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Chapter II. The Story vs. the Snapshot: Peer Observation for both Formative and Summative Assessment

Not all types of assessment serve the same purpose. In some cases, an instructor wants to receive personalized feedback on how a course is going, how students are responding to an activity, or simply whether or not students are learning. The purpose of this kind of ongoing, continuous assessment is to help the instructor make adjustments that will improve the quality of the course. This is called formative assessment because it is ongoing and its purpose is developmental. It asks,What is going well that I can build on? What can I do better?
How is formative assessment different from summative assessment?
Why is this distinction so important?
How effective is peer observation for formative assessment?
How can a chair, dean or other administrator create and foster an environment in which instructors are encouraged to seek improvements in their teaching?
Is peer review potentially too political to be used for summative assessment?
Summative and Formative Assessment seem to be almost mutually exclusive, and yet completely interdependent. How is that possible?
How can formative and summative assessments of teaching be coordinated?
How is formative assessment different from summative assessment?
If formative assessment is a continuous process aimed at instructional improvement over time, summative assessment is almost the opposite: it is a snapshot, an evaluation intended to indicate a level of competence measured against a standard. A common example of summative assessment is the final exam of a college course, which samples evidence of learning that indicates the level of knowledge and skill the student has achieved in a subject area.
Summative assessment is the review of evidence in order to make a judgment. At the university, this measurement taken of teaching and research allows administrators to make decisions on such things as promotion, tenure, raises, awards, etc. (Return to top)
Why is this distinction so important?
Here is an example of the problem. If you truly want to improve a course you are teaching and you solicit input from a colleague, you are likely to accept his/her honest feedback—however negative it may be— as potentially painful but necessary, and useful rather than threatening. You might even go so far as to invite
negative criticism, by explaining to a peer observer, “I’m having a problem in class with the way this activity is working. Could you please take a look at it and tell me what I need to do differently?” If the negative feedback you get from the observation is accurate, it has the positive benefit of showing you what you might need to do to be more effective. That’s the purpose of formative assessment. It has to be confidential. It is for you and nobody else to process and act upon, if you choose to do so.
Now picture the situation where the same peer observer who visited your class is asked to evaluate your teaching summatively for your permanent file, based on the same report he/she created for you, personally and confidentially. The same criticism that you invited from him/her in the first place can suddenly, if handled carelessly or unscrupulously, become evidence that paints your professional practice in a negative light. Your teaching might, in fact, be highly effective overall (and you even cared enough to solicit feedback in the first place!), but the collected evidence now invites a potentially biased or ill-informed reviewer to focus on negative dimensions of your teaching, and these might not even be central to your achievements and competence as a teacher.
The formative assessment you solicit for improvement must be handled in a process completely separate from the formal evaluation, since the purposes that drive the two processes are very different. If we want to motivate instructors to seek candid feedback on their teaching, we have to create a process in which they are not penalized for doing so. When designing assessment practices for yourself and for your own department, peer observers should carefully separate the procedures and comments designed to improve teaching from the procedures and comments intended for the permanent record. (Return to top)
How effective is peer observation for formative assessment?
The first-hand witnessing by a colleague of what is happening in the classroom can uncover circumstances that otherwise might remain hidden from the instructor. A peer observer can see how students in the back of the classroom react to something the instructor is doing in the front. This person can share the perspective of the students, and report back to the instructor what that
view looks like. In this formative process the observer can also offer feedback on the design of the course, the validity of a test, or the content of a syllabus, to cite a few examples.
Key Principle: In order for peer observation for formative purposes to be effective, it must respond to the concerns and self-perceived needs of the instructor who requests it. It must also be carried out by someone who is trusted and holds the respect of the person whose teaching is being assessed. (Return to top)
How can a chair, dean or other administrator create and foster an environment in which instructors are encouraged to seek improvements in their teaching?
This is a complexity that is difficult to address. Ultimately the choice to participate in a formative assessment process should lie with the instructor her/himself. When an administrator demands an assessment, it can quickly cross the line into summative evaluation, which we will look at later.
Administrators can help the process by creating the conditions for effective formative assessment through their leadership in various ways:
  • by developing clear, well-articulated expectations for teaching effectiveness,
  • by sponsoring a process to support teaching skill development,
  • by conspicuously participating in such a program, him/herself, to set an example,
  • by structuring opportunities for confidential
          peer feedback, such as through mentoring programs or “buddy” systems, and
  • by designing collaboratively with faculty a summative assessment plan, to allow faculty members to agree on the “targets” and criteria by which their teaching will be assessed.
Outside agencies, such as ITLAL, can be useful to administrators in developing this kind of framework and in providing a wide variety of tools for formative assessment. Outside agencies can also help a department develop a new standard for instructional assessment without the politically perilous act of imposing one from the top. (Return to top)
Is peer review potentially too political to be used for summative assessment?
If poorly planned and managed, it most certainly can be destructive. For example, a single unannounced visit to the classroom of a candidate for tenure, for the purpose of making a judgment about his/her teaching, is not just misguided; it is a serious lapse in professional judgment on the part of the administrator involved. Keep in mind, also, that an instructor who is being observed for summative purposes may be more inhibited about engaging in a discussion about any problems he/she is facing in the classroom; if formative observation precedes summative assessment, however, that

instructor has the opportunity to work through these issues and may find the summative assessment process to be more fair.
Summative assessment is valid only as part of a larger process that includes clearly established criteria and systematic formative measures. If both are handled responsibly, formative and summative assessment can (and should) work in conjunction with each other. Just as we would never give an unannounced exam to the students in our classes, with no forewarnings about test content and grading criteria, we would not want to snap-judge our peers without allowing them practice, adequate preparation and clarification of the assessment standards being used. Peer observation for summative assessment needs to be planned and scheduled so that the faculty member being assessed knows what is expected of him/her.
But on the positive side of summative assessment, peer observations can capture dimensions of teaching—such as rapport with students, mood of the classroom, student excitement, creative use of visual support, and creativity of teaching materials—that do not typically register through other evaluation processes. For an instructor who has had opportunities for feedback by his peers in a supportive environment, a series of classroom observations for tenure review purposes could be an important part of a comprehensive, multi-faceted summative assessment of teaching.
Negative attitudes about summative assessment more often than not have to do with how it is handled by a given administrator. This topic will be treated in greater detail in Part V. (Return to top)
Summative and Formative Assessment seem to be almost mutually exclusive, and yet completely interdependent. How is that possible?
True, these two processes are distinct, but they directly complement one another. More importantly, the two different types of assessment are conducted for different reasons and expect different outcomes. Formative assessment is conducted for ourselves and remains self-referential. It occurs within a closed system, and is therefore not the basis for a truly valid evaluation of our teaching.
Similarly, summative assessment conducted in the absence of a process for formative assessment is not really assessment at all: rather, it will be seen as punishment. Imagine a biology course in which students have no access to formative feedback on their learning throughout the semester, but then are given a final exam that will determine-once and for all- their acceptance into medical school.
Without an extended "formative" process (feedback on homework, quizzes, and midterms, for example), the final or "summative" exam makes no sense. This is analogous to "drop-in" peer observations that affect a faculty member's chances for tenure. If that faculty member is not given the opportunity to learn from feedback before a summative evaluation is conducted, then that evaluation has no meaningful context.
This is particularly important in the case of less experienced instructors. If a department has no process or procedure in place to help new instructors develop and refine their practices, a summative evaluation—one that has implications for their professional careers—is highly suspect. It builds into the evaluation process the flawed assumption that teaching is a static process. Furthermore, a summative evaluation without its formative complement easily becomes a political tool that can be manipulated to serve individual power interests. (Return to top)
How can formative and summative assessments of teaching be coordinated?
The entire faculty of a department or program should start by identifying the goals of learning and the dimensions of teaching that it values most. This is not to suggest that all teaching much be carried out in the same way, but instead that the faculty in a given department all agree on a set of outcomes that they seek for their students. This discussion should focus on the following three questions:
  1. How should our students be changed as a result of our program?
  2. What should the faculty do to ensure that students change in the way we intended?
  3. What evidence will tell us if the faculty has been effective in helping students change
Formative assessment is ongoing and is part of a department’s continuing consideration of its teaching mission and values. With the answers to these questions made explicit by the department, the faculty now has general agreement on the types of teaching strategies and practices that will be encouraged. Resources and faculty development efforts can be directly tied to these expectations, and veteran faculty members can serve as mentors to new faculty members to provide personalized, confidential feedback on teaching. Mentors can consult with the new faculty on their course design and visit their classrooms regularly to provide feedback. This “formative” process should be informal, supportive, sympathetic and friendly, with frequent contact between the parties involved.
The summative assessment is built on top of the formative process. The summative assessment is not ongoing but occurs periodically in predetermined windows within a faculty member’s pre-tenure probation and subsequent career. Annually or biannually, for example, the department can collect data from several key places to determine how the faculty member is developing as a teacher. The assessment questions in this case would be the following:
  1. Are the instructor’s students changing in an acceptable way, at an acceptable rate? (How are the students doing in subsequent courses?)
  2. Is the faculty member using strategies and methods consistent with the stated goals of the department?
  3. Is the faculty member’s use of those methods effective in fostering the changes targeted?
The first question could be answered by tracking student performance through the program. The second and third questions could be answered by structured peer reviews of materials and classroom observations by multiple colleagues, using carefully designed instruments calibrated to reflect the department’s teaching mission. Other assessment locations would be student surveys, faculty self-assessment, and evidence gathered about how students performed against a given standard. (Return to top)