Observing is something we often do instinctively. It helps us decide, for instance, whether it is safe to cross the road. But observation is simply more than noticing something. It involves perception – we become aware of something through our senses. It also involves the recognition of the importance of what we’re perceiving. Standing on a roadside, our eyes tell us cars are quickly approaching. We recognise that stepping in front of a car is dangerous, so we wait until the road is clear.

Observation is essential in science. Scientists use observation to collect and record data, which enables them to develop and then test hypotheses and theories. Scientists observe in many ways – with their own senses or with tools like magnifying glasses, thermometers, satellites or stethoscopes. These tools allow for more precise and accurate observations. Tools also help gather information about things beyond our capability to experience firsthand – deep space, for example.

Observation is a skill

Like most skills, observation improves with practice and knowledge. To continue with the roadside analogy, as we grow up and gain more experience with crossing roads, we are able to make better judgements about vehicle speed, distance and safety.

Observation in science is the same. We learn to observe more scientifically when:

  • observations are prompted by appropriate questioning
  • observations are connected with growing background knowledge on the subject or object under observation
  • we are given the opportunity to share, discuss and debate observations.

For example, we are familiar with water – it is a common substance we interact with many times a day – but we may not have observed it in a scientific manner. Questions like “Does water have a shape?” or “Can you squash water?” can prompt us to observe water in a more meaningful way. The opportunities to experiment with water and discuss our experiences with shaping or squashing it are likely to modify our perception of this familiar substance.

Observation is just the beginning

Observation is a good way to learn something new or to expand our knowledge, but it is only one component of science. Rather than piling up one observation after another and calling it science, we need to interpret our observations and infer from them. Once we’ve observed that water doesn’t have a shape of its own but takes on the shape of its container, we can infer that this property is shared with other liquids like milk or orange juice – and then debate (or test) if this is true!

Nature of science

Observations yield what scientists call data. Scientists analyse and interpret data in order to figure out how the data informs their hypotheses and theories. Data can be represented by detailed graphs or models, but at the most basic level, data is just recorded observations.

    Published 22 June 2014