The Peer Observation Process: Developing Teaching Excellence

Saint Leo University is a teaching institution. This means that faculty who teach in our programs are teachers first, dedicated to student learning and their own continued development of effective teaching practices throughout their careers. As part of the commitment to teaching excellence, the university provides opportunities for faculty to develop their teaching skills. One of these is our peer observation process, an evidence-based practice where teachers trained in the observation process observe other teachers to create opportunities for reflection and discussion of teaching and to provide informed, reliable feedback used to improve teaching.

Why Use a Peer Observation Process?

Creating the picture of who we are as teachers involves many things: our own self-assessment, student evaluations, our design of instructional activities, exams, and other assessments; observations conducted by chairs, deans, and peers; portfolios, participation in teaching development workshops or conferences, but, perhaps most of all, a continued openness to feedback and reflection on our teaching practices at any stage of our teaching careers. We need catalysts for helping us stop and think about ourselves as teachers, to pause and consider what we do and how we do it to make student learning better each and every time we step into the classroom.

The entanglements I experience in the classroom are
often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner
life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to
the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not
run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-
knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good
teaching as knowing my students and my subject.

---Parker Palmer

While many institutions use peer review of teaching as one component of assessing teaching effectiveness and, more importantly, raising self-awareness about teaching, peer review of teaching can be undervalued or dismissed as an unreliable method in assessing teaching effectiveness. Peers may impose their own teaching preferences on the classes they observe, defining teaching effectiveness according to how they would personally teach the class rather than looking at more broad teaching practices.

In addition, a faculty member may ask a peer who is a close friend or colleague to observe a class which may call the reliability of the observation into question or compromise its objectivity. Fearful that their comments may offend a colleague, a peer observer may be overly polite or general, failing to provide concrete and specific feedback. At the other extreme, a peer observer may be judgmental, forming quick and subjective opinions not based on a clear criteria or careful observation. Peer review of teaching may also be seen as intrusive if the classroom is viewed as the private domain of the individual teacher.

Trained peer observers (our certified peer observers or CPOs) can help to reduce the level of subjectivity and bias so common in peer reviews of teaching to provide a more valuable, informed, evidence-based review. When done as a part of a program that has a clear criteria and a developmental focus, peer observations can have many benefits.

Peer observation can help improve teaching, develop collegiality among faculty, introduce faculty to new perspectives on teaching, increase confidence to teach and learn more about teaching, transform educational perspectives, encourage purposeful reflection on teaching, and bring teaching practices out into the open to be shared among teachers from different disciplines (Bell and Mladenovic 737).

Our structure for peer review follows best practices and includes three important components that all work together to create a beneficial experience for the faculty member: (1) a pre-observation form that provides the context for the observed class session and an accompanying communication with the CPO, (2) the observation itself with a feedback form filled out by the CPO, and (3) an important post-observation reflection form submitted by the faculty member and used in a post-observation meeting with the CPO. In addition, CPOs will visit the classroom a second time, after the post-observation discussion, in a more informal manner as a follow-up and to encourage further discussion.

Good Teaching is Good Teaching

Although some models of peer review may use faculty from within departments or disciplines (content experts) to observe, we have elected to focus instead on broad teaching practices that are not discipline specific. That is, we use a teaching-practices approach that focuses on student learning rather than a content-centered approach in the peer observation process. Our university has long had a tradition of encouraging faculty to seek out colleagues from outside their departments to observe their classes. This model is consistent with that practice while providing more objective and informed feedback by using trained peer observers.

Faculty may certainly invite a content-peer to observe them, but good teaching practices are common among and beyond disciplines. As Inspired College Teaching asserts, “So many instructional issues transcend disciplines and they are every bit as important as those issues unique to teaching a particular brand of content. Teachers everywhere deal with issues of academic integrity, participation, classroom management…poorly prepared and not very motivated students…. For those teachers who resist, often their thinking subsumes teaching in content knowledge, the ‘if you know it you can teach it’ syndrome that equates instructional growth with the acquisition of content knowledge” (Weimer 113). Our peer observation model is designed to achieve the opposite: to cultivate teachers who can transform their content expertise into student learning.

Works Cited

Bell, Amani and Rosina Mladenovic. “The Benefits of Peer Observation of Teaching for Tutor Development.”

Higher Education 55 (2008): 735–752. Print.

Weimer, Maryellen. Inspired College Teaching. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2010.