In-class observations

The identified need for formative feedback. Conducting a class observation of teaching is a highly recommended activity that to be most effective should ideally occur early in the mentoring process, and be one part of a wider array of data related to teaching development and effectiveness. Chism (2007) is a strong proponent of formative evaluation (peer review) and recommends that mentoring activities use course materials to ‘alert mentors to the areas in which a given instructor excels and to areas where improvement can be cultivated” (p.77). Preliminary discussions on the value of formative feedback opportunities and how to develop and achieve teaching goals can serve to open the possibilities for enhancing one’s teaching.

Participants recommended this formative in-class observational feedback should ideally be viewed separately from formal summative tenure and promotion processes. As part of going forward for tenure or continuing status, many divisions require or encourage faculty members to be observed teaching, with a subsequent report on the in-class observation provided to the tenure or promotion committee. Leading up to this observation, as reported by participants, there can be little to no preparation for or feedback on in-class teaching. Preparation in such cases might include a formative “check in” by a mentor prior to the more formalized observation. One Associate Professor, TS, (TAM, mentor) shared the value in providing formative feedback in both hiring and tenure and promotion processes as many new and early career faculty will only experience one in-class observation that is primarily a summative activity. This then becomes a major “high stakes activity” that creates inordinate anxiety for pretenure or pre-promotion faculty. Several mentees and mentors shared positive experiences in engaging in formative in-class observation sessions and the postobservation debrief meetings.

Department-level observations. A group of participants who had participated as mentees in weekly in-class observations with a senior faculty member felt that such sessions were very helpful and formed the basis of a meaningful mentor-mentee relationship. One mentor recommended that this approach can ‘offer a bird’s eye view of the course’ and can also help inform the mentee about content overlap (Full Prof, Phys Sc, Mentor). A mentee, in this case, felt that including in-class observations were key to “developing one’s own teaching style” (Assistant Prof, Phys Sc, mentee). Two additional participants who were mentored within this model said the formality of this frequent activity was positive and worked well (Assistant Prof, TS and Assoc Prof, TS, mentees, Phys Sc). These observations differ from the formative and summative processes more often shared by participants, ones that can focus too much on only what transpires in the classroom/lecture hall: “this activity is focusing on only one aspect of teaching and learning (this is a limitation)”. Another participant felt that it is the follow-up discussions of the in-class observations that are sorely lacking: “there are plenty of evaluations of classroom teaching but not necessarily opportunities to discuss how to improve and enhance our teaching – the focus should be on the formative” (Assistant Prof, TS, mentee, Phys Sc).

Other key recommendations from participants regarding class observations as a mentoring activity include gauging what your mentee can handle or absorb in the first year of their appointment

I support in-class observations but there may be too much stress or pressure on a new hire – wait for a while, while they settle. It’s good to ask but don’t push them – [the mentee] needs a sense of trust as they feel very vulnerable. (Assoc Prof, Life Sc, UTM)

In the case of this mentor’s own mentee they waited until the second year to approach in-class observations within their mentoring activities (Assoc Prof, Life Sc, UTM). Another participant emphasized that creating a teaching culture that elevates interest in observing and learning from others’ teaching requires a careful approach:

The interest is there and depends on how it is approached. I have done these in-class observations with a few people and time is an issue but we created a culture in that people felt comfortable and I could ask, “do you mind if I sit in today…?”…seeing what someone else does causes you to reflect on your own teaching. (Assoc Prof, TS, Soc Sc, TAM)

Documenting in-class formative observation. Participants expressed keen interest in documenting in-class observations for enhancing their dossier file and to demonstrate efforts to become more effective instructors. This documentation is not always completed, however, and it is recommended that mentors and mentees discuss how this in-class observation might be documented as a means of capturing their efforts to showcase innovations and take risks in their teaching, as well as efforts to improve their practice. Observation checklists can provide some guidance for mentors to share with mentees ahead of observation sessions and as a debriefing \ tool in the immediate meeting afterwards. Strategies for moving forward can emerge from such discussions and can be included in mentor letters for a mentee’s file. Of note, Department Chairs are urged to consider any conflicts of interest between mentors who are providing formative peer observations and feedback, and those providing summative observations for tenure and continuing status purposes.

Of note, if mentors are in any way part of tenure and promotion committees that involve their mentee then generally they will not also perform a summative observation, if required, for tenure or promotion processes.

Peer support for in-class observations. Peer-supported mentoring for in-class observations can offer a more supportive environment for new faculty who are seeking to enhance their teaching effectiveness. The Teaching Squares model(23) offers a supportive space to create small communities of faculty who can be guided by one mentor (e.g., teaching award winner, TAM) who takes participants through a series of in-class observations that expose them to other instructors at their experience level in a formative environment. As noted previously, Open Doors is an evidence-based model that provides a flexible means of observing and discussing the teaching of peers. In some scenarios of peer supported mentoring in the classroom, observational guidelines or checklists can be circulated and discussed in advance of introducing this activity.


(23) For a full description and sample Teaching Squares Program see: