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Teaching Observations

This page is for faculty who observe others’ courses, faculty whose courses are observed, and administrators hoping to develop or revise a peer observation process for faculty in their departments.

Benefits and Limitations

When done well, teaching observations build community among colleagues and encourage both the observed teacher and the observer to reflect on their teaching, helping them to continuously develop and improve their practice. Observations can also provide faculty with feedback on aspects of their teaching that students are not as qualified as peers to evaluate, such as the instructor’s content expertise or their implementation of specific teaching methods.

However, observations have their limitations and challenges. First, they require a significant investment of faculty and administrator time in order to be worthwhile. Second, lack of consensus around what constitutes effective teaching can create a communication barrier between the observer and instructor. Finally, data collected through teaching observations is frequently unreliable, and if used for personneldecisions, it should be considered as just one of multiple measures. Students, for example, are better positioned than one-time peer observers to assess fairness in grading practices and the clarity of instructor explanations and expectations.

Advice

For Observers

  • Be open to alternative viewpoints. It’s unlikely that you and the teacher share the same assumptions about learning, use the same teaching methods, or have the same level of comfort with new technologies. Consider that there are multiple effective approaches to teaching, and think of the observation as an opportunity to learn from your colleague.
  • Work with the teacher to decide on the focus of the observation. When the instructor has agency, she will be more open to feedback and more likely to try out the strategies you suggest. Ask the instructor what his goals and areas of concern are and use them to guide your feedback. Letting the teacher take the lead is particularly important when the observation is intended to be formative.
  • Be as unobtrusive as possible when visiting face-to-face classes to put both the students and the instructor at ease. Avoid arriving or leaving midway through the class, and refrain from participating in class discussion and group activities.
  • Balance constructive criticism with genuine, specific praise. Helping instructors identify their strengths is just as important as pointing out areas for improvement. For praise to be meaningful, it should be deserved and specific rather than gratuitous and vague. Focus your summary remarks and follow-up discussion on only one or two areas for improvement. Pair each opportunity with possible strategies and ideas that the instructor can try that same quarter.

For Observed Teachers

  • Be open to alternative viewpoints. It’s unlikely that you and the observer share the same assumptions about learning, use the same teaching methods, or have the same level of comfort with new technologies. Consider that there are multiple effective approaches to teaching, and think of the observation as an opportunity to examine your teaching from a new perspective.
  • If you’re looking for direction during the post-observation discussion but are not getting the constructive criticism you were hoping for, invite specific, honest feedback by asking “What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?” (Stone & Heen, 2014).
  • Put aside some time to reflect on the observation and follow-up discussion. It might be helpful to list out in writing which suggestions you do and don’t want to take. Once you decide which feedback to act upon, create a plan for when and how you will implement the observer's suggestions.
  • Save any observation documentation and your notes in a secure place so that you’ll have a record of the experience for future reference. You might choose to include the documentation in your teaching portfolio.

For Administrators

  • Involve faculty. Inviting faculty input on all of the considerations below will help ensure that the observation system addresses their expectations, concerns, and goals.
  • Identify the purpose of the observation and decide how you will use the results. See the section below for an overview of some common stumbling blocks and possible solutions. 
  • Decide who will observe courses. Will observers be administrators such as chairs or program directors, senior faculty, or teachers at all levels who are paired to observe one another's courses? Will the responsibility of observing be voluntary or mandatory? Will the faculty who do formative observations be the same as those who do summative observations?
  • Develop a tool to focus the observation. The tool could be a rubric, a checklist of faculty and student behaviors to look for, or a list of generative questions to consider.
  • Provide training for observers to help ensure that the process is helpful for the observed teachers and that any data collected for summative purposes are meaningful.
  • Build a pre and post observation discussion into the process.
  • Integrate professional development opportunities. Observers should be able to point instructors to university programs and support services that can help them to develop and improve their teaching skills.

What Purpose Will the Observation Serve?

One point of contention in the scholarship on college teaching observations is how departments and programs use the observation record, be it in the form of a rubric score or written narrative. Is the purpose of the observation to help faculty improve and innovate (formative) or to make personnel decisions (summative)? Can a single teaching observation serve both functions well?

Those who have studied teaching observations tend to agree that incorporating a formative aspect to the observation process is essential. Departments and programs that only use observations for summative evaluation may create discomfort and anxiety among both faculty observers and instructors. The high-stakes of summative assessment may not encourage observed teachers to seek constructive criticism for fear that it would negatively impact their chances of contract renewal, tenure, or promotion. Observers may not be fully honest with their feedback knowing that their comments could damage their relationship with a colleague. Many of the benefits of observations--fostering continuous improvement, sparking generative discussions about teaching and learning, creating a deeper sense of connection and shared purpose among faculty--are lost when formative opportunities are not intentionally integrated into the process.

When it comes to using observation records for summative purposes--such as promotion, contract renewal, and tenure--most also agree that observations’ susceptibility to reliability issues make them a problematic measure of teaching quality. Observations can therefore only serve as reliable sources of evidence in summative decisions if observers are well-trained and apply a consistent set of criteria.

However, experts are divided over how best to combine the formative and summative purposes of observations. Some believe that summative and formative observations should be completely separate processes to ensure credibility and fairness (Cavanagh, 1996), while others believe that maintaining two distinct systems is impractical and unnecessary (Chism, 2007, pp. 5-7).

There are a few documented approaches to combining formative and summative review. Bernstein (1996) offers a case study of one academic departments’ multi-year review process that has alternating periods of development and evaluation. Mager et al. (2014) describe how they implemented a peer mentor system with nursing faculty. Seldin, Miller, and Seldin (2010) propose that when teaching portfolios are used in summative evaluation, individuals can choose whether or not to include observation documentation in the portfolio that will be reviewed by their colleagues. In other words, observations would remain formative, and the individual faculty member would have the option of using the documentation for summative purposes.

Practical Materials

  • Pre-Observation Conference Form (Chism, 2007, p. 105). This form gives you an idea of what information an observer might gather from the instructor before visiting the class.
  • Classroom Observation Checklist for face-to-face courses from Austin Community College. This checklist provides one example of how you might organize an observation rubric. You can change the categories to fit the university-wide criteria outlined in the Faculty Handbook and tailor the questions under each category to reflect your department’s unique values and assumptions.
  • Quality Matters Rubric, a tool for peer review of online, hybrid, and blended courses. This is the rubric participants use in the DePaul Online Teaching Series (DOTS).

Further Resources

  • Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook (2007) by Nancy Chism. This accessible, research-based guide dedicates an entire chapter to classroom observation that includes many sample forms and other materials that you can use or adapt.
  • Five Steps to Becoming a Better Peer Reviewer” (2008) by Vicki Carter. This three-page article is packed with helpful advice for faculty observers.
  • Peer Review of Teaching” from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. This practical online guide offers an introduction to peer review more broadly, including the purposes of peer review, its challenges, and common practices.
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