about researcher and participant roles in terms of participant/nonparticipant observational research. As Catherine Marshall and Gretchen Rossman (2011) note, the goal of participant observation is to become intimately involved with a group of people in order to learn as much as possible about the group. This research method assumes that important information about a group of people can only be known through participation. For example, Melinda and Marleen served primarily as ISLs, but they also contributed to the research work on this project. Because they were primarily ISLs and were focused on supporting the teachers rather than standing back and collecting data, they developed important understandings of the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into constructing particular lessons and developing relationships with teachers. They also had access to inside jokes and social norms that developed as the prospective and mentor teachers developed relationships through working together.

In contrast, in nonparticipant observation, the researcher purposefully maintains an outside position, working to be a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. This outside perspective means that the researcher may not have insights into some parts of the teaching context (such as the decisions behind assigning a student a particular grade). However, he or she can remain more objective about situations, noting, for example, conflicts or tensions and considering the role of these interactions in the larger context rather than participating in these interactions.

While it is fairly easy to describe differences in participant and nonparticipant observation research, Kristin Esterberg (2002) notes that most observational research is participant research to some degree. Many researchers inevitably bring their own experiences to the research context. This is especially true for educational research where researchers have years of experiences as students and perhaps also as teachers and administrators. These experiences mean that educational researchers enter the research site with expectations, beliefs, and values that may make it difficult to see the situation from the perspective of the teachers and students. It may also be challenging for educational researchers to consistently maintain a research stance. As former teachers or administrators, they may bring those perspectives to the situation, seeking to solve particular problems rather than seeking a more removed understanding of the context.

The larger Beyond Bridging Project was more clearly participant observation research. Many members of the project team served as teacher educators working with the prospective teachers, as professional developers supporting the mentor teachers, and as researchers exploring how to support teachers in learning to teach. For example, Marcy taught the mathematics methods course with the prospective teachers and led professional development with the mentor teachers. She was also involved in research questions about interactions between the prospective teachers and the mentor teachers and about specific contributions the mentor teachers made to sessions that supported the prospective teachers learning to teach. Thus, the study naturally contained many moments for participant observation during methods course, professional development, and summer science and math workshops. Given these overlapping research and participant roles, it made sense, at least at the outset, to frame our smaller ISL project as participant observation research as well.

Research Setting

The Beyond Bridging study was situated in the context of an undergraduate teacher preparation program at a large university in the Southwestern United States. In this teacher education program, cohorts of prospective teachers worked with mentor teachers at two neighboring schools. For two semesters, the prospective teachers enrolled in five university-led courses, which are taught in a designated classroom at one of the two schools. The prospective teachers also spent 10 hr a week in a mentor teacher’s classroom. During their final semester, the prospective teachers spent 15 weeks student teaching in a mentor teacher’s classroom.

Our participants included 15 prospective teachers, 22 mentor teachers, and 2 ISLs (who are the focus of this case study). The mentor teachers taught in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms. Our data included audiotaped interviews with prospective teachers, mentor teachers, and the ISLs; ISL logs of time spent with mentor and prospective teachers; newsletters, emails, and other artifacts from ISL interactions with mentor prospective teachers; field notes from meetings between the ISLs and the research team; and audio- and videotaped interactions between prospective teachers, mentor teachers, ISLs, and teacher educators.

Challenges and Solutions

In the sections that follow, we describe several specific challenges we encountered and our solutions. One early challenge was to clarify the role of the ISLs in the research project, especially with regard to data collection. We were eager to research the activities of the ISLs and, as members of the project team, they were eager to assist in this process. In addition, the ISLs were ideally positioned to collect data on their own activities: They could simply turn on a recorder each time they interacted with prospective or mentor teachers or when they met together to discuss their work. This data collection arrangement came with an additional advantage: The ISLs could be flexible and reactive in their work with teachers. They would not need to set a schedule in advance and, without the need to coordinate schedules with a researcher, they could change things at the last minute to meet the needs of the teachers. In summary, it seemed that we would have the best access to data and would impinge the least on the ISLs if we allow them to collect their own data.

With this plan in mind, we gave both ISLs audio- and video-recorders and encouraged them to turn them on when they had project-related conversations with teachers or with each other. For example, we hoped that they would remember to record planning conversations they had with teachers as well as conversations in which they reflected on recent lessons. However, as we soon discovered, this initial plan did not work. Even though the ISLs were committed to the research project, they rarely turned on their recorders.

The ISLs had a variety of reasons for not recording. One issue was our lack of clarity about which ISL conversations were important data for the project. For example, the ISLs might stop by a teacher’s room to arrange a future meeting time. This exchange seemed trivial and not worth recording. Yet, we later came to see these seemingly small moments as potentially interesting. We wanted to know more about how the ISLs negotiated entrance into classrooms, so these moments were important data. Also, some of these brief moments turned into important confessions. At times, the ISLs caught the teachers in a moment when they wanted to process an experience, and even though the time was brief, the ISL–teacher interaction was a rich and important exchange.

One solution we tried was to have the ISLs turn on a recorder every time they interacted with teachers. However, we quickly realized that collecting data in this way was not as simple as it initially seemed. Each recording needed to be logged so that we could keep track of the time and context of the recording. While the logging was not extensive, it was one more step for the ISLs and required that they find time soon after each recording to note the time, place, participants, and any context for the recording. The more the ISLs recorded, the more they needed to log, and yet the more they logged, the less time they had for interactions with teachers. Thus, this solution to our data collection situation introduced other problems.

In addition, we found that the ISLs were hesitant to record conversations because they were worried about the impact of data collection on the delicate relationships they were building with the prospective and mentor teachers. The teachers were unfamiliar with the position of the ISLs and they were worried that they might be instructional coaches out to “correct” their teaching. It took some time for them to realize that the ISLs would not evaluate their teaching and that the ISLs could help them in a variety of ways including serving as a sounding board for teaching problems. At the same time, the ISLs were working to build relationships that would allow them to push teachers to try new teaching practices. The ISLs needed the teachers to trust that the novel ideas coming from the university could work in their classrooms. The ISLs worried that adding data collection to their conversations would undermine the fragile trust they were cultivating. We realized that asking the ISLs to record data would shift them from confidants and supporters to researchers and reporters and would undermine the very important work we needed them to do.

We realized that the ISLs really needed to be non-observer participants. That is, we needed them to be full participants in their role as teacher supporters and have very little responsibility for research aspects of the project. We then considered who might be in the best position to collect data on the ISLs. Marcy engaged in some data collection with the ISLs. However, she also played a significant role as a project participant, working with the prospective and mentor teachers as an instructor of the university course and leader of teacher professional development. As such, she had some of the same challenges as the ISLs in negotiating data collection. For example, on one day, she initiated a casual conversation with a mentor teacher and unexpectedly found that the mentor teacher was describing ways the ISL had helped her with her teaching. This information was important for our study of the ISLs, yet in this moment, it would have been too awkward to turn on a recorder. As a result, the best data we could collect on this moment were Marcy’s written notes on the conversation. While these data were important, it was not the same as having an actual audio- or video-recording.

It became evident that we needed someone who was more clearly a nonparticipant in the research setting. We decided Jennifer, the second author, would be ideal for data collection as her primary project role was research. Jennifer began following the ISLs 1 day a week, taking field notes in whole class settings and recording conversations with the ISLs, mentor teachers, and prospective teachers. This nonparticipant data collection provided information otherwise not available. For example, one day, the ISLs were in the school hallway, discussing a science lesson. They interrupted their 5-min conversation three different times: to plan a meeting with a mentor teacher, to ask a prospective teacher how she did on a recent teacher examination, and to interact with elementary students. The ISLs frequently engaged in these hallway conversations, but when left to collect data on themselves, these conversations were not recorded. Instead, Jennifer’s documentation of this hallway moment allowed us to study the small, but important, interactions the ISLs engaged in to build rapport with teachers and students.

Nonparticipant observation also offered us a chance to collect a more complete set of data, improving our understanding of the ISL’s work. For example, Jennifer observed Melinda, one mentor teacher, and one prospective teacher as they conducted mathematics interviews with students. In these interviews, the teachers met one-on-one with students from their class and provided a series of mathematics tasks. The goal of the interview was to learn more about each student’s mathematical thinking.

Jennifer, because she was not worried about her interactions with the teacher or the teacher’s students, was able to collect detailed data including (1) the initial discussion between Melinda and the mentor teacher about the students, (2) the math interview of each student, (3) the short conversations between Melinda and the teacher reflecting on each interview, and (4) the final conversation with Melinda, the mentor teacher, and the prospective teacher.

These comprehensive notes allowed us to make sense of how the mentor teacher and prospective teacher were thinking about particular students before and after the interviews. Here is an excerpt from a conversation, which occurred just after an interview of a student whom the mentor teacher saw as particularly challenging (italics added):

Melinda (ISL): This [the student interview] was interesting.

Karen (MT): This is extremely interesting because he [the student] pays no attention in class. He does no homework at all and I requested his [test] scores … just to see how the heck he got into my class because he’s getting 1’s and 0’s [out of a total possible score of 4].

Melinda (ISL): Oh, this is the one [the student] you were concerned about.

Karen (MT): This is the one I’m concerned about.

Stephanie (PST): He did awesome!

Karen (MT): He does nothing and I got in his face last week and I said, “When are you gonna show up for school? When are you gonna show me that you belong in this class?” And since then he’s been raising his hand, participating and doing things. For the first six weeks of school [before last week] he was goofing around, he was playing with his hair. He was doing all these weird things.

Melinda (ISL): Yeah, I’m wondering if this whole experience today—

Karen (MT): It’s gonna kick his butt into gear I hope.

Melinda (ISL): Well, it’s gonna make him realize how much you value listening to his thinking also.

Stephanie (PST): Hmm mmm.

Karen (MT): Right.

Because Jennifer had collected extensive data surrounding this transcript, we were able to make better sense of this conversation. Earlier, the teacher had described this student and her frustrations in engaging him in classroom activities. Because we had this earlier data, we could interpret the comments in this moment as part of that larger conversation. We could also see Melinda’s efforts over time to provide an alternative perspective on the student (e.g., in this moment, seeing the student as realizing that the teacher values his thinking, rather than getting himself kicked into gear).

This interaction between the teacher and the ISL was important to our understanding of the work of the ISLs. Yet, it was only available to us because Jennifer was in a nonparticipant role. Rather than try to collect data while also holding a conversation with the teacher, Jennifer was able to focus on capturing many details of the ongoing conversations between the teacher and ISL.

While nonparticipant observation solved the problems described above, we still found that the boundary between participant and nonparticipant was difficult to negotiate. From the perspective of the teachers, Jennifer was clearly a nonparticipant. However, for the ISLs, Jennifer was a project member and so was seen as a support for reflection on activities. This was particularly true when one of the ISLs (Marleen) had to take a sudden leave of absence. During that time, Jennifer became a much more important resource (and thus more of a participant) for the one remaining ISL (Melinda). This shift in Jennifer’s role may have a minor impact on our data collection (as she was less removed from situations and not able to collect the same data). However, we felt that it was more important for her to support Melinda (and thus the important work of the ISLs) than to continue to collect the same level of data. Thus, throughout this project, we were continually negotiating our roles as participants and nonparticipants, responding flexibly to evolving circumstances.

Lessons Learned

Our experiences collecting data on the ISLs taught us many practical lessons about observational research:

1. Start data collection with a clear idea about your research role and how you will communicate that role to your research participants. Whether you plan to participate or mostly observe, you will need to help your research participants make sense of your role and how you might interact with them. For many research participants, your project will be their first experience with research and they may be curious about your role, your project, and what you expect from them. They may invite you to participate in ways that could run counter to your research purposes. For example, if you are interested in how prospective teachers use ideas from the university course in their student teaching, you might prepare ways of responding to request for feedback on their teaching. You might tell these teachers in advance that you are only recording their lesson or you might offer to provide them with feedback after you have collected all necessary research data.

We found that it was challenging to maintain nonparticipation roles because our project team had mixed research and non-research responsibilities. These overlapping roles meant that the ISLs sometimes turned to Jennifer, our researcher, for help in processing classroom events. In the context of the larger project, it was appropriate and helpful for the researcher to serve as a sounding board for the ISLs. However, in the context of this smaller study about ISLs, Jennifer worried that any feedback she provided might affect the data. In the end, we decided that the goals of the larger project should prevail and that Jennifer could serve in more of a participant role when the ISLs needed her to take up that stance.

Situations regarding your participation in the research setting can be challenging to negotiate and we suggest that you think through various opportunities you might have to participate and decide in advance how you might respond. While you probably won’t consider every possible request for participation, if you have a plan for several scenarios, you can improvise from those when the moment arises.

2. Consider having different researcher roles as you interact with different kinds of research participants. Your degree of participant or nonparticipant observation may vary depending upon your project, the research contexts, and the research participants involved. You may need to maintain more of nonparticipant stance in situations where your participation could alter your data. For example, when Jennifer collected data on ISL interactions in classrooms with students, she maintained a nonparticipant role. She wanted to focus on the activities of the ISLs and she did not want the students to turn to her for assistance. In contrast, in meetings with the ISLs, Jennifer became more of a participant, offering feedback when asked and interacting more with the research participants.

3. If you decide to engage in participant observation, plan for times and ways in which you can step out of your participant role to record your observations. Our ISLs found that it was challenging to simultaneously enact their roles as teacher supports and collect data on their interactions with teachers. If we had lacked the option to use Jennifer to collect data, we would have needed to support our ISLs in moving between teacher support and data collection. To do this, we suspect that the ISLs would have needed to find an unobtrusive space away from teachers to take notes on observations and log recordings. They may also have needed to designate certain days or events as ones in which they would collect data. Specifically labeling data collection times would free them from the distraction of worrying about whether to collect data in every moment.

4. If you decide to engage in nonparticipant observation, plan to spend time easing into the research setting. When Jennifer first entered classrooms with the ISLs, the teachers were unsure about her role. The teachers needed repeated assurance that the data collected were focused on the ISLs and were completely non-evaluative of the teacher. Each time, before Jennifer visited a new classroom, this conversation needed to occur over email and in person. In our case, the ISLs helped to negotiate entry into classrooms. By the time we were using Jennifer to collect data, the ISLs were well trusted by the teachers, so Jennifer was usually welcomed into the classroom. As teachers talked to each other and realized these observations were taking place in many classrooms, the trust increased and teachers became much more welcoming. Regardless, we asked permission to collect data each time we entered a classroom, but by the end of the project, most teachers simply responded, “of course.”

5. After spending an initial period of time in the research setting, take a moment to assess and perhaps revise your data collection plan. Regardless of whether you are a participant or nonparticipant, you may find the need to collect data that you had not anticipated. As our researcher spent time with the ISLs, she noted the need to record moments in which the ISLs arranged meetings with teachers. We were not initially prepared to document these interactions as we were not interested in these logistics. Once our researcher realized these conversations were about trust building, we added them to our data collection plan. You might consider how other seemingly insignificant details might have value for your project.


Deciding upon a researcher role is an important aspect of any project and has implications for relationships with research participants, access to the research setting, and data collection. In this case, we presented challenges with the roles of participant and nonparticipant, with the understanding that we are all participants in our research in some way. This participation is desirable and important: it is central to our passion for our research work. However, for new educational researchers, a central concern can be how to limit participation, especially participation driven by prior educational experiences. We hope our case provides the new researcher with tools for balancing participation with nonparticipation in order to learn the most from the education context.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • What factors should you consider when deciding whether to engage in participant or nonparticipant observational research?
  • If you decide to engage in participant observation, what might you do to ensure that you have the space to collect sufficient data (unlike our ISLs) and so that your data collection has minimal impact on the research setting?
  • If you decide to engage in nonparticipant observation, which might you do to ensure that you have adequate access to the research setting and the data you want to collect?
  • If your study focuses on student interactions during a classroom lesson, what roles might you enact? How might you communicate that role to students and to the teacher?
  • Can you, given your previous experiences in a classroom, engage in nonparticipant observations in school settings? What might you need to do so that you maintain a researcher stance and so that you are open to the perspectives of your participants?


This project was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1019860.

Further Reading

Gunckel, K. L., & Wood, M. B. (2016). The principle–practical discourse edge: Elementary preservice and mentor teachers working together on co-learning tasks. Science Education, 100, 96121.
Wood, M. B., Kinser-Traut, J., Radon, M., & Lyon, M. (2014, April). Learning to teach as a joint enterprise: Using instructional support liaisons in teacher preparation programs. Paper presented at the 94th Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Philadelphia, PA.
Wood, M. B., & Turner, E. T. (2015). Bringing the teacher into teacher preparation: Learning from mentor teachers in joint methods activities. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 18, 2751.


Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. (2011). Designing qualitative research (
5th ed.
). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Ochs, E., & Capps, L. (2001). Living narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Smagorinsky, P., Cook, L., & Johnson, T. (2003). The twisting path of concept development in learning to teach. The Teachers College Record, 105, 13991436.
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