How to Write Field Notes for a College Paper

Page content

How to Write Field Notes for a College Paper

Many courses in college require students to go into the community and study real-life experiences. While field work can be for different types of courses, it is often performed in social science classes to collect empirical data about human societies or cultures. This research strategy is called ethnography and is particularly used by anthropologists and sociologists. Researchers use interviews or questionnaires, or participant observations, to gather data and describe in writing the individuals or groups being studied. Reports such as this may be called a field study or a case report in the biological sciences, or a case study in the social sciences.

If your assignment requires participant observation in the community, you will want to select a group and a location to study. Your decision might be based upon what you are currently studying in class. You should consider whether or not you will inform the people you will be observing them, as some act differently or become nervous when being watched. With a pen and plenty of paper, you should write down as much as you can of what you observe. Some points to remember in your notes are:

  • The date, time, and location of your field work, particularly if you conduct multiple observations and in multiple locations;
  • Specific facts and details (Who was there? What happened? What caught your attention?)
  • Descriptions of interactions and conversations, if possible;
  • Use of nonverbal cues and body language;
  • Sensory details and images (What do you see? What’s the setting?), and;
  • Keywords that will later jog your memory.

After you have taken notes in the field, you should rewrite or type them as soon as you can. Take the time to fill in gaps by using your keywords and fully describe the situation and interactions you observed. To prepare for writing your paper, you will want to add your impressions and interpretations. The following questions will help you analyze and reflect on your observations.

  • What are your responses to the notes you have taken?
  • What questions do you have from your observations in the field?
  • Are there aspects of the individual(s) or event(s) you would like to know more about or investigate further?
  • What surprised you? What intrigued you? What disturbed you?

Whether or not you are required to turn in your field notes, you should protect the privacy of individuals and groups. Your notes may include information that people or groups do not want shared. To protect identities, you should use code names.

Now that you know how to write field notes for a college paper, you should use all of your descriptions and interpretations to write an excellent report. Use your texts and classroom notes to apply key concepts and terms you are studying to the information you have gathered. Your report should illustrate your observations from the field, your reflections and interpretations, and how the information you present relates to course material.


Carter, S. (n.d.) Fieldnotes: a guide for researchers. Retrieved July 20, 2010, from

eHow. (n.d). How to write ethnographic field notes. Retrieved July 20, 2010, from