Part I: Key Considerations

Rationale, Context and Principles

The Goals and Benefits of Peer Observation of Teaching
Three Models for Peer Observation
Setting the Context: Experiences with In-Class Observation at the University of Toronto
Online Observation: An Emerging Context
Peer Observation: Recommended Processes


As described by Chism (2007) in Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook, peer review of teaching is “informed colleague judgment about faculty teaching for either fostering improvement or making personnel decisions” (p. 3). Peer review of teaching is a broad concept that includes an array of practices, including the assessment of teaching dossiers, syllabi, assignments, student and course evaluations, personal reflections, and peer observation. Peer review of teaching is used for both summative and formative purposes.

Summative peer review of teaching is geared towards generating information needed to evaluate teaching for human resource-related purposes (e.g., tenure and promotion). As summative reviews are evaluations with a defined purpose in mind, they tend to cover broad categories, and offer a comparison to peers. Formative assessment, in the context of the peer review of teaching, refers to activities and processes that provide instructors with specific feedback that they can use to improve their teaching practice. The feedback generated from formative assessment is intended to provide instructors with robust and detailed insights into their teaching. As Chism states, formative assessment of teaching is “the basis for the development of effective teaching throughout one’s career”(p. 5).

Peer observation, for both summative and formative purposes, is an important component of the peer review of teaching. In general, collaborative peer observation of teaching is comprised of three steps:

  1. a pre-observation conference;
  2. an in-person classroom visit (or online observation, in the case of online courses) during which detailed observations of the instructor’s practice (including classroom environment and student interactions) are captured via a template or rubric, and through narrative notes; and,
  3. a post-observation conference that includes both self-reflection on the part of the observee and constructive feedback from the observer (Wilkerson & Lewis, 2002, p. 75).

There are many models of peer observation, and emerging models of the observation of online courses. The primary focus of this guide is formative peer observation of teaching at the University of Toronto, including  in online courses. The guide presents different models of peer observation and assessment that can be adapted to multiple contexts across the institution, providing tools and instruments for peer observation of teaching, and offering an overview of how to best use them.

Although focused on formative practices, the guide outlines how these processes differ from those used for summative purposes, and describes how these practices might be adapted as departments carry out summative observations of teaching for tenure and promotion purposes, as included and outlined in some U of T divisional guidelines for the assessment of teaching for tenure and promotion.

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The Goals and Benefits of Peer Observation of Teaching

Peer observation of teaching in higher education has been used and evaluated both as a faculty development technique and a summative evaluation tool for several decades. Studies highlight the value of the practice as a way of foregrounding the teaching and learning process, making teaching practice visible, and improving the quality of teaching and student experiences (Fullerton, 1993; Hammersley-Fletcher & Orsmond, 2004; Martin & Double, 1998; Pressick-Kilborn & te Riele, 2008). Bennett and Barp (2008) summarize the process and outcomes of peer observation as follows:

…a process whereby a teacher participates as an observer in a lesson taught by a colleague for the purposes of exploring the learning and teaching process and environment and where this ‘observation’ leads on to reflection and discussion, with the underpinning long-term aim of improving students’ learning. (p. 559)

Martin and Double (1998) identify the six main aims of peer observation as:

  1. improving or developing an understanding of personal approaches to curriculum delivery;
  2. enhancing and extending teaching techniques through collaboration;
  3. exchanging insights relating to the review of teaching performance;
  4. expanding personal skills of self-reflection and evaluation;
  5. developing curriculum planning skills in collaboration with peers and colleagues; and,
  6. identifying areas in teaching practice with particular merit or in need of development.

Sullivan, Buckle, Nicky, and Atkinson (2012) further enumerate the practical benefits of peer observation, stating that the process can additionally reaffirm teaching skills, provide developmental feedback and ultimately maintain high standards in undergraduate teaching, for example. Peer observation in its collaborative approach may also play a role in contributing to strong departmental teaching climates and cultures (Smith, 2013).

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Three Models for Peer Observation

A review of the literature demonstrates that there are three basic models of peer observation of teaching usually conducted within higher education institutions. Gosling (2002) captures these models as follows: 1) an evaluation model, where the primary purpose is to provide summative feedback for the purposes of appraisal or quality assurance; 2) a developmental model where the overarching goal of observation is improving teaching and learning; and 3) the peer review model, where self- and mutual- reflection are emphasized, resulting in formative feedback. As described by Siddiqui et al. (2007), the “essence of the peer-review model … is that teachers observe each other, often in a reciprocal process” (p. 297).

Several studies demonstrate how the peer review model for the observation of teaching provides faculty with opportunities for development, and improves teaching practice (Bell 2001; Hendry & Oliver, 2012; Sullivan et al., 2012). Hendry and Oliver (2012) write that “observing a colleague teach can both show the observing teachers how new strategies work and enhance their confidence to apply them in their own teaching” (p. 1), and Sullivan et al. (2012) show how the peer observation of teaching can provide “an opportunity to examine both content and delivery of individual course components so that suggestions could be made as to how these might be improved or refined”(p. 3).

Other benefits include first-hand collegial support and the growth of teaching-related collaboration (Pressick-Killborn & te Riele, 2008). Throughout the process, peer observation can act as a valuable opportunity for reflection, give insight into teaching practices, mutual professional development, and quality improvement in teaching and learning (Sullivan et al., 2012).

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Setting the Context: Experiences with In-Class Observation at the University of Toronto

In a recent report on faculty mentoring for teaching practices at the University of Toronto, the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation (CTSI) interviewed a range of faculty members who described peer observation of teaching experiences. Several faculty members interviewed described occasions in which peers from within and outside their department sought feedback on their in-class teaching. For example, a participant in a department in the Physical Sciences described a lengthy history of peer support for in-class observations that are further enhanced by including students in the formative assessment process. In their paired interview with CTSI, participants reflected on the value of this activity and support for observing one another’s teaching to gain new insights on strategies, approaches, and educational technologies. A strong teaching culture in this department has opened the spaces to discuss and make public one’s teaching (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, p. 42).

As described in the broader literature, conducting an in-class observation of teaching is a highly beneficial activity (Chism, 2007). Participants in the CTSI mentoring study also recommended that this formative in-class observational feedback should ideally be viewed separately from observations that are part of formal summative tenure and promotion processes. As part of going forward for tenure or promotion, some divisions require that faculty members are observed teaching and a report on the in-class observation be provided to the review committee. Leading up to this observation, participants reported, there can be little to no preparation for or feedback on in-class teaching. Preparation in such cases might include a formative “check-in” prior to the more formalized observation. One interview respondent shared the value in providing feedback prior to tenure and promotion processes, otherwise many new and early career faculty will only experience one in-class observation as a primarily summative and “high stakes” activity. Several faculty members shared positive experiences in engaging in formative in-class observation sessions and the post- observation debriefing meetings. In addition to their developmental purposes, these experiences can also serve as important preparation for eventual summative observations.

A group of faculty members who were observed 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 observer recommended that this approach can “offer a bird’s eye view of the course’” and can also help inform the mentee about content overlap. An observee felt that including in- class observations was key to “developing one’s own teaching style.” Two additional participants who were mentored within this model said the formality of this frequent activity was positive and worked well (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, p. 54).

Other key recommendations from participants included gauging what observees 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 observee] needs a sense of trust as they feel very vulnerable.” Another participant emphasized that creating a positive teaching culture that elevates interest in observing and learning from others’ teaching requires a careful approach that can lead to reciprocal benefits for observer and observee:

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 (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, p. 54).

Participants in the mentoring study (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, 2016) also expressed a keen interest in documenting in-class observations to include in their tenure or promotion teaching dossiers as a means of demonstrating their efforts to become more effective instructors. However, such documentation is not always a feature of peer observation. When engaging in peer observation, participants discuss how an in-class observation might be documented in order to effectively capture instructor-student interaction in a class, as well as showcase efforts to innovate and take risks in their teaching. Observation checklists, of which we provide samples in this guide, can provide guidance ahead of observation sessions and can serve as a debriefing tool in the post-observation consultation. Strategies for moving forward can emerge from such discussions and could be included in teaching summaries for a participant’s tenure or promotion dossier (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, p. 54).

Peer-supported in-class observations can help create a supportive environment for new faculty who are seeking to enhance their teaching effectiveness. The Teaching Squares model, described in detail later in this guide, offers a supportive space to create small communities of faculty guided through a series of in-class observations that expose them to other instructors at their experience level and in a formative environment.

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Online Observation: An Emerging Context

As online and hybrid teaching becomes more common, instructors and divisions have sought ways in which to get feedback and reflect on online teaching. The online teaching context provides a valuable arena for the application of peer observation of teaching models, outside of those widely applicable to the process enumerated previously. In a study conducted by Bennett and Barp (2008) on the efficacy of peer observation online, participants reported “added value through the unique opportunity not only to debate and discuss online experiences, but to focus on the online processes themselves within the context of implementation, to reflect on them, model best practices and observe them in colleagues.” This is corroborated in the work of Harper and Nicolson (2011), who found that for many instructors new to the online context, who have not themselves been online learners, peer observation offers them the chance to share practice and build community. Instructors benefit by gaining insight into how their colleagues teach online, gleaning information on how to adapt pedagogy and enhance their own practice.

Although many learner-centred pedagogical strategies can be applied to the online context with great success, teaching online necessarily requires different types of interactions with students and course materials. The use of learning management systems, also a feature in many face-to-face classrooms, allows observers to readily access a full archive of course material. Online learning in both its synchronous and asynchronous forms can provide observers with a perspective on a wider breadth of teaching skills, including how instructors structure assignments, deal with formative assessment, and respond to individual students. As Kell (2005) describes, online observation offers the opportunity to extend the reach of peer observation “from ‘content/stand­ up performance’ and instead embrace the breadth of the ‘teaching’ role and its impact on the total learning environment” (p. 8). Indeed, as Harper and Nicolson (2013) state, as ‘effective practice’ is currently “less than fully established in online teaching, practitioners from the very inexperienced to those deemed ‘expert’ can learn from each other” (p. 273).

Bennett and Sandy (2009) comment on how the ‘archived’ nature of online learning “opens up possibilities for online tutors to work together in ways (relating to time and place) that have not been possible in the past” (p. 404). Together the observer and observee can learn about new modes of instruction, how to effectively adapt to new contexts and technologies, and how to develop new, adaptable teaching strategies. Because of the ‘newness’ of online teaching, there are huge amounts of gains that can be made in terms of teacher development through peer observation and learning (Bennett & Sandy, 2009). Key to this is “adopting approaches which [incorporate] a sense of exploring or “researching” the nature of the online teaching/learning process itself” (p. 405).

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Peer Observation: Recommended Processes

This guide discusses three modes of peer observation that are adaptable to various contexts:

  1. one-on-one observation;
  2. teaching squares (comprised of four individuals), or triads; and,
  3. online observations

We advocate a basic, three-step process for all of these models, with additional steps depending on context:

Step 1: pre-observation meeting
Step 2: observation
Step 3: post-observation consultation

Widely promoted in the literature, this three-step process is comprised of a pre-observation meeting, the observation itself, and a post-observation consultation (Chism, 2007; Martin & Double, 1998; Siddiqui et al., 2007). Some models adapt this process by adding in written reflections on the part of the observee or through the interventions of a faculty developer (Yiend et al., 2014; Bell, 2001). Effective practices for these three steps are outlined later in this guide

Time is a constraining factor for all participants in peer observations of teaching. Nonetheless, we recommend that, for maximum formative impact on teaching practice, observations be repeated at least twice in an academic year. The observations should take place in a similar context – not necessarily the same course, but in the same general discipline and instructional setting. Ideally, the observer can return to visit the instructor’s classroom over a number of years so that both can document and map changes and growth. When teaching is observed more than once in a similar context, the observer and observee are able to look back at the growth of the instructor’s teaching practice, see what has developed and changed, gauge the reactions of students and the efficacy of the instructor.

Studies show that the most effective peer observations in terms of engendering growth in teaching skills involve self-reflection on the part of both the observer and observee. As stated by Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2005), this reflective practice “involves the process of teaching and the thinking behind it, rather than simply evaluating the teaching itself. It is, therefore, addressing the question of why as opposed to how and, most important, it is about learning from this process” (214).

Reflection is a vital part of learning, and as pointed out by Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2005), “[vehicles] that can encourage and develop reflective practice are essential, and peer observation processes can form an important part of such developments” (p. 211). Bell (2001) regards reflection as “an essential skill of effective teachers” that “enables teaching practitioners to articulate the components of their work that lead to successful outcomes, thus supporting their own professional development and their ability to mentor and develop others” (p. 32). Reflection on teaching “involves the reconstruction of one’s experiences: the honest acceptance and analysis of feedback; the evaluation of one’s skills, attitudes and knowledge; and the identification and exploration of new possibilities for professional action” (Bell, 2001, p. 31). Through the peer observation of teaching, instructors and observers can develop their reflective thinking skills, thereby engaging in reciprocal, formative development.

Feedback: A Core Element of the Observation Process

As Sullivan et al. (2012) describe, quality feedback is vital to the success of the peer observation process. According to their study, feedback should endeavour to be:

  • descriptive of behaviour rather than personality;
  • specific and sensitive;
  • directed towards changeable behaviour; and,
  • timely

Sullivan et al. recommend that feedback also be selective, highlighting one or two areas of strength and improvement rather than overwhelming the observee with too much information.

MacKinnon (2001) endorses an approach to feedback that is systematic, supportive, educational and developmental, calling for the use of a narrative log! that enumerates strengths and challenges and provides a summary that highlights strengths and possible areas for growth and improvement. Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond (2004) advocate a similar model, where “Step 1 involves spending time making a considered written review, Step 2 is where strengths and weaknesses are identified and Step 3 is the summary pulling out key points for discussion” (p. 215).

Cosh (1998) argues that feedback should consist of at least a conversation or written response that clarifies insights and comments, and through which effective practices can be broadly shared. She writes that feedback should “encourage further self-development and [provide] suggestions for the sharing and dissemination of good practice… and, in addition, suggest possible areas of specific focus for future observation” (p. 175).

It is important to remember that those being observed through a peer observation, in both formative and summative settings, are in a vulnerable position – no matter their career stage or level of teaching experience.

Therefore, “critical feedback must be presented in ways that are constructive and will lead to new understandings and improved practice. Any feeling that judgements are being made will act to detract from such benefits, and call the whole peer observation process into disrepute” (Hammersley-Fletcher & Orsmond, 2005, p. 218).

In Joellen Killion’s “The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning” (2015) she describes feedback as a “dynamic, dialogic process that uses evidence to engage a learner, internally or with a learning partner, in constructing knowledge about practice and self” (p. 13). Killion enumerates 11 characteristics of an effective, learning-focused feedback process:


  1. Process – engaging learner in review, analysis, reflection and planning
  2. Criterion-based – uses explicit, pre-established and known criteria
  3. Multiple forms & sources of data/evidence – multiple sources of evidence are more constructive, concrete and less biased and subjective
  4. Desired – feedback should be invited and welcome
  5. Timely – proximity of the feedback to the observation influences how the observee responds
  6. Responsive to learner – tailored to the developmental needs, perspective, context and level of expertise of the learner
  7. Frequent – frequent and routine feedback is viewed as growth-oriented
  8. Future-focused – guides the learner expediently towards changes in teaching practice
  9. Reciprocal through the feedback process, the observee helps the observer construct knowledge to build capacity, and also gives space to reflect on the observer’s own practice
  10. Skillful interaction clarity and precise communication increase understanding and the value of the feedback process
  11. Multidimensional – learner is engaged in more than one way, encouraging reflection on multiple levels

Killion clearly lays out the components of the feedback process that should be considered by both the observer(s) and observee when arranging, conducting and following up on observations. The chart below details the components in an effective, learning-focused feedback process:

Steps of Learning-focused Feedback Process

Review and goal expectations.
Establish or review and clarify understanding of learning goals, expectations, and criteria of success

Specify indicators for success.
Define what success looks like or identify which criteria will be used as a reference for assessing the effectiveness for practice

Determine data.
Identify what data are needed for the feedback process

Collect data.
Collect multiple forms of evidence from authentic practice or appropriate simulations

Analyze data and evidence.
Use data and evidence to analyze practice and assess it against specified criteria to identify current status in relationship to the criteria; reflect on strengths and areas for continued focus; clarify expectations or criteria for success if necessary

Construct knowledge.
Reflect on practice, data, and evidence from practice and analyze them to generate conclusions, generalizations, or hypotheses to apply to future practice

Deconstruct knowledge.
Examine variations of the newly constructed knowledge to explore its appropriateness in alternative contexts

Determine next actions.
Identify and prioritize next steps based on the new knowledge and support needed to apply it in subsequent practice

Reflect on the feedback process.
Assess the usefulness, rigor, effectiveness of the feedback process and the contributions of learning partners

Integrate knowledge.
Apply new learning/knowledge in subsequent actions

(Killion, 2015, p. 65)

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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.