Part II: Effective Processes and Practices for Peer Observation

Choosing an Observer
The Pre-Observation Consultation
Conducting the In-Class Observation
Using a Narrative Log
The Post-Observation Consultation
Providing Meaningful Feedback on Teaching
Sample Peer Observation Protocols
One-to-One Classroom Observation
Teaching Squares or Triads
Peer Observation of Online Courses
The Observation of Teaching for Summative Purposes

Choosing an Observer

Key to a successful observation of teaching is the relationship between the observer and the observee. As Keig (2000) describes, studies of the peer observation of teaching suggest that “colleagues who respect and trust each other can be invaluable in helping improve each other’s teaching” (p. 68). When choosing an observer, the following characteristics may be considered:

  1. Knowledge of the teaching context (large classroom, online, seminar, ).
  2. At least a passing familiarity with the subject area – cross-disciplinary observations can be very fruitful but an observer should understand the basic context of the class they are entering This context can be provided in the pre­ observation meeting.
  3. Knowledge of teaching techniques and pedagogies suitable to the teaching
  4. Ability to provide constructive feedback to the observee.

Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2005) share that the observer should provide the observee with “as an objective view of the teaching session as possible, and review and reflect on that experience with the observee in a way that informs future thinking and practice” (2005, p.214). Chism (2007) recommends that effective programs of peer observations ensure that the “observed teacher and the observer [be] trusted and respected by each other,” (p. 100) underlining that feedback should be candid, yet tactful, and clear communication between the observer and observee should be fostered.

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The Pre-observation Consultation

Ideally, the observer and observee should meet to discuss any particular issues the observee would like to see addressed in the feedback generated through the observation. The information gathered can focus on goals, the students in the class, the activities that will be presented and the instructor’s individual teaching practice and style. We provide a sample template of the pre-observation consultation form below.

Subsequently, the observer and observee should review the material that will be covered in the observed class. Understanding the key learning outcomes to be taught and the usual structure of the class will be useful. The observer can request that the observee provide in advance any material that will help guide the observer’s understanding of the material presented in terms of context and level of understanding of the students, including the course syllabus, assignments and textbooks/readings.

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Conducting the In-Class Observation

Suggested best practices for classroom visits are summarized in Appendix B. As well, observers should consider the general guidelines offered below while conducting the in-class observation.

  1. Ensure that you arrive early to the class, checking with the instructor where they would prefer you to sit; you should ensure minimal disruption to the class’s routine.
  2. Observe the class, focusing on the areas covered by the observation tool or rubric you have agreed to use, as well as any individual issues raised by the instructor in your initial meeting. Take notes.
  3. Pay close attention not merely to the instructor, but also to the reactions of students. This will allow you to make observations on the engagement with course material and reactions to the instructor’s personal teaching style.
  4. Make note of anything the instructor does that seems particularly effective, as well as those areas in which further development of their skills would be beneficial.
  5. Take some additional time to record other thoughts about the observation as soon as possible after the class concludes.
  6. Be objective in your evaluation by describing observations and avoiding judgements.
  7. Consider the learning environment from both the instructor and learners’ perspectives.
  8. Resist the urge to compare with your own teaching style, avoiding using your approach a point of reference, and focus instead on the teaching style of the instructor you are observing.

As general guidelines, observers can look for the following general teaching behaviours:

  • Organization – clearly states when topics are changing; recaps previous learning and provides summary at the end; emphasizes most important points, etc.
  • Communication – addresses students directly when talking; speaks audibly and clearly; rephrases or reframes difficult concepts, etc.
  • Rapport – solicits student feedback, addresses students by name, and encourages students to build on each other’s comments and questions, etc.

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Using a Narrative Log

We recommend the use of a narrative log, especially to those new to the peer observation of teaching. As Chism (2007) describes, a narrative log is a mainly formative tool that describes “verbal and non-verbal behaviour, emphasizing what the reviewer sees [and hears rather] than the reviewer’s judgement” (p. 106). Observers can use this log to record times in the class when a behaviour (from both the students and the instructor) or activity occurs, allowing the observer and observee to review the structure, flow and timing of the class. The narrative log is very useful in guiding the post- observation consultation. Chism notes that this tool can be used to guide “the instructor’s consideration of fit of actions to goals, student learning issues, alternate ways that situations could have been handled, and the like” (p. 106). The following questions are adapted from Chism (2007) and can help focus the narrative log, by being mapped on to a particular moment in time:

  • What is the instructor speaking about?
  • What specific comments are being made? (Student & Instructor)
  • What types of questions are being asked? (Student & Instructor)
  • How are classroom learning activities organized? A chart may be a useful organizational framework to answer this question.
  • What is the level of student interaction?
  • What teaching strategies are being used?

A sample narrative log is included in the appendices of this guide, on page 18.

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After the completion of the observation, and in preparation for the post- observation consultation, the observee should engage in a process of self- assessment and reflection. The observee might reflect upon what they were thinking or feeling at key points in the lesson while performing certain tasks. The goal is to reconstruct and analyze one’s teaching context and performance to identify teaching strengths and areas for improvement. Then, when the peer feedback is received, the observee can compare and contrast their self-assessment with the peer observation.

The following reflective questions can be considered when preparing a self-assessment:

What was challenging? Surprising? A success?
What would you do differently next time?
Name one thing you will work on — your “Action Plan”

Weimer, et al. (2002), provide a comprehensive self-evaluation form that instructors can use to examine their own teaching practices (p. 35).

We encourage instructors to work through a teaching inventory for more information on their teaching approaches. These inventories allow for self-reflection on personal pedagogical approaches, practices and perspectives, measuring the extent to which certain practices are employed and valued. Using such a tool provides valuable insights into teaching and prompts thinking regarding pedagogy and decisions related to it.

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The Post-Observation Consultation

Suggested best practices for follow-up after classroom visits are provided in Appendix B. The purpose of the post- observation consultation or meeting is to review the observation form in detail and discuss strategies and next steps for improvement. Be sure that you begin your post-observation conference with the observee’s own self-assessment of how the class went. The observer should always take the lead from the observee and begin with the self-assessment.

The following steps should be taken by the observer to prepare for the post- observation consultation:

STEP 1: Complete your observation form. Note that written comments can be particularly useful to instructors, and should be as detailed as possible.

STEP 2: Make sure you recognize what was done well (the strengths of the instructor). Knowing how to build on existing strengths and successes is important.

STEP 3: If identifying areas for improvement, be specific and focus on one or two key points that are achievable in the short term and perhaps one longer term goal.

To begin the post-observation consultation, the observer asks the instructor the following global reflective question:

What is your overall impression of the class?

Then, move to more targeted questions, such as:

  1. Once you finished teaching that day, what did you think went well, or what did you feel was not so successful? Why?
  2. What would you do differently the next time you have to teach that class or topic? Why?
  3. What did you think of the time management in the class, the students’ level of participation, your own management of the course material and activities, ? Here, focus on the agreed upon observation areas from the pre-observation consultation.

Given what happened in this class or what has been happening in your teaching overall, is there any issue in particular for which you would like additional guidance or resources?

Give the instructor the opportunity to speak first, and share their observations and reflections, prior to the observer providing feedback. Allow the instructor to ask any questions, and then direct them to any resources you feel may be useful to them. Throughout the consultation, show empathy and provide encouragement

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Providing Meaningful Feedback on Teaching

The literature on feedback, as outlined in previous sections of this guide, provides an overarching framework for providing meaningful feedback in order that participants meet the goals they have set for the peer observation of teaching. As Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2005) point out, feedback sessions involve both the observer and observee taking up an observation and “act as a key trigger and means of enhancing the reflective process for both parties” (p. 215). This section draws on this literature to guide peers in providing meaningful feedback.

Quality feedback for teaching:

  • Is formative as opposed to summative (this is not to say summative feedback cannot be provided – rather, that when feedback is supplied to the observee, it should be forward-looking in nature in order to facilitate teaching improvement)
  • Aims to identify a challenge and help formulate an improvement plan
  • Focuses on alternatives and options
  • Is non-judgmental regarding teaching performance
  • Is descriptive rather than prescriptive

The table to the right contrasts descriptive, specific and exploratory feedback with judgmental and overly-vague feedback statements. The goal is to strive to improve one’s skill in providing descriptive feedback.

Finally, of critical importance is providing feedback through the use of effective questions that support reflection and exploration of a variety of perspectives. Appendix C provides a range of examples while also outlining questions to avoid (Sharpe & Nishimura, 2017).

Descriptive Feedback: Consultative feedback is based on “I” statements. This feedback should be…

  • Objective: “I was able to follow your explanation even though I don’t know calculus.”
  • Realistic and concrete: “I found it helpful when you showed us how to use the instruments before you asked us to set up the experiment. This gave me confidence to complete the experiment.”
  • Motivating and informative suggestions: “I wonder about providing a different kind of example — do you think an analogy would have worked here?”
  • Clarifying and questioning: “I thought that ‘officious’ meant bossy, but you used it as a political term What does it mean in this context?” Follow-up question: “Has this particular use of the term been clarified for your students?”

Prescriptive Feedback: Ineffective feedback is often based on “You” statements. This feedback can be…

  • Subjective and evaluative: “Your explanative was good (or bad).”
  • Idealistic and abstract: “You should give a pre-lab talk — they really work.”
  • Demanding and self-important: “You should learn to use better examples.”
  • Confusing or ambiguous (can promote resistance): “Your lesson would have been better if you had included an explanation of the emergence of officious sites.”

Adapted from Border, L. (2008).

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Sample Peer Observation Protocols

One-to-One Classroom Observation

The processes for one-to-one classroom observation form the basis for many of the other contexts we outline in this guide. There are two main formative frameworks for one-to-one classroom observation: reciprocal and mentoring.

Reciprocal one-to-one classroom observation takes place among instructors of the same career stage. The focus in the observation is not only the development of the instructor being observed, but self- reflection and simultaneous learning of the observer. Feedback is given through constructive dialogues that underline the mutual benefits for both peers.

When one instructor is more senior or experienced than the other, a mentoring, developmental observation can take place. When the senior instructor observes the less-experienced instructor, their experience and expertise can lend itself to targeted feedback on how to improve teaching. Conversely, an instructor can learn a great deal from observing a senior instructor in the classroom, which can provide an excellent opportunity for self- reflection and stimulate improvement.

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Teaching Squares or Triads

Teaching Squares is a peer observation tool developed by Anne Wessely (2002) from St. Louis Community College. Teaching Squares (or triads) are a formative, structured process of observation and shared reflection, comprised of groups of four instructors, ideally from different disciplines, who observe each other’s teaching. Participants avoid evaluating their colleagues’ performance, focusing instead on what they have learned about their own teaching through observing their peers. As described by the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo, the “aim of the Teaching Squares approach is to enhance teaching and learning through a structured process of classroom observation, reflection and discussion (leading to a plan for revitalization)” (Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo, 2014).

A basic timeline of Teaching Squares activities is as follows:

  • Meet your square to discuss expectations for the observations, agree on a rubric or template for the observation, and plan a schedule of visits.
  • This time should be used to clarify what each participant’s goals are for this experience, and to identify what each individual hopes to gain in terms of insight into their own teaching practice.
  • After confirming the observation schedule, pass on any relevant course materials to square members, e.g., course syllabi, reading lists, descriptions of planned activities, etc.
  • Visit and observe the class of each square member, recording observations on the agreed-upon instrument or rubric.
  • After the completion of all the classroom observations, look back over your notes in preparation for sharing and discussion.
  • Focus on what you have learned from the observation experience.
  • Meet with you square to share reflections.

Reciprocity and Shared Responsibility: As Teaching Squares are comprised of mutual visits, participants are both observer and observed, and all share the experience of inviting others to observe their teaching. The structure of Teaching Squares is conducive to collaboration and cooperation, as the group works together to organize and administer visits and reflections.

Self-Referential Reflection: The observations and subsequent reflection are opportunities to reflect on one’s own teaching practice and what one has learned by experiencing the classrooms of colleagues and peers. Self-focused observations avoid evaluation and judgement, and contribute to the collaborative nature of the process.

Appreciation: Identify the teaching strategies and practices used by colleagues to create a productive and supportive learning environment. Through the receipt of positive feedback, participants will be able to link observations back to their personal goals.

Mutual Respect: Participants recognize that different instructional methods are required in different classrooms, and enter into the Teaching Squares process with an attitude of respect for their fellow instructors, as well as the learners.

We add a final cornerstone:
5. Confidentiality: Participants recognize that the insight gained and comments shared are to be kept between the observer and instructor, unless otherwise discussed when setting up their personal observation protocol.

Adapted from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stonehill College, Teaching Squares Handbook (Grooters, 2008).

The Center for Teaching and Learning at Stonehill College (2008) has identified four cornerstones that underlie the Teaching Squares approach an are critical to creating successful observations.

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Peer Observation of Online Courses

The peer observation of online courses should follow the same basic procedure as other styles of observation, with a pre-observation meeting, the observation itself, and a post-observation consultation making up the process. As with other observations, key outcomes of this process include constructive feedback regarding teaching effectiveness, and insight into the experiences of the learners in the course. As online courses are a new medium for many instructors, peer observation lends itself well to co-learning among the mentor and mentee about effective practices in this context.

Observation of online courses can focus on six main categories:

  1. Learner Support and Resources
  2. Online Organization and Design
  3. Instructional Design and Delivery
  4. Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning
  5. Innovative Teaching with Technology
  6. Faculty Use of Student Feedback

Adapted from California State University, Chico, Exemplary Online Instruction (2016).

The California State University, Chico (2016), has developed an extensive rubric for the assessment of online instruction, available at the above link. The University of Toronto has adapted this rubric and guide to online course design to provide a ‘roadmap’ for instructors during the course design process, or as a self- assessment tool to assist in the revision and reworking of online courses. The Online Course Design Guidelines offer a formative, developmental assessment of online courses and lend themselves to self-assessment during the design and delivery of online courses.

In addition, University of Toronto’s Online Learning Strategies has developed a Peer Review Process for their Online Learning Leadership Program, which has been adapted below (Harrison & Heikoop, 2016). The following suggested steps take a reflective and collaborative approach to reviewing online courses.

1. As the observee, provide the observer with:

  • Access to your online course
  • Copy of your syllabus
  • Any related design documents such as mind maps, or outline tables (if available/relevant to process)
  • Short list of any aspects of course for which feedback would be particularly valued

2. As the observer, use the Online Course Observation Template found on page 24 to guide your observations as you explore the design of the observee’s course. Note comments in the right-hand column. The final prompts allow for deeper reflection on the strengths and opportunities you observe. The observer and observee can mutually agree upon the time frame for completion of this step.

3. Meet up in person for a de-brief

  • Begin with the short list of aspects of the course for which the observee requested particular feedback.
  • Follow this with the observee’s reflections on their own self-assessment regarding strengths, challenges and areas to refine.
  • The observer may than share their observations, ask questions, explore ideas for dealing with challenges.
  • Together, the observer and observee generate a few concrete ideas for next steps or refinements.

As with peer observation of teaching of non-online courses, the overarching aim is to gather feedback from a trusted colleague to inform your teaching practices and course design processes.

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The Observation of Teaching for Summative Purposes

As outlined in Part I, it is important to repeat the peer observation of teaching process if possible, for the process to have the greatest impact. This is particularly significant when using peer observation of teaching for summative purposes. We recommend the following basic process.

  1. In some divisions a summative observation is required as part of the tenure/promotion process. What is most critical is that an instructor experience a formative observation of teaching prior to an observation of teaching for summative purposes (e.g., tenure or promotion).
  2. As with formative observations, observations of teaching for summative purposes should ideally occur more than once in an academic cycle. Try to observe instructors at least twice for a summative report.
  3. Evaluate instructors in the same general instructional context.
  4. Make the summative evaluation available to the review committee as one source of evidence in assessing teaching.

Departments and divisions using the observation of teaching for summative purposes might consider the following additional guidelines, adapted from Chism (2007):

  1. When information from a classroom observation is to be used summatively, particular care should be taken to assure the reliability of the observation. Guidelines for how the observer should be chosen, how many observations should occur, how long the observations should last, and what approach is used to gather and report data should be agreed upon in the department and followed consistently.
  2. A set of criteria that the department determines to be important should be developed and used to focus classroom observation.
  3. The approach used by the observer should permit the gathering of information that is representative of the instructor’s overall teaching and reported in a format that enables it to be compared with information from other instructors.
  4. The report should provide information on the process used to gather feedback and the context in which the observations took place.

As Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2004) describe, formative observation for development and summative processes can be linked in ways that serve the needs of both the instructor and the assessors. Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond state that this means:

making explicit the aspects of learning and teaching that need to be given consideration, and moving [instructors] beyond a position where they feel the process is simply about the content and mechanics of the lesson being taught. If it is the reflective process where the greatest inroads into the quality of learning and teaching are seen, then reflection needs to be emphasized for both individual lecturers and school- wide….This process can be supported through a clear structure, with emphasis placed on pre- and post-observation sessions where appropriate time and thought is allocated. (p. 502)

Departments and divisions seeking to put in place summative programs of teaching observation should strongly consider a timeline that allows for the incorporation of formative elements as described previously in this guide.

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Please cite this publication in the following format:

Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation. (2017). Peer observation of teaching: Effective practices. Toronto, ON: Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, University of Toronto.