Three Steps to Avoid Common Observation Biases

We all have biases. Whether picking an ice cream flavor or choosing to take the scenic route rather than the highway, we all operate with mental models that place disproportionate weight on certain factors that move our judgment in favor of one option when compared to another.

When observing and evaluating teacher practice, there are numerous opportunities for biases to creep in. Just think of all the factors that go into a lesson: the subject, grade, school, teacher, time of day, lesson structure, materials used and more. An observer may think to themselves, “the students were well-behaved for the first class right after lunch”. A different person observing that same lesson may think, “if I was teaching this class, I would have used a different text.” Both of these sentiments may be true, but they have to be placed aside before conducting a visit so that observers can focus on objective teacher and student actions.

In short, great observers, coaches, and evaluators must identify, then set aside, biases in order to fairly and accurately evaluate and develop teacher practice.

Common biases include:

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions,
  • Halo effect:  the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them, and
  • Mirror bias: the tendency to judge performance as “good” if it is “like I would have done it.  

A full table of common observer biases with examples can be found here: Observer Bias Examples

In order to mitigate the impact of these biases, great observers should ask themselves three questions:

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