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 or formative 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.

Formative Reviews

Peer observations of teaching performed for formative purposes have the primary goal of informing and enhancing teaching and learning.  The faculty member typically determines the focus of the observation and the observer relies on rich, thick description to more fully capture the classroom atmosphere and experiences.  The observer focuses on describing observations and making limited interpretations, but should avoid making evaluative judgments.

The relationship between the observer and the faculty member being observed is collegial, and the process is entirely confidential. All outputs of the process (notes, forms, data, letters generated as a result of the observation) are given directly and only to the faculty member being observed. Classroom observations for formative purposes are developmental and consultative in nature.

While evidence of an observation and/or reflections based on an observation may be included in materials for personnel decisions, the decision of if/how to use the observation in evaluative processes is up to the faculty member being observed.

The product of a formative observation of teaching is often a descriptive report of observations, related discussion between the observer and individual being observed, and an action plan based on the observation and discussion. The observed faculty member may also generate a reflective statement explaining the observation process and how it is informing his/her teaching.

Summative Reviews

Peer observations of teaching performed for summative purposes have the primary goal of assessing performance. A faculty member’s performance in the classroom is evaluated against a set of criteria and the review often relies heavily on quantitative information.

Because the author of the review is making a judgment about the observed faculty member’s teaching, there is an unequal relationship between the observer and person being observed. While the review may contain constructive language, it is nevertheless an evaluation.

Classroom observations for summative purposes are often performed by an administrator or senior faculty member and are used for personnel decisions (e.g., annual reviews, promotion and tenure decisions, teaching awards), thus the review is not confidential. The product of a summative observation of teaching is often a letter of evaluation, sometimes accompanied by a completed observation evaluation form.

Formative vs. Summative Reviews

Primary goal: teaching/learning enhancementPrimary goal: to assess performance
Faculty-defined goalsCriteria set by others
Process is confidentialProcess is not confidential
Relationship of equalsRelationship of expert/judge to candidate
Focus on descriptive informationOften relies on quantitative information
Constructive, collegial feedbackEvaluative feedback
Produces descriptive report and jointly constructed action planProduces letter of evaluation

Note about Potential Role Conflicts for Observers

As explained above, the purpose and outcomes of summative and formative observations of teaching are very different. To ensure confidentiality and respect the developmental nature of formative observations, colleagues who have engaged in a formative review process should avoid being involved in personnel decisions about the observed individual in the future.