Peer Observation of Teaching (POT) are undertaken for developmental and sometimes performative reasons, offering an educator feedback on their teaching and their student’s learning, in a variety of modes including how online materials and tasks, building a holistic assessment of their practice. In higher education, the practice is often patchy. In this short piece, I will explore some possible reasons for this and how the issue could be addressed.
Having recently observed new PGCert students, through micro-teaching activities, in their classrooms, workshops and recordings of their practice, I came to reflect on the observation of teaching or peer review, as a developmental process for both observer and observee. It could be part of induction for new academics and third-space professional staff involved in teaching and learning (such as educational developers, learning technologists, careers advisers, librarians etc), to enable them to better understand their new institution and aid a sense of belonging. This is an often hidden or unrecognised outcome. We need to do more to acknowledge this, talking about both what the observer has learned, as well as what the observee gains from the process.
At the University of the Arts London (UAL), we have found that many careers staff, technicians and librarians also develop students and yet far too often don’t have a voice in curriculum design or teaching as also noted by Toro-Tronconis et al (2021). More needs to be done to consider therefore how we can make our practices of POT inclusive of staff of all groups, and sensitive to their individual contexts and roles. Through observing staff, barriers between professional service and academic staff could be broken down. This happens informally at UAL but isn’t formalised yet. One solution to further enhance the practice of observation would be to reward collaborative curriculum design via departments bringing in third-space professionals and including observation as a mechanism to initialise collaboration, potentially creating a productive space for developing teaching and the support of student learning. In my current role, staff whose teams undertake this have found it benefits them and sparks off conversations about how the professional service staff member could co-deliver with the academic on a topic, through discussions after the observed session.
In thinking about observation, Siddiqui et al (2007) offer twelve tips:
1. Choose the observer carefully
2. Set aside time for peer observation
3. Clarify expectations
4. Familiarise yourself with the course
5. Select the instrument wisely
6. Include students
7. Be objective
8. Resist the urge to compare with your own teaching style
9. Do not intervene
10. Follow the general principles of feedback
11. Maintain confidentiality
12. Make it a learning experience
When I have undertaken observations, I have followed these tips throughout the process, mindful of ultimately making observation a useful learning experience. It is also insightful to see how students engage with the learning process (point 6 above).
An enjoyable and insightful experience
Being observed and observing others should be an enjoyable and insightful experience. It should also be a non-threatening and developmental one. This allows for a productive discussion around development and counters the sense of observation as a performative tool, which often senior leadership see it to be. We do this using the 12 tips above and by being aware that a person is involved, not just a process.
Bryne et al (2010) and the University of Edinburgh’s (2017) guidance shows how enjoyable and insightful the experience can be, as the following indicates:
- Observers report enjoyable experiences, one participant saying “ethos of support rather than judgment. A better feel-good factor.” (Bryne et al, 2010, p223)
- Observers reported insightful experiences – “it sounds silly but it’s the only time that I’ve actually had critical feedback to allow me to think this is something I need to go away and work on, usually it’s “that was fantastic‟, and so I go away feeling good, but that’s no use…” (ibid, p224).
- Observers reported using what they have learnt in their own teaching – “I’m constantly re-using tips, tricks, and methods I’ve observed other people using in my own teaching” and “watching other people teach allows me to become a student once again and reflect on my own teaching from the ‘other side” (University of Edinburgh, 2017, p6 and p8).
- Observers find it a privilege to be invited “I find it immensely valuable to be able to watch and observe how other people go about their teaching. It’s a privilege to be invited” (ibid, p10).
As educational developers how can we foster a sense of enjoyment out of this process, and create a space that allows non-judgemental conversations to take place? We may say this in our guidance but how is this experienced in practice? Are these questions we need to ask of your POT practices, in order to build enjoyment into the process? Something to reflect on.
Creating a culture of peer observation
When I worked at the University of West London, I inherited an established peer observation of teaching scheme, which was mandatory for all staff teaching to be done at least once every 2 years, and was linked to the appraisal process, during this the POT was discussed. This frequency was important to help improve practice, but also training on how to observe was crucial. Incorporating tips similar to those of Siddiqui et al (2007), supported a more holistic, developmental approach. This gives POT the same status as giving feedback to students after an assessment.
Beyond the PGCert, I have spoken to staff over the years who say they have not been observed or observed anyone for years. There could be many reasons for this; people don’t have the time, and they may not have the agency to observe others. In terms of not being able to see some of their colleagues teach (they have opted out of this) or colleagues not seeing the value of observation for development. It may also be that the staff are not confident in observing or being observed. Some staff may feel they are experts after years of working hard in a discipline, so what might an outsider know about this?
These arguments are valid and well-rehearsed; we need to work hard to highlight the value of this process, perhaps engaging in discussions of past experiences, and discussing opportunities created via the Covid19 pandemic to develop and change practice – observing recorded lectures for example. I hope this short piece has given you some inspiration the next time you conduct peer observations.
Thank you to Dr Jenny Lawerence and Dr Rebecca Turner for their feedback and support in writing this piece.
Santanu Vasant is an Educational Developer at the University of the Arts London with over 16 years of experience in teaching and academic staff development and 5 in senior management roles. He specialises in the design of physical and virtual learning spaces. He has a BSc (Hons) in Multimedia Technology and Design and a Masters in Education from UCL’s Institute of Education. He is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
Byrne, J., Brown, H., and Challen, D. (2010) Peer development as an alternative to peer observation: a tool to enhance professional development, International Journal for Academic Development, 15:3, 215-228, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2010.497685
Hendry, G D and Oliver, G R., Seeing is Believing: The Benefits of Peer Observation, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 9(1), 2012. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol9/iss1/7
Todd, Mark A., “Peer Observation as a Tool for Professional Development” (2017). Culminating Projects in English. 84. https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/engl_etds/84
Toro-Tronconis, M., Voce, J., Alexandra, J., Vasant, S., Frutos-Perez, M. (2021). Using Behaviour Change as a Critical Frame of Reference to Understand the Adoption of Learning Design Methodologies in Higher Education.World Journal of Education. https://doi.org/10.5430/wje.v11n2p1
University of Edinburgh (2017) Peer Observation of Teaching. Online. Available: https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/learning-teaching/staff/teaching-feedback/peer-observation-of-teaching Accessed 27th March 2022.
Zarrin S, S., Jonas-Dwyer, D and Sandra E. Carr, S.E. (2007) Twelve tips for peer observation of teaching, Medical Teacher, 29:4, 297-300, DOI https://doi.org/10.1080/01421590701291451
The best example of peer observation of teaching, that I took part in was a workshop at an international conference; in which delegates were paired – 1 of each pair was an experienced cyclist; the other a novice.
We then set of for about a 45 minute sightseeing cycle; during which the exoerienced cyclist closely followed their novice, giving them encouragement, and guidance to ensure they rode safely.
We then stopped for lunch, and the experienced cyclist provided their less experienced colleague with feedback on how they had done, tips for the future etc. AND the novice gave feedback to their guide, on how clear their instructions were, were they encouraging etc.
It was a wonderful experience
[And to make you madly jealous…..this all took place at we cycled round mud pools and volcanics, in NZ!!!]
Thanks James for sharing this, this perfectly illustrates the enjoyable and insightful experience in my post. However, I hope people engage with peer observation of teaching in less dramatic situations! 🙂
I really enjoyed reading this Santanu. I launched a peer teaching observation initiative in my team last year and framed it firmly as an opportunity to celebrate each others’ practice. There was some understandable resistance and nerves at the beginning, but now people are asking when the next set of observations will happen. The observation pairs are now also extending beyond my team and helping to break down siloed ways of working across other teams. All round a really useful practice to engage in.
Thanks Hannah, glad you enjoyed reading this. The framing of observation is key, great to hear the impact of observation, illustrates the culture of observation I mentioned in the post. Another great example from the University of the Arts London.
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