University of Wisconsin–Madison

Observing Teaching

Observing Teaching

Introduction: This is one of the most commonly used forms of peer review; and in fact, is what most people envision when they think about asking a peer to help them with their teaching. It is also likely that this technique, in the way it is commonly practiced, is perhaps one of the most limited in terms of providing rich information to the observer and useful feedback to the instructor and the person(s) who will read the summary report. One of the reasons this technique is typically of limited utility (and validity) is that many observers enter the teaching interaction to observe without having a context from which to interpret their experiences.

References: Of the many interpretations of observing teaching activities, we have chosen to excerpt parts of the Teacher Observations and Peer Support Program (TOPS) at the California State University – Dominguez Hills, as presented at the American Associate of Higher Education (AAHE) Faculty Roles and Rewards conference in January 1997. The following is adapted from McEnerney, K, Allen, M., Harding, E., and Desrochers, C.Building Community through Peer Observation.

Focus: One or two colleagues observe an instructor interacting with students in a teaching activity. The colleagues conducting the review need to be familiar with what the teacher would like them to focus on, what they will be looking for, how they will record it, the types of feedback appropriate for the instructor, and people, other than the instructor, who will see the feedback summary report (e.g., chair, dean, divisional committee).

Objective of using technique: To observe a teacher interacting with students and give suggestions for improving that interaction, and to provide a summary memo, for distribution to a chair, divisional committee, peer review committee, or post-tenure review committee. It can also be used to create a forum for discussion of the selection and structure of teaching activities.

Outcome: A summary memo, for distribution to a chair, divisional committee, peer review committee, or post-tenure review committee. Additionally, it is helpful to have planning and summary discussions with reflective feedback, for the instructor’s own use, summarizing the observations and interpretations of the visitors.

Summary of the Technique: This technique involves one or more colleagues observing the teaching activities of an instructor. There are many types of teaching activities that might be observed, thus there are many possible things to look for. For example, the observers might attend a session where the instructor wants them to review her/his approach to effectively structuring student group work. Or, the observers might be asked to give feedback on the instructor’s lecture. Another observer might be asked to review the instructor’s ability to effectively question students.

The observers and the instructor set up a pre-observation meeting to discuss the teaching goals and methods for achieving those goals. They also set the date/time/place for the observation and determine what kind of introduction the instructor will give the students. The observers then observe the teaching activity, having prepared a possible list of characteristics to look and listen for.

After the visit, the observers write a summary memo addressed to the person(s) involved in the summative review of the instructor. It is also helpful to share the summary of their experience in a meeting with the instructor to discuss their observations. This post-observation conference is a key part of the developmental potential of this technique, and we strongly recommend that the observer(s) review the sample questions used for post-observation discussions in TOPS. We have included an example of a TOPS program observation process form to use.

Time Involved: This varies greatly, but the minimum amount of time would be four to six hours, which would include a minimum of a one-hour pre-observation meeting, a one-hour observation, one-hour to write the summary, and a one-hour post-observation meeting with the instructor.

Who does it? Colleagues from within or outside of a discipline, depending on the focus of the observation. If understanding the discipline-specific content of an activity is required, the observer should have that expertise. However, if creativity or the ability to get new insights into approaches beyond the discipline’s tradition is desired, it might be more effective to ask an observer from another discipline. This decision might also be influenced by the fact that some junior staff might wish to have their teaching observed by colleagues who will never be involved in assessing their performance.

To whom is it done? Instructors who need documentation of their teaching through a peer review process. It is also helpful for instructors interested in having a colleague describe their impressions of the dynamics between the instructor and students, and/or instructors interested in having a colleague review their ability to lecture, question students effectively, and/or structure group work.

Format of instruction: Can be done in any teaching setting, such as discussions, lectures or clinical, but might become disruptive if observers either outnumber students or are so visible that they impede the rapport or interaction between students and the instructor.

Unit of observation: We recommend that observations be performed periodically over a period of years so that instructors can develop over time and show improvement. This technique could be very effective at creating periodic conversations about teaching and the curriculum if done consistently over time. As a “snapshot” of performance by a single observer, it has severe limitations.

Scope: Limited to things observers can see or hear, and their interpretations of the significance of those experiences. If done without a pre-observation meeting to set a context, it is unlikely the observation will serve to enlighten anyone beyond mechanical issues of presentation style.

Documentation: The result of the observation is a summary memo, for distribution to a chair, divisional committee, peer review committee, or post-tenure review committee. It is also recommended that the summary be shared and discussed with the instructor.

Audience: The teacher desiring feedback and the person(s) requiring the review (e.g. chair, dean, peer review committee).

Comments: This method has numerous permutations dependent on the purpose of the review, the reviewers selected, the reviewers’ experiences with the approach and content in question, the type of teaching being observed, and the frequency and duration of the observations.

Pros and Cons: One of the strengths of this technique is that it can be modified to suit nearly any teaching/learning experience. It can help the observers understand the general situation, physical constraints they’re working under, and a sample of their personal teaching style. However, the information gained from an observation at any one point in time is clearly not sufficient to describe fully (or necessarily accurately) what happens in a particular course. Additionally, without the pre-observation meeting, the observer has no way to judge whether this is a “typical” activity, one that is experimental, or a special case.

If observations and their associated pre- and post-observation meetings are used as jumping off points in creating conversations about teaching, they can be very useful in helping colleagues formally document and improve their teaching. Perhaps most importantly, if the discussion between the observer(s) and the instructor continues over a period of years and several courses, growth and improvement can be documented for a more complete and appropriate representation of their teaching for tenure review.

Specific Directions:


 When  Instructor Observers
Early in semester Write reflective memo on objectives and means to achieve objectives of class
Early in semester Attend pre-observation conference: discuss teaching objectives and approaches and schedule date and time for observation(s) Attend pre-observation conference: discuss teaching objectives and approaches and schedule date and time for observation(s)
During semester Teach the course Observe the course
After observation Meet with observer(s) for post-observation conference Write summary memo to instructor and meet with instructor for post-observation conference before the memo goes to the review committee
After post- observation conference Make plans for future observations for same or different course Send memo to the review committee

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