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The Observation/Inference Chart

The Observation/Inference Chart


This activity helps students separate their observations from their inferences (i.e. discriminate evidence from arguments) and thereby generate better versions of each.

The activity

Choose an item which relates to the course material in some way, for example a photograph with thematic content that can link to the course. (It can also be an article, a physical object, a transcript -- whatever kind of artifact your discipline might provide.)

Have the students take a sheet of notebook paper and draw a line down the middle with one column labeled "Observations" and one column labeled "Inferences" like this:

Observations Inferences







Ask the students to make observations about the item and then write down inferences that are supported by their observations.

On their paper, have the students draw lines from the observations to the specific inference it supports. Multiple observations can support a single inference, but each inference must be supported by at least one observation.

After 5 minutes, discuss the various inferences they reached. Point out the differences in inferences made and discuss why this may have occurred (differences in students' background knowledge, assumptions they might have made, and so on).

Discuss the purpose of this activity and how this activity/skill translates to the readings, and critical thinking in general, within the course.


Below is an example using an image from a free online photo archive. In Biology the object could be a picture could be of a diseased organ, in English the object could be a passage from a diary, in Engineering the object could be a picture could be of a fallen bridge, in Art History the object could be a picture of a fresco, etc..

Observations/Inferences chart


Because this can be a strange activity to students at first, it can be helpful to pass out an example (like the one above) for them to refer to while they work on their own observation/inference charts for whatever image you provide.

In follow-up discussion, be sure to emphasize the importance of identifying which observations support which inferences. Ask students what logic they used to draw inferences from specific observations.

Adapted from: Nokes, J.D. (2008). The observation/inference chart: Improving students' abilities to make inferences while reading nontraditional texts. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 51(7), 538-546.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.