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Chapter III. Formative Assessment of Teaching Using Peer Observation
  Formative assessment of teaching adheres to a few key principles:
1. It is frequent. The goal is to encourage development and track it over time.
2. It is confidential. The observee needs to feel free to invite candid, including negative, feedback.
3. It is analytical without being judgmental. The observee needs accurate, supportive input from colleagues, not accusations about his/her professional practice.
4. It is non-threatening. The assessment should be invited by the observee, and must carry no negative consequences.
5. It is collaborative. The observee should be a partner in deciding which aspects of teaching will be assessed, and who will do it.
Whether you develop a plan for yourself or it is sponsored by your department, there are several issues that you will need to address in using peer observation for the formative assessment of your own teaching.
What is your position/status in your department or program?
What if you are a new, untenured faculty member?
What type of teaching do you do?
What’s your role as a teacher?
Why do you teach the way you teach?
How do you prepare yourself—and your colleagues—for a peer observation of your teaching for formative purposes?
How should a pre-observation meeting be structured?
What should you do if you are invited to observe a colleague’s teaching for formative purposes?
How effective is videotaping a class meeting for formative evaluation purposes?
What are some of the practical issues of videotaping?
What are the downsides of videotaping?
What if an instructor wants a peer observer to interview the students?
What is your position/status in your department or program?
How you answer this question will suggest the strategy you might pursue in developing a peer observation plan. If you are a tenured faculty member you will probably be less constrained than if you are new and untenured.
Clearly, if you are an established, tenured member of the faculty, you are in a position that allows you to
model best practices of peer observation. You can become a leader by initiating formative peer observations for yourself and any willing colleagues who will join you. Over time, you can then report to your colleagues the benefits of peer observation, and even begin to suggest ways to establish a system that will help newer faculty receive the feedback they need in a non-punitive process. (Return to top)
What if you are a new, untenured faculty member?
If you are untenured and there is a clear process in place, such as a mentoring or “buddy” program, you are very fortunate. However, you may want to examine the process and ask questions to make sure that the distinctions between formative and summative evaluation are clearly respected (refer back to Chapter
Two for clarification). Not all of your colleagues will be equally sensitive to the need for confidentiality, so you will want to be sure of the expectations of the person(s) assigned to you. You do not want to get caught in a situation where you invite feedback, only to find that your colleague has discussed his/her observation of your teaching with other members of the department, without your approval.
If no process is in place to guide your formative assessment, you will need to proceed carefully. Here is one great concern: if effective teaching and the evaluation of teaching have not traditionally been an explicit priority of the department, it is quite possible that the formative/summative distinction will not be fully appreciated. In this case, when you ask your chair or other colleagues to evaluate your teaching for formative purposes, you might end up in a de facto summative assessment.
A safer approach in these circumstances is to work with trusted peers across the university, or check with ITLAL, which can help you build the support network you need, and which may be able to help you find colleagues to work with. Ideally, you will make contact with like-minded faculty members who can cooperate with you to exchange peer observation services, completely separate from departmental evaluations. If these colleagues are not available within your own department (which is often the case in small departments), you can make arrangements with peers in other departments, or even in other colleges. (Return to top)
What type of teaching do you do?
A first step in preparing for peer observation is to clarify
a) what, exactly, you are trying to make happen in or to your students. (i.e., How do you want them to
b) what teaching role(s) you have adopted in order to make it happen.
c) which teaching tools (methods, techniques, technologies) you have chosen to support that role.
As a starting point for this reflection, consider this partial list of what university teachers do:
  • Maintenance and furtherance of disciplinary knowledge (via reading, research and publication)
  • Curriculum design
  • Course and syllabus design
  • Assignment design
  • Engagement/interaction with students
  • Presentation of material (lectures, for example)
  • Integration of technology (from low-tech blackboards and chalk to high-tech teaching on-line)
  • Assessment of student learning (testing, grading, tracking)
  • Direction of student independent study and research
  • Advising and mentoring of students
  • Scholarship of teaching (reading, presenting, writing about teaching in the discipline)
  • Supervision of graduate and undergraduate TA’s and RA’s
In any given teaching situation you will be involved in some combination of these activities, and your emphasis will vary from course to course, year to year. Taking stock of what your dominant functions are in any course is key to preparing for peer observation. In order to design a formative peer assessment so it can be effective, develop a clear picture of what you (intend to) do. (Return to top)
What’s your role as a teacher?
For some instructors it helps to approach the question above from the point of view of the role you play with/for your students. Which of the following concepts best captures the essence of what you do as a teacher?
  • Coach
  • Director/Manager/Organizer
  • Activity or Event Designer
  • Case creator
  • Consultant
  • Content expert
  • Coordinator of activities
  • Discussion facilitator
  • Assessor/Evaluator of learning
  • Skeptical Questioner
  • Theatrical Performer
  • Role model
  • Negotiator
  • Advisor
  • Listener
  • Circus ring leader
  • Parent
  • Colleague or Peer (Return to top)
Why do you teach the way you teach?
Once you have articulated who you are as a teacher, it is equally important to connect your role to the strategies and techniques you have chosen. When communicated to your observer, this connection creates the context for understanding your choices as a teacher, which is necessary for the feedback you get to be relevant.
If, for example, you intend for a class meeting to encourage lateral thinking by students, the observation by a peer that you did not adequately control the focus of the class or present enough information may not help you become more effective. What you need is for the observer to recommend to you ways to provoke or encourage the lateral thinking you wanted to happen.
The following chart is a resource to help connect the goals and methods of your teaching to categories of observable activities that might be identified for your peers in advance of an observation.
Matching Teaching Method with Observable Teaching Behavior
Teaching Method Used
Instructor’s activity to be observed
Problem-solving; Problem-Based Learning
  • Design of Problem
  • Organization of materials
  • Structure of the learning activity
  • Management of classroom process
Information Transfer (Lectures)
  • Selection of material
  • Organization of material
  • Clarity of presentation
  • Enthusiasm, encouragement of student interest
  • Translation from abstract to concrete
  • Engagement with audience
  • Use of different media for support
  • Facilitation of directed conversation
  • Setting of mood and tone
  • Questioning strategies
  • Questioning sequence
  • Discussion initiation strategies
  • Engagement of all students
  • Anchoring, assessing, and clarifying student learning gains
  • Mentoring
  • Guiding without dictating
  • Personal Communication behavior
  • Questioning strategies
  • Affective considerations
Teaching Online
  • Design of assignments and activities for accessibility, usability of on-line materials
  • Conceptualization of learning environment
  • Constructive online communications
  • Management of on-line discussion tools
This list is only partial. An excellent resource to guide a self-analysis of your teaching is Anthony Grasha’s Teaching with Style, a handbook for university teachers that shows the connection between teaching beliefs, teaching philosophy, methods, and practices. (Return to top)
How do you prepare yourself—and your colleagues—for a peer observation of your teaching for formative purposes?
An effective process of peer observation includes the following components.
  1. Sharing of relevant course materials with the observer, at least 2-3 days before the observation: syllabus; lesson plan; planned future quiz or exam on relevant material, handouts, slides, etc.
  2. A face-to-face “pre-observation” meeting at least one day before the observation, between observer and observee. A meeting just before the class is less effective than an advance meeting.
  3. The observation, with note-taking by observer. These notes should resemble those of an anthropologist or ethnographer observing a
    distinct culture. The purpose of the notes is not to simply identify problems but to record
    accurately what happens in class, whether positive or negative. The observer should also write down analytical questions (“Why did you do that?” for example) that occur to him/her at particular moments in class, for discussion with the instructor afterward.

Reflection by both parties. Both observer and observee need to schedule time to reflect—separately—after the observation. The Observer needs to analyze his/her notes and identify the primary themes for discussion. The Observee needs to self-assess, and plan questions for the observer that could be used to help analyze the experience.

Second face-to-face meeting. A written assessment alone is inadequate in a formative evaluation. The point of this meeting is to share perspectives on what happened, and to reach greater insight as to why things occurred the way they did. The observee should state what he/she observed in the classroom experience from the instructor’s perspective; the observer should offer corroborations where appropriate, or additional observations and analysis that help the observee more accurately assess the experience.

Written Assessment (optional). Depending on how the observee wishes to use the assessment, a write-up is a possible final step in the process. An instructor might want to document a peer observation as part of a teaching portfolio. However, whether or not to use a formative peer observation in a summative assessment has to be the free decision of the observee. (Return to top)
How should a pre-observation meeting be structured?
In the pre-observation meeting the instructor needs to be able to explain what will be happening in class and why. The observer needs to understand the instructor’s expectations for what will happen in class. The instructor also needs to tell the observer the kinds of things to focus on: delivery, classroom management, student response, etc.
To ensure useful observations by a peer, you will need to be able to communicate to your observer the answers to the following questions, so your peer’s observations will be relevant to the context of your own (and not his/her) teaching.
  1. What are your objectives for the students in the activity being observed? (What changes do you want students to undergo? What skills, knowledge, and perspectives will they be developing?)
  2. What will be your role (your own function) in the process?
  3. What have you chosen to do (and how does this choice connect to your objective and role)?
  4. What are your expectations for what students will actually do, and for what will actually happen in the classroom?
  5. How will you know if you have been successful? (Return to top)
What should you do if you are invited to observe a colleague's teaching for formative purposes?

Well in advance of the observation, request
relevant course materials from the observee.
Review them before the pre-observation
meeting. These materials are most likely to be
the course syllabus, a lesson plan for the
targeted class meeting, copies of exercises and
assignments to be used in this particular class
meeting, and some sample quiz or exam
questions that will be used to test students on
this part of the course.

Insist on meeting face-to-face with the colleague before the event to be observed.

Discuss and make sure you understand your colleague’s values and self-image as a teacher.
  4. Ask for an explanation of what your colleague will be doing, and why.
  5. Ask your colleague to predict what should happen in class.

Ask your colleague to explain what his/her measurement of success will be for what happens in the observed class meeting. (How will you both know if he/she has been successful?)

Ask your colleague to indicate special issues or concerns that he/she wants you to pay attention to during the observation.
  8. Insist on meeting with the observee after the visit.
Printable guidelines for observers can be found here.
Printable guidelines for instructors being observed can be found here. (Return to top)
How effective is videotaping a class meeting for formative evaluation purposes?
The advantage of videotape is that an instructor can have a class videotaped, view it, replay it, and repeat the process for him/herself as many times as desired before showing it to a colleague. This allows for greater safety and comfort, if these are needed.
It also has the advantage of greatly objectifying what happens in the classroom. Viewing the videotape shows not only what the instructor does, but also how students are responding. It is difficult to overlook what is going on in the classroom when it is playing in color
before you.
Another advantage is that the videotape can be discussed with several different colleagues to elicit differing perspectives on the same class meeting.
Finally, a videotape is an excellent record of certain teaching techniques that are difficult to capture on paper. For some teachers, a videotape can be an effective component of a teaching portfolio, so it will have a purpose in summative as well as formative assessment. (Return to top)
What are some of the practical issues of videotaping?
The faculty member and the video camera operator will need to meet in advance of the session to be videotaped in order to reach an understanding of what will happen. Will the operator remain in the room during the shooting? Will the camera be stationary or will it move to follow movements in the classroom? Will the operator focus only on the instructor, or will he/she
be asked to track individual students or groups as well? (Return to top)

What are the downsides of videotaping?
The problem with videotape is its potential to needlessly diminish an instructor's confidence by hyper-objectifying (and seemingly exaggerating) small flaws in a teaching performance, which, while often insignificant in terms of student learning, can be deflating to a new
instructor watching him/herself for the first time. We recommend working with a member of the instructional development staff to develop a process for both videotaping and reviewing the videotape. (Return to top)
What if an instructor wants a peer observer to interview the students?
Inviting a peer to interview students can be an excellent way to get honest feedback on your teaching. Various entities in education have formalized this process as a kind of "focus group," one version of which is called a SGID, or Small Group Instructional Diagnosis. (Return to top)