Peer Observation of Teaching: Best Practices

Students sitting in a classroom listening to an instructor

According to its mission statement, the primary goals of Iowa State University are to “create, share and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place.” According to the ISU Faculty Handbook, Section Scholarly Teaching, “Most faculty have significant teaching responsibilities, and the quality of their teaching is a major factor in evaluating their accomplishments and performances.”

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Part One: Formative and Summative Observations

Part Two: Best Practices for Peer Observation of Teaching

Part Three: How to Begin Discussion on Peer Observation of Teaching

Faculty members may use a portfolio format to document their teaching activities, including materials such as teaching philosophy, student ratings of teaching, teaching materials and forms of assessment, peer evaluations based on both classroom observations and review of teaching materials, and evidence of student learning. For research documentation, there are multiple forms of standardized peer review, including submitting work for presentation, publication, and grants. For teaching, there are less standardized and recognized means in which to be observed and evaluated. Given this reality, it is necessary to develop best practices for peer observation that may be individually, yet, broadly adopted by colleges and units in the University.

The following report, based on an initial document created by a subcommittee of the CELT Advisory Board in spring 2009, was approved by the CELT Advisory Board in spring 2017.

Part One: Formative and Summative Observations

The purpose of formative observations is to provide advice in order to help a practitioner improve. Formative evaluations generally occur in the context of a relationship with a mentor, or with an independent expert at an organization like CELT. To be fully effective, formative evaluations should be confidential, and should remain the property of the instructor being observed. This allows an instructor the freedom to try new approaches and techniques, without fear of penalty. Summative evaluations, in contrast, are not confidential, and are usually performed for use in personnel decisions such as contract renewals, promotions, and the granting of teaching awards. Where formative evaluations assess an instructor’s teaching on its own terms, summative evaluations add a comparative dimension, placing the individual teacher’s performance in explicit relation to the performance of his or her colleagues. The importance of this distinction is widely acknowledged in the literature. 2 These two forms of observation should be practiced in conjunction with one another: between summative evaluations, an instructor should have the opportunity to use formative observations to hone his or her teaching skills. At the same time, however, there is a general consensus in the literature that the impartiality and effectiveness of each type of evaluation depends on its separation from the other. The institutional framework of ISU already supports this distinction. CELT, through the Teaching Partners Program, and trained administrators can provide instructors with ongoing, formative observation; the departmental teaching mentors assigned to junior faculty can fulfill a similar function. Summative evaluation, in contrast, should be performed by other faculty members in an instructor’s own department, or in another department that is closely related. Where possible, these colleagues should be of higher rank than the faculty member being evaluated.

Part Two: Best Practices for Peer Observation of Teaching

Designing a system of peer observation of teaching should consider the following:

  • A discipline-specific discussion of what effective teaching entails, either among the evaluators, or in the unit as a whole. Such a discussion should yield an observation document that the evaluators can use to structure their judgments. See the examples provided below.
  • For both formative and summative observations of teaching, a pre- and post- observation meeting, either via email or in person should be conducted. The pre-observation meeting is crucial to providing the contextual information about the course, the students, and the instructor. The post-observation meeting, best via person, enables the observed and observer the opportunity to discuss the class session.
  • Acknowledgement of the distinction between formative and summative observation. According to best practices identified in the literature,
    • Formative and summative observations should be performed by different people.
    • Formative observations can be conducted by a person chosen by the instructor being observed. Summative evaluators should be elected or appointed.
    • 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.
    • To ensure sufficient reliability, a summative evaluation should be the collaborative product of a committee of at least two evaluators.
    • To be fully effective, summative evaluation should not occur on its own, but should instead alternate with an ongoing program of formative evaluation, provided both by faculty mentors and by members of the CELT staff.
    • Formative and summative evaluations 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.
    • Assistant professors with teaching appointments should ideally have at least three observations conducted before promotion and tenure, with one of them occurring before reappointment.
    • Each of the reviews should be conducted in a separate academic year.
  • The observation and evaluation period for Associate Professors should be aligned with post tenure review with a minimum of two observations prior to promotion to full Professor.
  • Peer review of Professors should be aligned with the post tenure review.
  • Development and approval of a form for peer observations of teaching.
  • The written assessment of class observations is discussed with the instructor by the evaluator. The written assessment is signed by the evaluator and instructor and submitted to the department head with a copy to the instructor.

Part Three: How to Begin Discussion on Peer Observation of Teaching

Without an initial period of reflection about what good teaching involves and what specific instructional objectives a given unit wishes to achieve, it is quite possible that the evaluators’ conclusions will be unreliable in ways that impair their usefulness. A document to structure the evaluators’ assessment is a straightforward and efficient way to provide the solid intellectual foundation any effective system of peer observation of teaching requires.

The department or unit wishing to create a peer observation of teaching system could begin with questions such as: What aspects of teaching will we observe? From this brainstormed list, categories are developed and prioritized. It is recommended that the group identify only four to eight main categories of teaching performance. Once these categories are identified, the group might comment upon, “What questions might we ask about the performance within this aspect of teaching?” For example, if the category is “instructor organization,” observers might be asked to comment on such questions as: “did the teacher arrive on time?” “Was the class setting prepared and appropriate for the day’s activities?” These items then form the subtasks itemized within the categories. The questions should focus on those aspects of instructional performance that the group thinks are most critical to learning and that can be observed.

Once the list of categories, questions, and guiding questions are generated, the group needs to decide the type of observation protocol form to be used – checklist, narrative, scaled rubric, or other format. The form should be piloted by peers and then revised for use. A policy document that details the particulars of how the form should be used (formatively, summative, how often) should accompany the form.3

The following characteristics of effective teaching have emerged within the literature and could potentially serve as the basis for a more specific, discipline-tailored rubric. The list is divided into seven categories, each of which represents one aspect of a teacher’s responsibilities, broadly conceived. Examples of these categories with subtasks in checklist, narrative, and scaled rubric form appear below.

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


1 “Mission and Vision,”, accessed April 5, 2017.

2 See, e.g.,Ronald R. Cavanagh, “Formative and Summative Evaluation in the Faculty Peer Review of Teaching,” in Innovative Higher Education 20:4 (1996): 235-240; John A. Centra, Reflective Faculty Evaluation: Enhancing Teaching and Determining Faculty Effectiveness (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1993); John A. Centra, “Evaluating the Teaching Portfolio: A Role for Colleagues,” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 83 (Fall 2000): 87-93; Chism; Hutchings, ed.; Trav D. Johnson and Katherine E. Ryan, A Comprehensive Approach to the Evaluation of College Teaching, in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 83 (Fall 2000): 109-123.

3 Nancy Van Note Chism, Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. (Bolton, MA: Anker, 2007)