Peer Observations: Best Practices

Peer Observation of Teaching: Best Practices

Peer observations provide opportunities for instructors to visit, share, and learn from one another’s classroom practices. The observation process can lead to:

  • Improvement: To enhance quality.
  • Accountability: Use in personnel decisions (P&T), publicity to share with students, parents, and employers.
  • Knowledge development: To gain new insights.
  • Oversight and compliance: To assess the extent to which the class and learning follow accreditation or other formal expectations.

Implementing an observation process takes forethought.

Peer Observation Process

Before observations are conducted, a discipline-specific discussion of what effective teaching entails, either among the evaluators or in the unit as a whole is necessary. Such a discussion can yield an observation document that the evaluators can use to structure their judgments. Base-line observation documents often include categories of:

  • Instructor preparation and organization
  • Instructional strategies
  • Content knowledge
  • Presentation skills
  • Rapport with students
  • Classroom management
  • Clarity

Departmental teaching members can refine and expand this list to fit their disciplinary context.

Example evaluation templates

The purpose of formative observations is to provide advice to help a practitioner improve. Best practices:
  • Ongoing
  • Confidential: such that the instructor can try new approaches and techniques without fear of penalty.
  • Used for learning and growing
  • Conducted before and after summative observations

Summative observations, in contrast, are not confidential and are usually performed for use in personnel decisions such as contract renewals, promotions, and within teaching nomination packets. Summative observations provide summary evaluative comments. To be fully effective:

  • Discipline-based evaluators are necessary for summative observations.
  • Completed by more than 1 observer
  • Occurs periodically in predetermined windows in an instructor’s career.
  • Summative evaluators should be colleagues of equal or greater rank in a department or discipline the same as or similar to that of the teacher being evaluated.
  • Conducted after formative observation process.

Both pre-and post-observation conversations are necessary for formative and summative observations. The pre-observation meeting, via email or live, is crucial to providing contextual information about the course, the students, and the instructor. It can occur any time before the observation. The post-observation meeting, best live, in person or through Webex, enables the observed and observer the opportunity to discuss the class session. It should occur no later than two weeks following the observation.

Sample pre-observation questions:

  • Class logistics (time, date to be observed, room, etc)
  • How long have you taught this class?
  • What are the overarching goals for the course?
  • What teaching strategies are planned?
  • What do you anticipate going well in this class?
  • What aspect of the class does the instructor desire feedback?
  • Are there any difficulties or potential problems that the instructor is looking for input?

Before the observation, the instructor sends a copy of the course syllabus (and any additional teaching or learning materials) to the observer.

Sample post-observation questions:

  • How was this class session typical or atypical of previous class sessions?
  • What did you think went well?
  • What were you surprised by?
  • What would you change?
  • What questions do you have about ……?

Following the observation and post-observation conversation, the observer can provide written documentation of their perspectives to the observed.

Process for Documentation

Formative and summative observations should occur at prescribed intervals that the evaluee knows in advance, most likely as part of mandatory reviews for contract renewal, review for tenure, and post-tenure reviews.

  • Determine the schedule of formative and summative observations. Best practices:
  • Probationary teachers should have at least two observations before promotion and tenure, with one of them occurring before reappointment.
  • The observation and evaluation period for the associate-level should be aligned with a post-tenure review with a minimum of two observations before promotion to professor.
  • Peer review of professors aligns with the post-tenure review process.
  • Determine how the observation is documented and with who the documentation is shared. Is a letter shared with the observed or maintained by the department chair?
  • Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass.
  • Blumberg, P. (2014). Assessing and improving Your Teaching. Jossey-Bass.
  • Brinko, K. (2012). Practically Speaking: A Sourcebook for Instructional Consultants in Higher Education. New Forums Press Inc.
  • Centra, J. A. (2000). “Evaluating the teaching portfolio: A role for colleagues,” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, pp. 87-93
  • Chism, N. V. N. (2007). Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook. Anker Publishing Company inc.
  • Knaack, L. (2011). A Practical Handbook for Educators. De Sitter Publications.
  • Mark, M. M., Henry, G. T., & Julnes, G. (2000). Evaluation: An integrated framework for understanding, guiding and improving policies and programs. Jossey-Bass.
  • Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (2014). The Classroom Management Book. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.