Peer Observations of Teaching

Inviting a colleague into your classroom to observe can provide great insights into your instructional practices and the experience of learners.

Both the faculty member being observed and the faculty member observing have the opportunity to learn from one another and improve their practice.  Below are best practices for engaging in peer observations of teaching.

Purpose of the Observation – Formative vs. Summative

Peer observations of teaching may be performed for different reasons and with different goals and outcomes. Specifically, peer observations of teaching can be summative (to evaluate performance) or formative (to enhance teaching/learning) in nature.

It is important to be aware of the multiple functions peer observation may serve and clarify with the observer the specific goals for a given observation. The Center for Faculty Excellence recommends that a formative approach be used when conducting peer observations of teaching.

Learn More About Formative vs. Summative Peer Reviews.

Selecting a Peer Observer

It is important to select a peer observer who will take the process seriously, provide helpful and informative feedback, and is someone you feel you can learn something from.

Learn What to Consider in Selecting a Peer Observer.

Best Practices for Conducting Peer Observations of Teaching

The observer and the faculty member being observed should meet at least a few days prior to the planned observation visit.  The meeting should accomplish the following:

  • Determine the purpose and focus of the classroom observation.
    • Has the faculty member requested the visit with a desire to grow as a teacher? Is there some other event that prompted the observation request?  Is the observation being conducted at an administrator’s request?  Is the observation formative or summative in nature? Is there something specific that the faculty member would like the observer to focus on?
  • Provide observer with materials and information relevant to the class session to be observed.
    • Share the syllabus, class demographics, handouts, access to online materials, etc. with the observer.
  • Gather additional information about the course, students, and/or instructor.
  • Agree upon the final output from the observation process and who will receive it.
    • Possible outputs: completed observation form/checklist, letter detailing observation, letter confirming observation (but no details), letter of evaluation
    • Will only the faculty member receive materials and outputs from the observation? Will materials/outputs be shared with administrators? Personnel committees?

When sitting in on a colleague’s class session, keep the following in mind.

  • Be as unobtrusive as possible. Arrive early, sit in back of class, and do not participate in the class session. Stay the entire class session unless you’ve previously arranged to leave at a break.
  • It may be helpful to have the instructor acknowledge your presence as an outside observer and briefly explain your role.
  • Try to be unbiased and neutral in your observations. Remember that there are multiple ways to achieve the goals of a class session; don’t let what you expect to happen (or not happen) influence your observation.
  • Observe students as well as the faculty member to gauge their reaction to the instruction and their experience in the classroom.

As you observe, you should take notes that follow these best practices.

  • Take detailed and descriptive notes that capture what happens during the class session and avoids evaluative language
  • As you take notes, be cognizant of distinguishing between observation, interpretation and evaluation.
    • Observation – describe concrete, observable phenomena and patterns of behavior.
    • Interpretation – say what the observation means, or might mean.
    • Evaluation – say how you value what you have observed and interpreted.
  • Your notes should document observations, and perhaps possible interpretations.  You should avoid making evaluative judgments while observing.

In addition to taking notes, you may choose to use an observation guide/form to help focus your observation. Below are several observation forms you can use or adapt to meet your needs.

Additional observation forms and resources for peer observation.

The post-observation meeting should be scheduled as soon after the observed class session as possible. The purpose of the meeting is two-fold:

  1. For the observed faculty member to gain another perspective on his/her teaching on which to reflect. Together, the observer and faculty member should identify areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. Faculty member should leave meeting with an action plan for what he/she can do differently.
  2. For the observer to learn more about the faculty member’s motivations, expectations and skills. Having additional insights into the instructor’s approach provides a more complete picture of the observed class session and should be considered/included in the report/documentation of the observation.

When engaging in discussion after the observation, follow these best practices.

  • Approach the meeting as a conversation; avoid telling the instructor the “right way” to teach the class.
  • Begin by asking the instructor to share his/her reactions to the class session. Prompt him/her to discuss from his/her perspective what went well and what might need improvement. Practice active listening to collect additional information that may shed light on what you observed.
    • Some questions that might get the discussion started are:
      • “What is your overall impression of the class session?”
      • “Was it a typical class session?”
      • “Did the class session go as you expected?”
      • “Do you feel you were able to achieve your objectives for the class session?”
    • You may then share some of your observations with the intent of helping the faculty member see their teaching through new eyes.
      • Try to relate your observations to strengths/weaknesses identified by the instructor.
      • Avoid generalizations and be specific.
      • Be descriptive rather than judgmental.
    • Building on the discussion and topics/concerns raised by the instructor, jointly identify some things the faculty member may do differently in future. Observer can offer suggestions for improvement, as appropriate.
    • Be sure you also share with the instructor anything you learned or are taking away from the observation and discussion!

Soon after the post-observation meeting, the observer should formally document the observation and discussions in the format agreed upon at the pre-observation meeting. Documentation should ONLY be supplied to the faculty member and anyone else agreed upon at the initial meeting.

Below is suggested content for any letter or other documentation of the observation:

  • Name and title of observer
  • Name of observed faculty member
  • Name of course observed
  • Number of students enrolled in observed course
  • Date of classroom observation
  • Dates of pre-observation and post-observation meetings
  • Description of observed class session and relevant context
    • Summarize instructor’s goals for the session
    • Describe the classroom environment
    • Describe the class activities, providing specific examples from the class session
  • Summary of faculty member’s self-assessment of the course
  • Summary of the jointly identified areas of strength and opportunities for improvement
  • Summary of instructor’s action plan for addressing opportunities for improvement.

Special Considerations for Peer Observations of Online Courses

If you are conducting a peer observation of an online course, there are some additional considerations and resources that might be helpful.

See Resources for Peer Observations of Online Courses