Don’t Knock It Til You Try It (Jumping Off A Bridge Is Always A Bad Idea, Though): Peer Observations to Improve Teaching

February 10, 2014

It’s 2pm on a Tuesday, and as you walk into your classroom to set-up to teach, filing past the herd of students from the previous class making their way out, you overhear a couple students talking excitedly about the questions posed during the last hour. Another group of students shuffling out debates the best way to solve a particular equation. When you try to start setting up, you can’t get to the front table because seven students have encircled the previous professor as they pack up, asking questions about what was discussed and thanking them for another great class. You wonder to yourself, “What class is that? What did they do today? How do I get my students so interested and engaged like that?”

Or, maybe it’s the opposite scenario. As you walk into the classroom you notice students filing out hurriedly, checking their phones, yawning with extended sighs. You wonder to yourself, “What class is that? What did they do today? How do I get my students to be interested and engaged so that doesn’t happen?”

If you want answers to those questions, and many more about how to improve your own teaching, there’s one sure-fire way to find out…Peer Observations.

They’re scary. They’re nerve-wrackin.  They can even be intimidating, but they don’t have to be! Few sources of feedback and knowledge sharing about teaching are as insightful and helpful as a respected colleague’s validation about what you’re doing well in a classroom, and suggestions for improvement (particularly when they are formative and not summative in nature). Still nervous about the idea? An easy, safe way to enter into the peer observation realm is to ask a colleague if they’d like to do a reciprocal peer observation with you. I’ll observe your class and give you feedback if you observe me, too. It puts each person on an level field, fosters a nonjudgmental atmosphere to provide comments and suggestions, and allows for everyone involved to have teaching-focused conversations that are grounded in a shared experience (I’ve seen you teach, you’ve seen me teach, now when we talk about teaching in any context we have reference points on which to draw from each other’s actual classroom experience-not just what we choose to report out).

Ask anyone who has co-taught, or has done peer observations before and they will almost assuredly have positive things to say about it. In fact, the vast majority of negative comments I hear about it come from those who have never done it before. So, don’t knock it til you try it! Here’s how to get started doing peer observations to improve teaching:

  •  Is one class enough? YES. If any one class is representative of the course then it offers enough opportunity to make reasoned and well-justified validations of good practices and suggestions for improvement. If a single class is not representative (i.e., I lecture on Tuesdays, and do discussion on Thursdays), then more than one visit may be beneficial. Of course more is always better, but one is far better than none, and enough given the purpose and demands on time required (more on this below).
  • How can I do this to ensure it is helpful for everyone involved? The Center for Teaching and Learning has developed several resources to help guide productive peer observations (a Guide to Peer Observation/Review, Pre-Peer Observation/Review Guide, and a Peer Observation Guide).
  • When is it ideal to do peer observations? A peer observation can be conducted at any time during a semester and across a career. Usually, they are most productive when there is a specific aspect of your teaching, or a specific strategy you are going to implement, on which you are seeking additional feedback. Although, a peer observation that provides an overall view of the mechanisms of classroom interaction can be just as beneficial. 
  • Who should conduct peer observations? To answer this question, think carefully about the kind of feedback you are seeking and on what parts of your teaching. If your questions about teaching are related to the content you cover (i.e., Is it reflective of the most current literature in the field? Is there a different way for me to explain this concept, or arrive at this solution?), then you should seek out someone in your department or one that is closely related. If your questions about teaching are related to the mechanism of classroom interactions (i.e., Am I engaging students well with questions? How can I facilitate more productive discussions?), then you should seek out someone outside of your department, and even your field. Why? When someone knows the content of your class too well, their familiarity with the content can sometimes interfere with an objective report of how the classroom functions. What’s that mean? It means that if you want to know why students seem to be confused and get lost every time you try to teach the Higgs-Boson in Physics, asking other physicists to observe will typically yield feedback like, “I’m not really sure why the students aren’t getting it. Made perfect sense to me.” Seriously, this happens all the time! Bringing in someone from outside your field eliminates this potential bias and garners feedback of a different nature: “I could see students begin to lose interest at X point in time when you posed the question about equation 3. Perhaps, it is not as much about your explanation that is confusing, as it is a clue to re-think the question meant to seek their level of understanding.” 
  • How long does it take to conduct peer observations? On average, conducting one peer observation for a colleague should take at most 4 hours (1 hr pre-discussion, 1 hr observation, 1 hr notes write-up, 1 hr post-discussion).

Give peer observation a try. Roughly four hours is not a lot of time across an entire semester, and the benefits are worth it. So, dive off that bridge into the peer observation waters… Wait, bad metaphor. Just try it!

If you want assistance in finding a colleague to do a reciprocal peer observation, or just want someone to come observe you and give feedback, contact the Center for Teaching and Learning—we can connect you to an appropriate colleague, and/or we offer a classroom observation service ourselves. We’re here to help (