Faculty Peer Observation and Feedback

Teaching is a complex activity, so peer observation and feedback processes must accommodate this complexity to be of greatest service to those who participate. For this reason, we do not recommend that faculty engage in peer observation and feedback with a one-size-fits-all “checklist” about what good teaching looks like. Instead, we recommend framing the experience as a formative, collegial dialogue, tailored to the contours of the discipline and the expressed desires of the teacher being observed.

Important Considerations and Recommended Process

1. Purpose: Formative or Summative?

  • Formative feedback is intended to give the observed teacher constructive feedback about how to evolve their teaching in various ways. This information is responsive but not evaluative, and is put to use by the teacher in future teaching experiences.
  • Summative feedback is intended to evaluate the effectiveness of one’s teaching practice to meet various administrative requirements.

Because the consequences are very different for formative and summative feedback, it is crucial that the intention be made clear at the outset of an observation and feedback experience. While many departments include peer evaluation as part of the summative review process, we recommend it as only part of a multi-dimensional process to include TRACE scores and other evidence of teaching effectiveness.

2. Signature Pedagogies and Departmental Culture

Signature pedagogies (Schulman, 2005) are practices that vary across disciplines and embody not only surface features like specific instructional acts, but also deep and implicit structures that communicate the theory of the discipline, how to think like one of its members, and its cultural attitudes. How conflicting knowledge claims are evaluated and addressed will vary widely between the physics lab, the law classroom, and the medical student being led on daily hospital rounds by a resident.

3. What is Known about How Learning Works

While disciplinary and departmental context matters greatly, there are also research-based principles that describe the learning process across contexts (Ambrose, et al., 2010). These seven principles can form effective “points of entry” into the observation and feedback process.

  • Prior knowledge – What students know coming into the classroom can help or hinder their learning.
  • Knowledge organization – How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  • Motivation – Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  • Mastery – To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  • Practice and feedback – Goal-directed practice with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
  • Student development and class climate – Students’ current level of development interacts with social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  • Self-directed learning – To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of a task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed.

Recommended Process

1. Individual Process

We recommend the process of faculty peer observation consist of four steps:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Some suggested prompts for each of these experiences appear below.

2. Departmental Process

Because ‘good teaching’ is a complex phenomenon and varies from context to context, we recommend the departmental process of adopting a peer observation and feedback system be collaborative and iterative. Specifically, we recommend that a small group of department members design the first set of prompt documents to support the four-step process described above. Then they can pilot that design with one another and improve it in whatever way the pilot observees’ experience suggests.

Having done this, this smaller pilot group then offers the prompts to be used in the process by another collection of faculty in the department, who also have the opportunity to make suggestions for how the prompts and process might be improved. Then another collection of participants go through the same experience and so on in a widening circle of participation, until the prompt forms represent a broad enough set of departmental input that they can be considered for widespread adoption by policy.

Suggestions for Adapting the Process to Your Context

1. Initial Conversation

The purpose of this conversation is to establish goals for the observation and provide useful background information for the Observer.

Questions to ask the Observed:

  • How can this process be most useful for you?
  • Is there anything specific you would like to focus on?
  • Are there things you’ll be trying for the first time in this session?
  • How would you describe this group of students?
  • Are there materials that I can look at ahead of time that will help me understand what I will be watching when I come to observe?

2. Observation

For the Observer:

Peer observation and feedback is a process of (a) informal data collection and reflection-in-the-moment as much as possible, and (b) a distillation of your observation notes into themes or episodes to offer your colleague for reflection.

(a) Informal data collection and reflection-in-the-moment

Arrive in class early if possible and seat yourself somewhere unobtrusive. Take detailed notes about what the instructor is doing, how engaged the students appear, how things seem to be “working, ” questions or suggestions you have, and so on.

If the teacher is covering material with which you are familiar, try not to get too caught up in specific details of the content as much as paying attention to the overall instructional experience.   To help with this, look over the “Observation Organizer” questions below.

To organize your observations and reflections consider using the following structure—often one can use key words and shorthand in the moment, and flesh out the notes after the fact:

Time Observations Thoughts
9:00 Begins class with housekeeping, review, learning objectives slide Nice review of last class and how it prepares for this class. Learning objectives are very small—difficult to read from the back
9:05 Overview of PTSD symptoms and learning mechanisms involved: sensitization, overgeneralization, resistance to extinction. Floats out from behind the podium a little, but moving further to the left and right of the room would create more energy and engage more students by being closer to them.
9:10 Self-deprecating joke about e-mail. Class laughed easily. Seems like good rapport.
9:15 “Did everyone hear Larry’s question?” A few students did need it repeated.
9:18 “Any other questions?”   Moved on quickly. It looked like a couple students were maybe working up to asking some questions. Perhaps waiting longer?
9:20 – 9:35 Diagnosing steps for PTSD according to the DSM. This is a somewhat long and detailed list. I’m seeing students check out a little bit towards the end. Perhaps break it up? Include some kind of brief activity?

 

(b) Distilling your observations into useful themes

After the observation, it is helpful to review your notes and organize them into useful themes, highlighting both Strengths and Questions/Considerations.To make this review most effective, consider using our Observation Organizer, which is based on what research tells us works best to help students learn. Here’s how one example might look:

 Sample Completed Observation Organizer  Blank Observation Organizer (Word .docx)
Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.13.08 AM  Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 10.23.48 AM

3. Follow-Up Conversation

Questions to ask the Observed:

  • How do you think things went overall?
  • Was there something you felt went especially well?
  • Was there something that surprised you?
  • What worked or didn’t work: what made you think so, and why do you think that happened?
  • I noticed ____ and am curious what your experience of that was. . .

4. Reflective Summary

To make the observation useful and put the results into practice, we suggest that the observed compose a written reflective summary of the experience, responding to questions such as:

  • What was the most useful part of this experience for you?
  • What specific things got reinforced as effective during this process?
  • What specific changes do you envision as a result of this feedback?
  • Did you learn anything new about your students or how they learn?

If you have any questions about our recommended process for faculty peer observation and feedback, do not hesitate to contact a CATLR consultant at learningresearch@northeastern.edu.

 

References

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Franciscio: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L.S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.