Face-to-Face and Online Courses
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.
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 (email@example.com) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.