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Chapter I. Assessment of Teaching and the Role of Peer Observation

Because teaching is a multi-dimensional job, assessing what we do as teachers requires a multi-faceted approach. No single instrument can capture all aspects of any individual style or method of teaching. Student surveys, for instance, can measure whether student perceptions of what we are doing are aligned with what we ourselves think we are doing, but assessing our teaching requires more than consumer impressions. Peer observation is just one part of a comprehensive evaluation program and should be used alongside and in conjunction with other methods of assessment.

What is a peer?
What is the difference between “assessment” and “evaluation?”
What is peer observation?
Why peer observation?
What are the risks in using peer review?
What are the costs of developing a peer observation process?
What is the purpose of this document?
What is a peer?
A peer is a colleague who does not have administrative authority above you. A peer may or may not be your
mentor. While a mentor is usually in a more senior
position, colleagues who share the same status can offer each other very useful observations and guidance about teaching. Depending on the purpose of the assessment being conducted, you may choose to be observed by a peer within or outside your department. If you are interested in a content-dependent assessment, you will probably want to choose a peer in your department to conduct an observation; if you would like a more general assessment of broader teaching concerns (e.g., teacher-student rapport, general course design, classroom management, etc.), you may choose to be observed by a peer in another department. (Return to top)
What is the difference between “assessment” and “evaluation?”
Confusion reigns over these two terms, and their usage wanders, depending on context. In this book we will use the following distinction:
Assessment is the process of objectively understanding the state or condition of a thing, by observation and measurement. Assessment of teaching means taking a measure of its effectiveness. “Formative” assessment is
measurement for the purpose of improving it.
“Summative” assessment is what we normally call “evaluation.”
Evaluation is the process of observing and measuring a thing for the purpose of judging it and of determining its “value,” either by comparison to similar things, or to a standard. Evaluation of teaching means passing judgment on it as part of an administrative process.
Ideally, a fair and comprehensive plan to evaluate teaching would incorporate many data points drawn from a broad array of teaching dimensions. Such a plan would include not only student surveys, but also self-assessments, documentation of instructional planning and design, evidence of scholarly activity to improve teaching, and most importantly, evidence of student learning outcomes.
But that is not all. A comprehensive evaluation of teaching would necessarily include various types of peer assessment, more commonly referred to as “peer observation.(Return to top)
What is peer observation?
Peer observation is the process by which university instructors provide feedback to colleagues on their teaching efforts and practices. The process might include, but is not limited to—
  • review of course planning and design (syllabus, web presence)
  • review of instructional materials (handouts, exercises, readings, lectures, activities)
  • review of learning assessments (tests, graded assignments)
  • review of in-class interaction with students, and of instructor presentations (Return to top)
Why peer observation?
There are three clear benefits to using peer
1. Our faculty peers are usually aware of the departmental teaching mission and the intended
learning outcomes of our programs. They teach the same students and face the same challenges that we do. Many are, themselves, experienced, effective teachers. Therefore, they are likely to be competent observers of various aspects of our teaching.

2. Peer observation offers much-needed flexibility in the assessment of teaching effectiveness. Depending on what a faculty member wants to learn about her/his teaching, a peer can be identified in the instructor’s home department in the same content area, so that the observation can be related specifically to an instructor’s handling of a given content or to students’ progress toward a given learning outcome. In other circumstances, it might be desirable to find a peer observer outside the instructor’s department, in order to focus on non-content concerns, such as the flavor and tone of student-faculty interaction, or the design of a particular activity. In some cases, an instructor might invite a faculty member with expertise in a particular method, in order to provide an expert’s perspective. How the peer observer is chosen will be determined by the purpose of the observation, the political realities of the department, and how the collected data will be used. More on these aspects of peer observation will be provided in later chapters.

3. There are some dimensions of teaching effectiveness that are most appropriately assessed by peers. While students are well-equipped to assess their own experience in a course, peers are better suited for evaluating other faculty members in certain matters of content, course design, and professionalism. Some key areas in which faculty are considered to be expert reviewers include
  • Course organization
  • Clarity and appropriateness of course objectives
  • Classroom management and engagement of students
  • Mastery of course content
  • Selection of course content
  • Effectiveness of instructional materials (e.g., readings, media)
  • Appropriateness of evaluation practices (e.g., exams, assignments)
  • Appropriateness of methods used to teach specific types of content
  • Commitment to teaching and concern for student learning
  • Support of departmental instructional culture (Return to top)
What are the risks in using peer review?
One downside of peer review is that it may be difficult for even a well-intentioned observer to filter out his/her own bias against a given teaching method or personality while conducting an observation. For example, someone who values strict classroom control and considers the instructor’s presentation to be the key learning
object of the classroom may not keep an open mind when observing moments of seeming chaos in a collaborative learning classroom, and vice versa. For this reason, instructors who use peer observations for feedback will need to consider the observer’s assumptions about teaching and plan for multiple visits by multiple peers.
Another risk is that if colleagues within the same department observe one another and the process is not well-managed, relationships may suffer. For many faculty members, their teaching is a sensitive, almost private topic. And because it is performed by colleagues, peer observation requires a particularly delicate touch. Being informed about best practices for peer observation is one way to reduce the risk of potential damage. The remaining sections of this site will supply a few ideas related to such concerns. (Return to top)
What are the costs of developing a peer observation process?
will need planning and broad support of the departmental faculty. (Return to top)
These vary depending on the size of the department. Faculty time and some administrative services will be required, no matter what the plan. For large departments these will be significant, since it may be necessary to form committees and to ask the faculty to engage in some training. It will also be important to support the additional paperwork that will accompany greater attention to assessment. For these and other reasons, developing a peer observation program
What is the purpose of this document?
The Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership has produced this resource on peer observation in support of the University at Albany’s teaching mission as part of an effort to develop a fair, comprehensive, effective and civil plan for assessing and improving teaching and learning. While peer review
is only one of many ways to provide feedback to faculty on their teaching, it is a highly useful one, and it readily complements the practice of teaching assessment that relies heavily on consumer feedback from students.
We do not offer this resource to promote the exclusive substitution of one type of teaching assessment for another. The assessment of teaching—whatever the purpose—needs to be multidimensional and customized from program to program and instructor to instructor in order to capture those elements most relevant to departmental mission and to the faculty’s most valued teaching objectives. We offer this resource in the spirit of facilitating faculty efforts to measure those dimensions of teaching effectiveness that current evaluation practices, such as student surveys alone, might ignore. (Return to top)