Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Reflective Practice > 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.
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.
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.
Looking for formative feedback on your teaching? The Center for Teaching and Learning offers confidential classroom and video observations.
Ready to develop a set of criteria to guide teaching observations in your department or program? See the Teaching Commons guide to defining teaching effectiveness.