A Pleasing Observation

Brian Taylor

March 06, 2012

When David D. Perlmutter wrote about peer evaluations of teaching last fall, he presented the practice as a rather lonely and combative undertaking.

He described top-down, high-stakes classroom observations in which two gray eminences evaluate the teaching of an assistant professor who is up for tenure. But what if classroom observations were seen as a voluntary, collaborative tool to improve teaching? Wouldn't the experience be more useful and considerably more pleasant?

That's what we've found as fellows in the University of Montana's Pedagogy Project, a campus effort to encourage faculty members to talk with one another about teaching. Having your teaching evaluated by peers—with no punitive strings attached—can open the door for supportive conversation, greater teaching effectiveness, and just-in-time problem solving.

Our effort began three years ago when a small group of faculty members in arts and sciences started asking students to fill out midsemester evaluations of their courses. Following a model adapted from Northwestern University's Searle Center of Teaching Excellence, we asked our students to identify approaches that were enhancing their learning, as well as those needing improvement. The results had no bearing on annual faculty evaluations, but they sparked plenty of fruitful conversations between faculty members about teaching problems and solutions.

We were so taken with the insights gained from those conversations that we sponsored a series of talks, open to faculty members and graduate students from across the university, on topics such as "Where's Waldo: Personalizing Large Lecture Classes" and "Tell Me What You Want (What You Really, Really Want): Communicating Assignment Expectations Before It's Too Late."

All of which led faculty members to our most profound learning experience: We offered assistant professors selected as fellows in the university's Pedagogy Project the opportunity to observe one another in the classroom. Once again, we kept the observation process separate from any formal review process. The sole purpose was to provide the opportunity for a peer from a different discipline to come into a classroom, focus on particular areas that the instructor under observation identified, and then talk to each other about it.

One instructor, for example, wanted the observer to pay attention to how she was using remote clickers, a technology that was new to her. The observer was able to advise her on when students made the best use of the clickers and when they did not. Another observer motivated an instructor to better define words in his lectures that his students did not understand and to bring more visual reinforcements to his teaching.

Our model of peer observation invites instructors to try out new teaching methods while being observed, rather than follow a more conservative route. In traditional peer evaluations of teaching, when a senior professor is watching you in the classroom as part of a tenure review it is a grave risk to try out a new technology, method, or lecture style. In our model, you can try out new methods without putting your career at risk. The extra pair of eyes in the room helps suggest ways of improving something that might not have gone as well as it could have.

Authentic peer-based observation can also, perhaps ironically, reduce faculty anxiety about the observation process. To be certain, it is always intimidating to teach before another teacher. But through a voluntary, low-stakes, recurrent observation process, we have learned that we can relax somewhat when a colleague is in the room because that observer is there to help us notice things that we can't. The observer can later offer perspective on whether the students' responses were a result of our actions, the nature of the particular course we were teaching, or the stage of the semester when the observation took place.

Both the peer observations and the midsemester student-evaluation process have been effective in helping instructors solve some teaching problems.

In one case, an instructor noted that a student in her class was dominating class discussions. The teacher wanted to find a way to encourage more participation by other students without humiliating the talkative one. As a fellow in the Pedagogy Project, the instructor began seeking advice from other fellows. Based on their advice, she broached the topic with her students, who were relieved to have an opportunity to discuss the problem openly. What resulted was a fruitful discussion of how both the students and the instructor could take responsibility for more-balanced classroom discussions in the future. The talkative student subsequently self-corrected her behavior.

Another faculty member, after a class observation by a peer, identified a new way to conduct small group discussions that did not devolve into chatter about local gossip or sports scores.

Through experiences such as these, we discovered that the point of the class-observation process is the problem solving and the conversation that follows—not a narrow determination of whether we as teachers passed or failed. The fact that the feedback is formative is what makes it valuable.

We also learned that observations can be much more effective if the observer and the observed prepare for them together. We made a point of talking with one another ahead of time about specific areas of our teaching on which we wanted advice. We took careful notes so that we could refer to specific behaviors. We made sure that we did not participate in the group discussion. We tried to get together as soon as possible after the observation so that the details of the class were fresh in our minds. When we followed those simple principles, originally suggested to us by an article provided by one of our members ("Observing Teaching: Discovering and Developing the Individual's Teaching Style" by Michael C. Flanigan), we found that we received a greater return on our investment of time and energy.

All too often we have heard colleagues in various departments state flatly that they are not at all interested in visiting one another's classrooms. We understand the reticence if the observations are connected to a formal evaluation (for tenure or a raise) and carry all of the politics and anxiety that come with that approach.

The model we have developed, however, offers a way to see teaching not as a personal, private practice, tucked away from public scrutiny, but as a collaborative, mutual process in which invitation, collaboration, and support mark our conversations.

We also discovered that class observation has its limits. One fellow learned that her students thought she was on probation because of the observer's presence, which stood out in a small seminar. And given that the observer is only in the class for one day, the intellectual arc of the course can get missed. Our model of peer observation also takes time: The demands of teaching, research, and service faced by all faculty members can truncate the amount of time available for effective and thorough debriefing.

Despite those limitations, we agree that the extra effort required to schedule and conduct such truly peer observations is not only pleasing but actually helpful to all involved. In our model, a class observation has become not just something to survive and get through, but an opportunity to learn from a trusted colleague and develop as teachers.

Tobin Miller Shearer is an assistant professor of history and African-American-studies coordinator at the University of Montana. Other fellows at the university who contributed their thoughts and comments to this column are Michael D. Cassens, Jake Hansen, Joel Iverson, Amy Ratto-Parks, Daisy Rooks, Mike Rosulek, and Megan Stark.