Peer-to-Peer Observation in the Active Classroom

As part of the Center for Teaching and Learning’s inaugural 2018 Active Learning Seminar for Faculty, our cohort completed interdisciplinary peer observations. The following post describes the rationale and a process for conducting a peer observation for the purposes of professional development.

At many universities, it is common practice for faculty to receive a peer observation of their teaching every semester. This can be particularly true for newer faculty, or faculty who are being considered for tenure and promotion.

Observations can factor into decisions that departments make about the reappointment of adjunct faculty, or the decision to grant tenure or promotion. So, while this practice can be developmental, an observation is usually not the time when faculty are likely to try something completely new. The stakes are too high.

When a teacher is experimenting with implementing active learning techniques, the freedom to experiment without judgement and penalty is especially important. Sometimes, an activity doesn’t go as planned the first time that we do it. Sometimes, the directions are confusing. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, students don’t participate or we fail to anticipate a problem or how much time something will take. We might need time to tweak our approach. But we might also need feedback to understand what’s going wrong.

Enter: the non-evaluative peer observation.

In a non-evaluative peer observation, instructors can observe each other’s class in a low-stakes, informal way. This evaluation should never play a role in the decision to (re)hire, promote, or remove an instructor from a classroom. Instead, it is purely developmental: the purpose is to get some honest feedback from an outside observer on something that the observed teacher wants to know. Ideally, though, a non-evaluative peer observation is mutually beneficial. By reflecting on what works and what doesn’t in another teacher’s classroom, the observer can gain some helpful strategies while also sharpening their own tools for reflecting on their own teaching.

Below, you’ll find a step-by-step process for facilitating a non-evaluative peer observation on your campus or in your educational context.

  • Read (and, if there is time, considering collaboratively annotating) an article on non-evaluative peer observation, like this one from Erica Campbell, a lecturer at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).  In your department, seminar, or teacher observation pair, discuss the culture of peer observation at your institution. How is peer observation typically used? How were you trained to observe teachers? What’s different, or the same, about this style of observation?
  • Design or adapt a series of non-evaluative peer observation materials that are well-suited to your context. While there are plenty of models to consult (like Campbell’s packet of materials, or the materials based on Campbell’s materials and co-developed by the Baruch College Active Learning Seminar for Faculty), it is important to think about whether these materials meet your particular needs. In the Active Learning seminar, our faculty began our own “conversation” about our materials in a Google Doc. We  continued this conversation in person, and then finished it in a final round of Google Doc edits. In some cases, this meant that we had unresolved questions about the wording of certain items on the list. In this case, we left it up to the discretion of the pairs to decide what worked best for their context.
  • Our own non-evaluative peer observation took place in four stages once pairs were formed and the materials were developed. In the first stage, before the observation, the pair met in person or on the phone to conduct the pre-observation interview. The observer interviewed the observee, but since the pairs were going to observe each other, both interviews could happen at the same time. These reports were submitted to the seminar facilitator for review and accountability.
  • The observation, itself, was mostly descriptive. The observer was instructed to write “field notes” of what they observed, though in some cases, the observee determined a series of more evaluative questions for the observer for answer.
  • After the observation, there should be a post-observation debrief conducted in person (if possible) or by phone / web conference. The observed faculty member completes some reflective questions before the meeting takes place. Then, the observer completes more of the form during the debrief. Faculty sent both the observation form and the post-observation debrief to the seminar facilitator.
  • The final step in the process is a post-observation reflection by the observee. This should be conducted at the end of the semester rather than right after the observation takes place to allow time to reflect on how the observation helped (or didn’t!) to implement the teaching technique, or how the observation otherwise impacted future teaching in the class.

We see a lot of potential for non-evaluative teacher observation within classes that have a new or experimental format. But really, the method can be used in virtually any faculty development context where the emphasis is on the expansion of a teacher’s repertoire.

No matter how long we’ve been teaching, evaluation can help us to understand what is already working well in our classrooms, what we can improve, and how we might do it. Non-evaluative observation like this also gives us insight into how to give more effective, sensitive, and useful feedback to our colleagues and how to reflect on our own teaching practices and assumptions.