The Biasing Effects of Labels on Direct Observation by Preservice Teachers

Feb. 15, 2011

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education v. 34 no. 1 (February 2011) p. 52-58
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Observations are both a necessary and significant aspect of the evaluation process, therefore the accuracy of these observations must be examined to ensure reliability and validity. Thus, it is important to understand the effect of biasing events, such as the introduction of a label, on the accuracy of direct observations.

The purpose of this study was twofold.
First, this study examined the effect of exceptionality labels during a structured direct observation.
Second, this study attempted to determine if label bias was evident in preservice teachers and if teacher gender affected the bias.

A total of 122 preservice teacher educators who enrolled to general special education course participated in the training. The group included 58% female participants and 42% male participants.

The participants conducted a structured observation, using momentary time sampling procedures with 10-second intervals, to measure student on-task and off-task behaviors. The experimental variable altered was the exceptionality label of the observed student to determine if the label would have a biasing effect. Labels used were oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and gifted/talented.


Results of this study suggest that observational biases exist with preservice educators. Participants in the current study poorly rated the student identified as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) while rating the other labels higher. Overall, this study provides a basic view into how preservice teachers perceive different exceptionality labels.

Practical Imlications

There are several practical exercises that teacher educators can perform that may decrease the effects of biasing during direct observations. Preservice teachers should be provided with opportunities to conduct direct behavioral observations during their training whether in a live, simulated, or video format. Following the observation, preservice educators should be able to discuss and identify potential biasing variables that could have affected their results.

A second exercise that may be useful in decreasing biasing effects is providing preservice teachers with training on how to develop and use operational definitions in direct observations. When students understand the importance of using this definition, this may decrease the influence of the biasing variables. Along with this understanding, it would be useful to employ multiple observers who are unaware of any existing labels to ensure more accurate results.

Through the results of the present study, it is clear that there is a bias present during preservice training, specifically when conducting behavioral observations. Helping preservice and practicing education professionals to observe behaviors, not labels, could assist in providing more accurate observations and better services for students who have an exceptionality label.

Updated: Sep. 04, 2011