Observation vs. Inference: Identifying the Difference

It's important for students to learn what observations and inferences are, as well as to be able to tell the difference between them. Teaching these concepts starts with definitions, but students also need to be able to apply what these words mean to real-life scenarios. Use these activities to help your students learn how to differentiate between observation vs. inference.

observation versus inference observation versus inference

Observation vs. Inference: Basic Definitions

The words observation and inference are related concepts, but they are not the same. Observations are based on factual sensory information, while inferences are conclusions that are based on observations.

Observation Definition

An observation is something that you experience directly, through one of your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch). Observations do not involve making assumptions, guessing or otherwise assigning meaning beyond what you directly experience. They are fact-based, as they only include your direct experience. There are many examples of observations.

Inference Definition

An inference is a conclusion that you reach after an observation. It is what you think or decide about something that you have observed. Inferences involve drawing conclusions in order to assign meaning to what was observed. Inferences are based on other information beyond just the observation, such as context clues, past experience, or other factors. There are many examples of inferences.

Making Sense of the Difference

To help students understand the difference between observations and inferences, go through a few examples with them. Link an observation directly to one of the five senses, then, give an example of an inference that could be made based on the observation.

SenseObservationInference
sightThe sky is blue.The weather is pleasant.
hearingI hear someone calling my name.I must be late for dinner.
smellThere is an unpleasant smell outside.Someone must have forgotten to take out the trash.
tasteThis pickle has a sweet taste.This must be a "bread and butter" pickle.
touchThe dog feels fluffy to the touch.The dog must shed a lot.

Observation vs. Inference Worksheet

For further reinforcement, assign students to complete this printable observation and inference worksheet. The worksheet below features a picture of several people preparing a meal in the kitchen. Students will be tasked with reviewing the picture and a series of statements to determine if each statement is an observation or an inference. A complete answer key is included.

observation versus inference worksheet

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Observation vs. Inference Activity

Once students are familiar with the concepts of observation and inference, use this two-part educational activity to reinforce and help them learn to apply their new knowledge.

Part 1: Start With Observations Only

Start with an activity that is based solely on making observations, to be sure that students can practice describing things without making inferences about what they have observed. Use an object that students are familiar with, that you have on hand in the classroom or that you can easily show via an image. A plant or desk could work, as well as any other item appropriate for students to describe.

  1. Explain to students that their job is to provide observations of an item that you will show to them.
  2. Tell them that their challenge is to make a list of five observations about the item, being sure to only write only what they can directly observe using one or more of their five senses.
  3. Show students the item and let them know when to begin. Optionally, you may want to set a predetermined time limit. If so, let them know how long they will have to complete the activity. Ten minutes is a good timeframe to consider.
  4. When the students have finished, call on them one at a time to share what they came up with. Lead a discussion in which you reinforce correct answers and provide corrective feedback for any that are incorrect.
    1. Write each reported observation on the board and ask students to raise their hand if their list also included the same observation. Write the total number for each observation on the board.
    2. In cases where students share inferences rather than observations, ask questions to get students to reflect on what observation(s) the reported inference was based on, then add the observation(s) to the board if not already listed.

To conclude the first part of the exercise, lead a class discussion that includes a review of the definition of observation and an opportunity for students to share what they learned from this activity. Leave the observations on the board, as they'll be needed for part two of the activity.

Part 2: Move From Observation to Inferences

Once students have completed the observation-only activity, build on what they have done with an exercise focused on drawing inferences from the observations made in the first part of this activity. Start by reviewing the definition of inference. Discuss, then segue into a group activity.

  1. Explain to students that they will work in a pair or small group. Their goal will be to identify inferences that can be made based on the observations from the first part of the activity.
  2. Before dividing students into groups, practice as a class using the tally totals for each observation from the first part of the activity. Point out that those totals are observations, then lead a discussion in which students are asked to make inferences based on those numbers. Use a few examples to get them started.
    1. For the observation that has the highest tally, you could infer that this characteristic of the item is its most obvious feature.
    2. For the observation with the lowest tally, you could infer that this characteristic of the item is its least obvious feature.
  3. After the group discussion, let students know that it's their turn to make inferences about the item. Tell them that their goal is to come up with at least three inferences about the item, being sure to base their inferences on the observations already made.
  4. Divide students into pairs or small groups of no more than four participants, and give them about 15 minutes to collaborate on what inferences they can draw about the object. Check-in with the groups, offering suggestions (if needed) to spur discussion.
  5. When time is up, call on each group to share their favorite of all the inferences the group came up with. Lead a discussion about which observations were used to draw the inference, as well as other information that they used.

To conclude this part of the activity, lead a discussion about the experience of making observations and applying inferences. Ask students to share how they can use what they learned in their daily activities and school work. If they don't come up with options right away, give them some context. For example, ask how observations and inferences could help keep them from jumping to incorrect conclusions about other people, or how they can be used to help strategize when playing games or participating in sports.

Distinguishing Observations and Inferences

Teaching students how to tell the difference between inferences vs. observations will help them master important critical thinking skills. They'll continue to use this knowledge throughout all of their years in school, and beyond into adulthood. Once students have learned these concepts, you may want to start introducing them to the scientific method.

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