Peer Observation of Teaching
Having another faculty member observe one’s class may be a very beneficial experience – especially if we think carefully about the process.
Observation by a trusted/thoughtful peer is different from a required observation by a department chair or dean, which results in a formal evaluation. Peer observation is a voluntary, collaborative process that is focused on refining and deepening one’s teaching.
Peer observation can:
- bring greater awareness of one’s teaching strategies and assumptions;
- offer an extra set of eyes in the classroom;
- provide feedback about one’s strengths, and areas for improvement, and areas one is curious about;
- contribute to deeper reflection and consideration of alternative methods;
- lead to improved teaching and better student experiences;
- open doors to many future conversations and community support around teaching and learning.
These great outcomes are more likely if both parties of the observation have some shared assumptions about peer observation and use a careful and intentional process.
Assumptions about Peer Observation
- Peer observation should be voluntary, scheduled at mutually convenient dates, and undertaken by colleagues who respect and trust one another and are willing to be honest.
- Peer observation provides formative feedback for the purpose of improvement, which is different from a grade or ranking.
- Both parties should have a shared understanding of the goals and focus for the observation and the format of the feedback that will be provided.
- There isn’t only one good way to teach – and teachers need feedback about their own style of teaching, not the preferred methods of the observer.
- Instructors often feel self-conscious or nervous about being observed, so some empathy is helpful.
- Reciprocal (non-hierarchical) observation is a good practice.
- Observation of one class session is one “snapshot” of an instructor’s teaching, not representative of the whole semester. Just like Student Perceptions of Teaching forms, peer observation of teaching shouldn’t be relied upon as the only evidence of teaching effectiveness.
- There are other ways to document one’s teaching effectiveness, other ways to do peer review of teaching (such as review of materials), and other ways to initiate thoughtful and supportive conversations about teaching. Feel free to consult with CATL about these.
What to Observe
While synchronous teaching sessions have traditionally been the primary focus of peer observations, many other elements of the design and practice of teaching and learning have substantial influences on the student experience of a course. Expanding the scope of peer observation to include additional course elements positions your peer reviewer to comment on a fuller and more representative picture of your course.
For example, for in-person synchronous class observations, instructors may widen the lens of the observation by sharing assignments intended to prepare students for the session being observed, as well as any associated assessment questions and/or rubrics designed to evaluate student mastery of the related concepts and skills. In flipped, blended, hybrid, or online courses, it may be useful to have a peer observer:
- review the layout and organization of the course Moodle site;
- consider the design and presentation of an asynchronous lesson or set of content and activities to be completed independently by the students;
- provide feedback on the instructor’s use of discussion forums (question design, interaction with student posts, and assessment guidelines);
- or look over any number of other relevant artifacts.
Most assessment experts and centers for teaching and learning recommend the following 3-step process.
1. Before the observation
- Understand why the instructor wants an observation.
- Discuss where the class meeting fits into the goals of the course, the specific objectives for and methods that will be used during the class meeting, and how the students will have prepared. See sample pre-observation discussion questions.
- Discuss exactly what the instructor wants feedback on.
- Discuss the observation tool observer will use.
2. During the observation
- Observer should arrive early and be as unobtrusive as possible.
- Observer should use some systematic method for focusing on the agreed upon areas and recording specific observations. There are number of tools and templates available to help the observer focus his/her attention and report one’s observations (see samples below).
- Observer should watch for specific moments in the class and/or behaviors by students or the instructor that illustrate what is working well and which few things might be improved.
3. After the observation
- Schedule a conversation as soon as possible after both have had a chance to reflect.
- Observer should begin by asking the instructor how s/he felt about the class meeting (to what degree it met goals, what worked well and why, what was disappointing, what s/he would change next time, and whether the class meeting was typical).
- Observer should reinforce positive behaviors.
- Observer should address the agreed upon areas.
- Observer should target just a few areas for improvement.
Feedback should be:
- Manageable – Focus on a few priorities instead of overloading the instructor.
- Balanced between constructive criticism and praise – it’s crucial to give positive reinforcement for things going well.
- Based on specific observed information. For example, instead of just saying “You’re very clear,” explain “When you said/did _____, I saw numerous students _________ (nodding or looking confused).”
- Candid and tactful.
- Descriptive, not judgmental.
- Focused on a behavior, not an instructor’s personality trait or presumed intentions.
- Actionable – not based on something an instructor has no control over.
- Followed by a discussion of possible next steps. It’s better to ask the instructor how they might deal with areas for improvement rather than simply telling him/her what to do.
- Strictly confidential – the observed faculty member may choose to use the notes from the observation, but that decision should be entirely in the hands of that person.
There are many things that an observer could potentially look for – and there are forms that help focus one’s attention. Although most of the forms are rooted in some research about items that contribute to teaching effectiveness, they differ considerably in their style and priorities.
For example, some focus more on instructor behaviors and others on what students are doing; some are holistic, and others more fine-grained; some require that the observer mainly describe, while others require more interpretation; some are checklists. The samples below offer a range of possibilities, and can be adapted based on the faculty partners’ goals.
The Narrative Log (sometimes called “Ethnographic Form” or “Documentary Organizer”) asks the observer to record teaching and learning activities and behaviors of students and instructors at very regular intervals (e.g. every five minutes). Where possible, the instructor also records comments or questions about what happened. The detailed log facilitates post-observation conversations about specific very effective or less effective moments during class.
A Classroom Observation Checklist asks the observer to look for certain instructor actions and indicate whether they occurred and then prompt discussion about good practices. Some forms don’t include much about active learning, which can be a limitation for Elon faculty, but faculty might adapt them by adding a section about effective engagement practices. See the “How to Assess Teaching Practices” section of Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s “Peer Review of Teaching” page for some possible additions. One can also add a section on practices for creating an inclusive classroom, as suggested by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation.
Toronto’s Centre also provides an Open-Ended-Form, which asks the observer to describe seven key elements.
The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS) asks the observer to use a coding scheme to record what the students are doing and what the faculty member is doing very systematically (at couple-minute intervals). It also has an optional “student engagement scale” which is worth considering. While the coding scheme is fairly complicated, faculty can adapt the concept and create a simpler scheme.
The Behavioral Engagement Related to Instruction (BERI) protocol, originally intended for large lectures, has an observer record behaviors (reading, writing, engaged computer use, engaged student-student interaction, engaged interaction with instructor) in a sample of students. Its developers admit that the instrument doesn’t “differentiate the depth at which the student is cognitively interacting with the material,” but it does illustrate one approach to the difficult question of how to measure student engagement.
All forms have limitations, and no single observation can measure how much students learn, which is the ultimate goal of teaching. Whatever tools faculty decide to use, it helps to have considered and discussed in advance what the instructor will receive from the observer.
Who to Ask?
A good peer observer might be a colleague who is at the same career stage, but doesn’t have to be. It might be a faculty member in one’s own department, but instructors might also benefit from the insights of someone who teaches in a different program or discipline, who may be less familiar with the content (and thus more like students) or use different teaching strategies.
Regardless, it’s wise to ask someone who:
- has a reputation for knowledgeable, thoughtful and effective teaching,
- is open to a variety of ways of teaching,
- you would enjoy observing teaching and having future conversations with,
- you trust to be candid, unbiased, and tactful, who will treat the observation as confidential.
Works Cited & Resources
Carl Weiman. Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, “Tools,” includes the COPUS form. The same site includes a Teaching Practices Inventory (for self-assessment). For research about COPUS, see in Michelle Smith, et al., “The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM, CBE Life Sciences Education 12, no. 4 (2013).
Chism, Nancy V. Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook. 2nd Edition. Anker 2007.
Georgia Tech Center for Teaching and Learning, “Peer Observations of Teaching.”
Hora, Matthew T. “Toward a Descriptive Science of Teaching: How the TDOP Illuminates the Multidimensional Nature of Active Learning in Postsecondary Classrooms,” Science Education 99, no. 5 (September 2015). See more about the Teaching Dimensions Observation Protocol (TDOP).
Hutchings, Pat. Making Teaching Community Property: A Menu for Peer Collaboration and Peer Review. Stylus, 1996.
Lane, Erin S., and Sara E. Harris, “A New Tool for Measuring Student Behavioral Engagement in Large University Classes,” Journal of College Science Teaching 44, no. 6 (2015).
Seldin, Peter. Changing Practices in Evaluating Teaching: A Practical Guide to Improved Faculty Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions. Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Stonehill College Center for Teaching and Learning, “Teaching Squares handbook.”
SUNY-Albany Institute for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Leadership, “Peer Observation and Assessment of Teaching.”
University of Toronto Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation, “Peer Observation of Teaching: Effective Practices,” 2017.
Yale NUS College Centre for Teaching and Learning, Peer Observation of Teaching Guidelines.