Face-to-Face and Online Courses

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To discuss recommended practices for performing peer observations of teaching for evaluative purposes


A recommended practice for evaluating teaching is to use multiple measures. At Lafayette College there are several different measures used to evaluate teaching–self-evaluations, teaching portfolios, classroom observations of teaching, course evaluations, and letters of support. Having feedback from different lenses – the instructor, the students, and outside observers, provides a more holistic assessment of the instructional practices utilized. This resource focuses on classroom observations of teaching in which an instructor obtains feedback from an outside observer. Such observations can be formative in nature, with feedback only given to the instructor being observed, or evaluative and shared for promotion, tenure, review or reappointment purposes.

For any peer observation of teaching there should be a framework undergirding what is considered distinctive or excellent teaching. In their historical article, Chickering and Gamson (1987) define such elements of good undergraduate education as: encouraging contact between students and faculty, developing reciprocity and cooperation among students, using active learning techniques, giving prompt feedback, emphasizing time on task, communicating high expectations, and respecting diverse talents and ways of learning. At Lafayette, the criteria for distinction in teaching in the Faculty Handbook provide this framework and align with Chickering and Gamson’s principles. Peer observers should be sure to review the criteria for distinction in teaching prior to conducting the observation to help them be careful to focus on the underlying framework rather than their own teaching approaches or biases around what constitutes effective teaching. 

Procedures to Follow

Section 4.2.1 of the Faculty Handbook is a main resource for departments and programs for procedures for conducting evaluative peer observations of teaching. Departments and programs may also have their own additional guidelines. Prior to obtaining an evaluative peer observation, a faculty member may request a confidential, formative classroom observation with a staff member from the Center from the Integration of Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (citls@lafayette.edu) or a trusted colleague to obtain informal, low-stakes feedback prior to an evaluative peer observation. 

A good practice is for all peer observations of teaching whether formative or evaluative to consist of a pre-observation discussion, the observation, as well as a post-observation discussion.  For the purposes of evaluative observations at Lafayette as described in the Faculty Handbook, a preliminary step, “pre-observation consultation” is also a key component. During the pre-observation discussion, important information about the course should be exchanged with the observer. The post-observation involves giving feedback to the instructor about their teaching in a constructive, respectful manner. Because a single classroom observation provides a limited and snapshot view of instruction, performing more than one observation is advisable with more than one observer. 


Pre-observation Discussion
  • Observed – Share course materials such as syllabi, presentation files, lesson plans and pre-class assignments with the observer. Discuss the course and learning objectives for the upcoming class sessions. Provide some context as to how the class session fits into the current unit as applicable, the teaching approaches that will be implemented, students’ prior knowledge of the forthcoming material, and any other observations from previous class sessions. Identify specific teaching practices for which feedback is desired from the observer.  Discuss the classroom layout and where the observer can sit unobtrusively in the classroom. Describe any preferences for using particular classroom observation instruments if applicable. 
  • Observer – Ask questions to obtain contextual information about the course and in which areas the instructor is looking for feedback. Carefully review all materials presented by the faculty member being observed. 
Special Considerations for Online Courses 

The learning management system (e.g. Moodle) or other course sites or software applications (e.g. Perusall, Piazza, etc.) can play an increasingly important role in online courses and therefore should be considered a critical aspect of the observation whether the course is held completely synchronously and if it includes asynchronous elements. The observer can be granted temporary access to such sites (or provide screenshots or copies of relevant materials from the course site, etc.) while still complying with FERPA laws and use such information when assessing student-student, student-instructor and student-content engagement. In observations of synchronous online courses the faculty member being observed should discuss how the observer can be unobtrusive when visiting the class virtually. This may involve the observer turning off their video and muting their microphone during the session. See examples below of instruments that may be used in peer observations of teaching for online courses. 

  • Observed – Announce to the class that there is an observer and the reasons for the observation. 
  • Observer – Actively take notes during the observation focusing on areas defined in the criteria for distinctive teaching and any additional areas identified by the instructor.  Focus on being an observer rather than a participant in the class session. Take note of examples of observed teaching or learning behaviors. For example, if students mostly engage in dialogue in a seminar course, or in an online class engage in dialogue through the usage of the chat box or within breakout rooms, take note of this in addition to the quality of their interactions. Did they stay on task and meet the intended outcomes? Were most group members engaged in the discussion?  What is the evidence that students were engaged or were not? Form any conclusions based on the actual observed behaviors. Perhaps the activity was successfully designed to promote high student-student engagement as evidenced by students being in dialogue with one another the majority of the class, and students accomplishing learning outcomes as determined through an assessment.  Drawing observational conclusions based on evidence lessens any tendencies to judge teaching practices based on extraneous or otherwise irrelevant information. 
Special Considerations for Online Courses 

In the case of an online course, the faculty member being observed should ensure that the observer also has access the appropriate features on the platform (e.g. breakout rooms). For example, if the instructor uses Zoom as a platform, the observer might be made a co-host allowing them to move into different rooms to observe discussions briefly in an unobtrusive manner and with discretion. The observer should also look for engagement through multiple modes rather than solely focusing on whether or not students have their videos turned on. Students can demonstrate engagement in other ways such as by using the chat function, speaking during the discussion, through discussion boards or other pre- or post-class assignments. 

Post-Observation Discussion
  • Observers and those being observed should prioritize holding the post-observation discussion soon after the observation. This step should not be missed as providing feedback is a critical component of peer observation of teaching. For this meeting, a good practice is for the observer to first ask open-ended questions to the instructor prior to giving their own feedback. Examples include:  “How do you feel the class went?”; “What do you feel worked well?”; “What could be improved?” Asking these types of questions gives the faculty member being observed the opportunity to reflect on their teaching first prior to receiving feedback. 
Special Considerations for Online Courses

For online courses, the post-observation discussion will likely need to occur remotely through video conferencing software. Even though the feedback may not be face-to-face, a live, online discussion where both the observer and observed can see facial expressions and engage in back-and-forth dialogue is recommended over sending an email message with the feedback. 

Sample Instruments for Assessing Online Teaching

Faculty may consider using or referring to available tools when conducting formative or evaluative classroom observations of online teaching. A few notable examples of instruments are below.

  • Peer Review Guide for Online Teaching at Penn State – Based on Chickering and Gamson’s principles, a comprehensive tool that includes examples of teaching evidence to look for when conducting a peer observation of teaching for an online course, where to look for it, as well as additional resources. Includes an Instructor Input Form and Peer Review Guide
  • A Checklist for Online Interactive Learning (COIL) Focuses on four major categories of teaching and learning: Student Behaviors Meet Criterion, Faculty-Student Interactions, Technology Support and Learning Environment. 
  • Quality Online Course Initiative (QOCI) – Assess five major areas of teaching and learning – Instructional design; Communication, interaction, and collaboration; Student Evaluation and Assessment; Accreditation Compliance; and Credit Hour Policy and Equivalency. 
  • Quality Matters (QM) Rubrics – Member institutions can obtain access to these rubrics for a fee. More information can be found on their website. 

Handout: Recommended Practices for Peer Observation of Teaching


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE bulletin, 3, 7.

Tobin, T.J., Mandernach, B.J., Taylor, A.H. (2015). Evaluating online teaching: implementing best practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.