Mayo's Clinics

May 25, 2022, 16:30

Mayo’s Clinic: Structured Observations as a Learning Activity

25 March 2015

Many students are not used to conducing structured observations and might not know what to look for and how often to record behaviors. The more explicit you are about how they should conduct the observation, the more likely it will be an effective learning experience.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Last month, we discussed the art of using interviews as an out-of-class activity, and this month we will examine using structured observations as an outside-the-classroom activity, as well.

Good chef-instructors provide carefully developed demonstrations of everything from culinary fundamentals to complex technical skills. While these in-class activities are valuable—even essential—to a good culinary education, there are a range of ways to learn from observation.

Reasons for Using Observations
Encouraging students to learn from watching demonstrations and observing professionals has been part of the hospitality industry for decades, if not centuries. In the culinary arts, students learn a great deal from observing chefs in action and noticing the way in which they practice their particular skills. There is also magic in demonstrations set up on the spot to teach something that students clearly have not learned and need to review. However, demonstrations outside of class have value, too.

In fact, many chefs have recorded their demonstrations so that students can watch them at their leisure and on their own computers. It saves class time and enables students to watch a demonstration several times. Often, chef-instructors work especially hard to create explicit and carefully designed demonstrations knowing that they are being recorded. There are also a wide variety of commercially available demonstrations and some fascinating ones on YouTube.

There is still room for another type of observation and one that is not part of an established demonstration. Assigning students to observe professionals in action or to monitor, in a structured manner, the behavior in a kitchen or dining room can provide wonderful insights.

Instruction for Structured Observations
When assigning an out-of-the-class observation assignment, it is important to provide clear instructions and some guidelines for students. When your assignment focuses on a structured observation, you need to explain that you do not want your students just to describe what they saw.

If you are expecting your students to do more than shadow one person and describe what they saw, then your assignment should include information about:

  • The goal of the observation. Is it to observe how a maître d’hôtel, host or hostess greets and seats diners? Is it to observe how food is received and inventoried as it is delivered to a kitchen or storage facility? Is it to observe how waitstaff monitor and respond to the behavior of diners?
  • The location—either your choice or theirs. Is it a dining room in a white-tablecloth restaurant? Is it a banquet operation in a large hotel? Is it to observe the operation of a retail operation such as a café, food truck or coffee shop? Is it the students’ choice to observe any kitchen operation?
  • Person to observe. Should they observe the diners in the restaurant? Should they watch the wait staff? Should they watch the expeditor in the kitchen? Should they watch a particular station in the kitchen? Should they watch the greeter(s) in the dining room? Should they watch the cashing-out process?
  • Behavior to observe. Should they watch for smiles? Should they observe clearing behavior? Should they observe serving behavior? Should they observe talking or non-verbal behavior? If the goal involves gathering lots of observations, you need to be clear about specific behaviors your want them to observe.
  • Timing of observations. Should they make a note every five minutes? Should they observe every 10 minutes? Should they make notes every 15 minutes? If the goal involves gathering lots of observations, it is important to provide information about intervals of time you want them to use.
  • Level of analysis. Should they describe what they saw? Should they count the behaviors and look for patterns? Should they compare behaviors at one time and under one set of conditions (such as the beginning of the meal) with behaviors at another time (such as the end of the evening)?
  • The structure of their report. Should they simply describe what they saw or should they compare what they observed with what they have read? Or should they identify and analyze patterns of behavior and speculate on the effect of that behavior?

While this list might seem like a lot of items to consider, remember that many students are not used to conducing structured observations and might not know what to look for and how often to record behaviors. The more explicit you are about how they should conduct the observation, the more likely it will be an effective learning experience.

Thank you for reading this column discussing structured observations used as out-of-classroom experiences. Next month, we will discuss assignments that require a student to shadow an individual and then write a description of what that person did and why, along with the student’s explanation of what he or she learned.

If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future “Mayo’s Clinics.”

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, was most recently a clinical professor at New York University. Principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.