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Best Practices for Peer Observation of Teaching

Teaching is at the core of what we do at the University of Richmond and the School of Arts & Sciences (A&S) supports departmental efforts to maintain excellence and innovation in teaching. Due to the many concerns with focusing only on ratings from student evaluation instruments, many institutions are using alternative measures, such as peer observation of teaching, to assess teaching effectiveness.

In A&S, we recognize that some departments are already conducting peer observations of teaching in a robust way while other departments are just beginning to consider implementation of a peer observation program. We encourage A&S faculty to engage in cross-departmental dialogue regarding current peer observation practices in order to gain a broad understanding of the pros and cons of different approaches. Furthermore, we recommend our own Faculty Hub and Vanderbilt’s excellent and comprehensive overview of peer observation as starting resources.

While we do not espouse one particular approach to peer observation, we provide this document as an additional helpful resource. Your department may want to include the following important steps in your customized framework for peer observation:

The Purpose of the Observation

Have a departmental conversation to determine the purpose of the observation. Peer observation of teaching can be used for both summative and formative purposes. Summative evaluations are more formal and are typically used to make personnel decisions. Formative feedback is intended to give the observed instructor constructive feedback about how to evolve their teaching in various ways. The department should decide on the core purpose of the evaluation, what practices will be associated with the review process, and how the information collected will be used. Clearly articulate this to those under review.

Determine What "Good Teaching" Looks Like in Your Discipline

During your departmental discussion, decide what “good teaching” looks like in your discipline. The discussion should result in a guiding document that will structure the evaluator’s assessment in an efficient way. The peer review process is susceptible to biases, inconsistencies, and miscommunications without a clear set of departmental standards. Since good teaching is a multidimensional endeavor influenced by context, it is recommended that this process be collaborative and iterative over time.

Some characteristics of effective teaching have emerged within the literature and could potentially serve as the basis for a more specific, discipline-tailored rubric. They include:

  • Content knowledge
  • Use of instructional materials
  • Class organization
  • Presentation form and substance
  • Teacher-Student interactions
  • Student participation
  • Assessment practices
Select Peer Evaluators

Select peer evaluators. The observers should have institutional experience, be fair-minded and open to the teaching choices of the observed instructor, and work collaboratively with the observed to establish trust and a clear process of evaluation and reporting. To ensure sufficient reliability, a summative evaluation should be the collaborative product of a committee of at least two evaluators.

Four-step Peer Observation Process

Use a four-step peer observation process:

  1. The observers and the observed have an initial conversation, the pre-observation meeting. This is crucial to providing contextual information about the course, the students, and the instructor.
  2. The observers use the observation as an informal data collection and distillation process keeping in mind that the observation is just a “snap-shot” of the in-class practice of teaching and learning of the observed. It is suggested that at least two class sessions be observed.
  3. In a follow-up conversation, the post-observation meeting, the observers share the observations and collaborate with the observed instructor in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite. For the more formal summative evaluation, the observers should provide summary reports that clearly and thoroughly represent all phases of the process and that make recommendations that are specific and practical.
  4. The observed instructor writes a reflective summary, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.