What Is an Observational Study? Definition, Methods, and Examples (2023)

A researcher uses an observational study to address a research question based on observation. There is no exploitation or interference with the research participants and no control and treatment groups.

Most of the time, these studies are qualitative, which can be used in exploratory and explanatory research. Even though there are some quantitative observational studies, they are uncommon.

An observational study is often done in the hard sciences, the medical field, and the social sciences. Most of the time, this is because the researcher can’t do a traditional experiment for moral or practical reasons. But concluding becomes tough because there are no control and treatment groups. There is also a chance of confounding variables messing up your analysis.

Various kinds of observation study

There are different observations, and it is hard to describe them individually. However, the article on an observational study has listed the most common observational studies to aid you in writing for your study.




Naturalistic observation

The researcher checks how the subjects react to their surroundings in “actual-life” situations but has no hold over their actions.

Keeping an eye on monkeys in a zoo enclosure

Participants observation

It happens in “real-life” situations, but in this case, the researcher spends time with the participant group.

Spending a few months in a hospital with patients who are afflicted with a specific illness

Systematic observation

Researchers monitor individuals using coding and a tight observational schedule to count how often a given phenomenon occurs.

Adding the number of times a class of children laughs

Covert observation

It is based on the principle that the subjects are unaware of being watched.

Observing communication in public places such as parks or bus rides

Quantitative observation

Counting or numerical data is involved.

Age, weight, or height-related observations

Qualitative observation

The “five senses” are involved: sight, sound, smell, taste, and hearing.

Colorful, acoustic, or musical observations

Case study

Investigates a person or a group of people over time with the hope of being able to generalize the findings to other persons or groups.

Keeping track of a child or a group of students during their primary school years

Archival research

Investigates a research question using primary sources from libraries, archives, or other repositories.

Examining data from the United States Census Bureau or telephone records

Variety of observational studies

Cohort studies, cross-sectional studies and case control studies are the three primary forms of observational research.

Cohort study

The study is more longitudinal because it tracks many people across time. Participants of the cohort are chosen based on a common characteristic, such as drinking, and they are frequently followed for years.

Case control study

The study combines two groups, a case study group and a control group. The case study group possesses a specific trait, whereas the control group does not. The two groups are compared to check if the case group has more of a certain trait than the control group.

(Video) Observational Study explained with example

If you compared drinkers (the case study group) to non-drinkers (the control group), you could see that the drinkers had more lung disease than the non-drinkers.

Cross-sectional study

A cross-sectional study looks at a group of people at a certain time.

It sometimes entails condensing previously gathered data to a single point to verify the prevalence of a theory—for example, determining how many patients were diagnosed with lung disease in March of a particular year. It could also be a one-time observation, such as spending a day in a hospital’s lung disease ward.

An example of an observational study

Observational studies are typically simple to plan and carry out. All you need is a notebook and a pen on occasion! You can use these stages to help you plan your research.

Step 1: Decide on your research topic and goals.

The first step is to figure out what you want to observe and why. If you can’t experiment for ethical or practical reasons or your research topic is based on natural behaviours, observational studies are a great fit.

For instance, consider the topic of an observational study.

You’re curious about toddlers’ interactions at daycare, particularly how they deal with strong emotions like enthusiasm, fear, rage, and sadness. Because children are a vulnerable population who cannot consent to participate, experimenting could be difficult.

Step 2: Decide on the type of observation and technique you’ll use.

There are a few factors to consider in terms of technique:

  • Do you plan what you want to see or go in with an open mind ahead of time?
  • Is there any research that might be used in conjunction with an observational study?
  • Is it essential for your analysis whether your participants are aware that you are present?
  • If this is the case, make sure you undertake a clandestine investigation.
  • If not, consider if you’d be better off viewing from afar or actively participating in your observation.
  • What can you do to avoid confounding variables that could skew your results?

Example of observational study techniques

(Video) Observational Studies

Depending on your study topic, you have a few options for how you want to proceed:

  • For example, you could watch the kids at the playground in naturalistic observation.
  • You may spend a month performing participant observation at a daycare in your town, immersing yourself in the children’s daily lives.
  • You may observe the children from behind a wall or via a window, where they won’t be able to see you.

Overall, staying organized is critical. Create shorthand for your notes, or create fill-in-the-blank templates. You won’t get a second shot with the same data because these observations happen in real-time.

Step 3: Construct an observational research study.

There are a few things to consider before beginning your observations:

Plan ahead: If you’re interested in seeing daycare, call a few in your region to schedule a visit. Give yourself enough time to set everything up because some of them may not allow observation or may require parental authorization.

Determine your note-taking method: Note-taking is commonly used in observational studies because of alternative methods, such as video or audio recording, influence participant behaviour.

If you want to record, get informed consent from your participants (or their parents): Ultimately, while recording participants may make your analysis easier, the challenges that come with it frequently make pen-and-paper a superior option.

Step 4: Carry out your investigation.

It’s time to do your observation after settling on a type of observation, a technique, and a time and location.

Example of observational study

You’ve concluded that a certain characteristic of toddlers piques your curiosity. For example, let’s say you believe that children who are dropped off at daycare alone are more likely to be upset than children who have siblings.

You can divide them into case and control groups from here. The children in the sibling group have a trait you’re interested in (siblings), whereas the children in the control group don’t.

Next, you can observe whether the children with siblings are less upset when their caregivers drop them off in the carpool lane in the morning.

(Video) What Are Observational And Experimental Studies In Statistics - Types Of Studies Explained

Confounding or “lurking” variables should be avoided while performing observational studies. For example, you observed youngsters when they were dropped off in the last case, determining whether or not they were upset. There are, however, several additional elements that could be at play (e.g., illness).

Step 5: Examine your information.

After you’ve completed your observation, write down your first ideas and impressions and any follow-up questions or problems you saw. You could transcribe your observations if you recorded them on audio or video.

You can approach your analysis inductively or deductively:

  • An inductive technique permits your data to define your themes if you conducted your observations in more open-ended manner.
  • If you had particular hypotheses before beginning your observations, a deductive method examines whether your findings support those hypotheses.

The next step is to undertake a thematic or content analysis. Again, because observational studies are so open-ended, thematic analysis is most likely the greatest fit.

Step 6: Talk about future research directions.

Because of their great vulnerability to observer bias and confounding variables, observational studies are typically exploratory and often aren’t powerful enough to give isolated findings. As a result, observational studies can only demonstrate association rather than causality.

If you’re enthused with your preliminary findings and want to pursue your issue further, you may need to switch to a new research approach, such as an experiment.

The benefits and drawbacks of observational research


üObservational research can provide low-cost, efficient information on difficult-to-analyze topics.

üThey enable you to research subjects that can’t be safely randomized, efficient, or ethical.

üThey are frequently simple to conduct since you monitor participant behaviour as it occurs or use pre-existing data.

(Video) Observational and Experimental Studies

üThey’re frequently crucial in informing larger-scale clinical trials or investigations later on.


xObservational studies have a hard time standing alone as a viable research tool. Observer bias and unreported confounding variables are very likely.

xThey usually lack decisive results, aren’t externally valid or generalizable, and can only serve as a starting point for additional research.

xThey can’t make claims about the interventions or treatment’s safety or efficacy; all they can do is observe how people react to it. As a result, they produce less satisfying results than other approaches.

Experiment vs observational study

The main difference between observational studies and experiments is that a well-done observational study will never try to change people’s answers, while by definition, an experiment will treat some of the people who take part in it in some way.

But there may be times when you can’t change how your participants act because it’s impossible, dangerous, or not a good idea. For example, it can happen in medical studies where it would be unethical or cruel to keep people from getting the help that could save their lives or in longitudinal studies where you can’t keep track of your group over their whole lives.

If you can’t or don’t want to put people into control and treatment groups randomly, an observational study might be the best way to do your research. But the problems that observational studies can have with validity, confounding variables, and the ability to conclude can make an experiment more reliable.

Consider using an experiment if you can safely pick people at random and your research question is definitely about what caused what.

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(Video) OBSERVATIONAL STUDY DESIGN - explaining the basics of observational study design in epidemiology

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What Is an Observational Study? Definition, Methods, and Examples? ›

In an observational study, researchers study how participants perform certain behaviors or activities without telling them what methods or behaviors to choose. For example, if a scientist wants to study how the amount of water humans drink affects their diets, they might choose an observational study.

What are observational study methods? ›

An observational study is used to answer a research question based purely on what the researcher observes. There is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, and no control and treatment groups.

What is observation method examples? ›

Observations can also be either direct or indirect. Direct observation is when you watch interactions, processes, or behaviors as they occur; for example, observing a teacher teaching a lesson from a written curriculum to determine whether they are delivering it with fidelity.

What is the best example of an observational study? ›

An opinion survey asking questions about how people liked the most recent documentary is an example of an observational study. Here, the researchers have no control over the participants.

Which is an example of an observational study design? ›

Observational study designs include ecological designs, cross sectional, case-control, case-crossover, retrospective and prospective cohorts. An important subset of observational studies is diagnostic study designs, which evaluate the accuracy of diagnostic procedures and tests as compared to other diagnostic measures.

What are the 5 methods of observation? ›

Here are some different types of observation methods that will help the needs of early childhood development:
  • Anecdotal records. This method involves factual accounts of events that have taken place. ...
  • Running records. ...
  • Time samples. ...
  • Jottings. ...
  • Work samples. ...
  • Photographs.
May 23, 2019

What are the two observational methods? ›

Observational research or field research observes how subjects of the research behave in their natural setting. There are two main observational research methods, participant and naturalistic(non-participant).

What are the 4 types of observation examples? ›

  • Structured observation.
  • Covert observation.
  • Participant observation.
  • Overt observation.
  • Unstructured observation.
Mar 22, 2021

What is the most common observational study? ›

The most common observational study categories include case reports, cross-sectional studies, and cohort studies. Case reports are retrospective looks at a specific event and only involve one subject.

What is observation method in short? ›

Observation is a method in which a person observes behaviour to note changes in people or places, typically as the result of an intervention. Most simply it is learning through observing and documenting. Observation is most common in psychology and other social sciences.

What is a real life example of observational learning? ›

A child can learn how to paint her nails by watching their mom, or an adult may learn to lift weights by watching others on videos. Reinforcing positive behavior: Some people can learn positive behavior by observing others.

What is a simple example of observational learning? ›

Observational Learning Examples for Children

An infant learns to make and understand facial expressions. A child learns to chew. After witnessing an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without asking, the younger child does not take cookies without permission. A child learns to walk.

What is an example of an observational study vs experiment? ›

In an observational study, values of the explanatory variable occur naturally. In this case, this means that the participants themselves choose a method of trying to quit smoking. In an experiment, researchers assign the values of the explanatory variable. In other words, they tell people what method to use.

What is an example of observational study in medicine? ›

For example, an observational study might enroll participants to see whether, over time, those who report eating a vegetarian diet have lower blood pressure than those who eat meat. Data are collected using questionnaires, lab tests, medical records, and historical datasets.

What are examples of observational studies in healthcare? ›

Observational studies include cohort studies with or without a comparison group, cross-sectional studies, case series, case reports, registries, and case-control studies.

What is an example of observational study biology? ›

Observational Studies. Many questions in human biology are investigated with observational as opposed to experimental studies. An observational study measures characteristics in a sample but does not attempt to manipulate variables of interest. A simple example of an observational study is a political poll.

What are the 3 most common observation research methods? ›

When it comes to observational research, you have three different types of methodologies: controlled observations, naturalistic observations, and participant observations. Let's quickly look at what each type of observation includes, how they differ, and the strengths and weaknesses of each type of observation.

What are the 4 types of observation in research? ›

There are several different approaches to observational research including naturalistic observation, participant observation, structured observation, case studies, and archival research.

What are the two types of observations and give an example of each? ›

Quantitative and Qualitative Observations Compared
Qualitative (words only)Quantitative (words and numbers)
The man is short.The man is 5 feet 2 inches tall.
Use a small test tube.Use a test tube that is 12 centimeters long.
It is a short walk to my house.It is about 1 mile to my house.
1 more row
Feb 23, 2012

What is an example of observational method in psychology? ›

In this style of sampling, the researcher lets the event determine when the observations will take place. For example: if the research question involves observing behavior during a specific holiday, one would use event sampling instead of time sampling.

What is the observation method used for? ›

Observation methods are generally used in cases where it is important to avoid the sort of errors that can occur in interview methods or 'bias' as a result of evaluation and interpretation processes on the part of the workers, or when, in future workplace design, no workers are yet available for the planned jobs.

What are the two most common type of observational study? ›

The most common are cohort studies and case-control studies. Cohort Studies: They are used to study incidence, causes and prognosis. Because they measure events in chronological order they can be used to distinguish between cause and effect. Cross-sectional studies are used to determine prevalence.

What are the 7 types of observation? ›

Different Types Of Observation Methods
  • Anecdotal Records. This observation is usually recorded after the event has occurred and written in past tense. ...
  • Running Records. ...
  • Learning Stories. ...
  • Jottings. ...
  • Sociograms. ...
  • Time Samples. ...
  • Event Samples. ...
  • Photographs.
Jan 16, 2023

What is an example of observational data? ›

In market research, observational data refers to information gathered without the subject of the research (for example an individual customer, patient, employee, etc.) having to be explicitly involved in recording what they are doing.

Why would you use an observational study? ›

In general, observational studies are best used to evaluate the real-world applicability of evidence derived largely through randomized trials; to study patients and conditions not typically included or studied in randomized trials; to better understand current treatment practices and how patients are assessed in order ...

Which is the best definition of observation? ›

: an act of recognizing and noting a fact or occurrence often involving measurement with instruments.

How do you write an observation method? ›

First, you record your observations of a particular setting or situation--that is, take field notes. Next, you interpret those notes according to relevant criteria. Finally, you write a well organized paper that presents your observations and interpretations, usually with the aim of answering a research question.

What are the 4 processes of observational learning? ›

Observational learning is a major component of Bandura's social learning theory. He also emphasized that four conditions were necessary in any form of observing and modeling behavior: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

What is an example of observational learning quizlet? ›

Observational learning can also influence behaviors that are similar to, but not identical to, the ones being modeled. For example, seeing a model excel at playing the piano may motivate an observer to play the saxophone.

What is an example of observation in school? ›

A formal classroom observation example might involve an administrator dropping in on a teacher's classroom during a specific lesson. Normal evaluation observations are generally done once a year but may be done more often. For some teachers, this type of evaluation is when they thrive.

What is observational learning examples high school? ›

Examples of Observational Learning

They may observe their parents doing laundry, such as folding clothing, and demonstrate the ability to do the same. Children on a playground may observe other children being punished for playing roughly and avoid that behavior to avoid being punished themselves.

Is experiment an observational study? ›

The key difference between observational studies and experimental designs is that a well-done observational study does not influence the responses of participants, while experiments do have some sort of treatment condition applied to at least some participants by random assignment.

Is a survey an observational study? ›

A survey is a type of observational study that gathers data by asking people a number of questions. ▫ An experiment assigns subjects to treatments for the purpose of seeing what effect the treatments have on some response.

What is an observational study in health? ›

Observational studies are ones where researchers observe the effect of a risk factor, diagnostic test, treatment or other intervention without trying to change who is or isn't exposed to it. Cohort studies and case control studies are two types of observational studies.

What are the 3 most common observational study types? ›

Three types of observational studies include cohort studies, case-control studies, and cross-sectional studies (Figure 1).

What is the most common type of observational study? ›

The most common observational study categories include case reports, cross-sectional studies, and cohort studies. Case reports are retrospective looks at a specific event and only involve one subject.

Why do we use observation as a research method? ›

Observation can provide researchers with a better understanding of how a program or activity operates because it allows researchers to witness things that program staff, participants, or residents might not routinely notice or mention in an interview.

Is observation method qualitative or quantitative? ›

Observational studies are part of qualitative research and are theory building (i.e. the aim is to draw out the general themes) and follow a phenomenological approach (i.e. the participant observer seeks out the meaning of the experiences of the group being studied from each of the many different perspectives within it ...

What are the two most common types of observational studies? ›

The most common are cohort studies and case-control studies. Cohort Studies: They are used to study incidence, causes and prognosis. Because they measure events in chronological order they can be used to distinguish between cause and effect. Cross-sectional studies are used to determine prevalence.

What is observational study vs experiment? ›

The key difference between observational studies and experimental designs is that a well-done observational study does not influence the responses of participants, while experiments do have some sort of treatment condition applied to at least some participants by random assignment.

What are three 3 key basic research methods? ›

The three common approaches to conducting research are quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. The researcher anticipates the type of data needed to respond to the research question.

What are the three qualitative observational methods? ›

The three most common qualitative methods, explained in detail in their respective modules, are participant observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Each method is particularly suited for obtaining a specific type of data.

What observation techniques are most commonly used? ›

In marketing research, the most frequently used types of observational techniques are:
  • Personal observation. observing products in use to detect usage patterns and problems. ...
  • Mechanical observation. eye-tracking analysis while subjects watch advertisements. ...
  • Audits. ...
  • Trace Analysis. ...
  • Content analysis.


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