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Chapter IV. Developing a departmental plan for formative use of peer observation
Depending on the current politics of your department, you will have to choose between a comprehensive plan and an ad hoc approach. If your department’s leadership has the trust and respect of most of its faculty, and if the normal fault lines in any academic unit have not evolved into major divides, you have the luxury of working with your chair and other opinion leaders in your department to develop a systematic approach right from the start.
Here is a word of caution: Setting up a department-wide formative process for peer observation, where none has existed in the past, will require a broad, structured conversation with most department members. You may want to invite a facilitator from outside the department to lead the discussion. Without this conversation, it will be difficult to account for and address the incredible range of issues—many of them emotionally charged—that will be on the minds of your faculty. Historically, university teaching assessment practices nationwide have been deplorable, and nearly everyone will be able to recall a personal experience that illustrates the potential risk and pain of trusting colleagues to participate in the assessment of teaching, even for well-meaning development purposes.
For many of your colleagues the notion of formative assessment as distinct from summative evaluation will not be seen as essential. This can be a stumbling block. The broad conversation among faculty will therefore need to reach clarity on these two concepts, and ensure that they inform whatever system the department decides to use. In addition, the following principles of formative assessment, iterated in the previous chapter, are useful to keep in mind.
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 honest, supportive, accurate 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.
What are some workable, time-tested models for department-sponsored formative assessment of teaching?
What is “The Buddy System”?
What are the advantages of “The Buddy System”?
What are the potential pitfalls of “The Buddy System”?
What do “buddies” do to help each other?
So how does a department set up a buddy system?
What about accountability? If faculty members choose not to do it, how will the system work?
What is the “Team System”?
What are the challenges?
What are the advantages?
How does the Mentor System compare to the Buddy and Team Systems?
Do the mentor and mentee exchange services, just like in the buddy and team system?
Why do mentor systems sometimes lead to pain and agony?
So, with all that could go wrong, why bother?
Which system is right for your department?
What are some
workable, time-
tested models for
assessment of
We recommend any of these three. The one your department uses will depend on several factors, which are addressed below.
What is "The Buddy System"?
The assumption behind the Buddy System is that the most reliable, most trustworthy observer of your teaching is someone whose professional trajectory, professional status, and teaching interests
are most like yours. This is in contrast to the "Mentor System," (below) in which you work with an observer who has more experience, seniority, and supposedly more expertise than you do. (Return to top)
What are the advantages of "The Buddy System"?
The Buddy System emphasizes the friendly, non-threatening aspects of peer observation. For a new pre-tenure faculty member or a lecturer, for example, a peer with the same professional status has no authority with regard to your employment. Free of the hierarchy, you are more likely to have candid communications with this person and share certain perspectives and attitudes.
Add to this the probability that you will be closer to this person on the learning curve as a teacher, and will therefore be dealing with many of the same issues. If you are sympathetic to each other’s concerns, you will be more likely to find in this person a colleague with whom to collaborate and share openly and selflessly all ideas related to teaching. (Return to top)
What are the potential pitfalls of "The Buddy System"?
Not all buddies are equal, and therefore you risk getting poor advice if you have not chosen your buddy wisely. Beware of the “I’ll stroke your ego if you’ll stroke mine” trap. Also, if you have only one buddy, you risk getting feedback that might not provide a complete picture. Particularly important is not to align yourself with someone who has not adapted well to the department.
Rather, seek a buddy who seems well-adjusted and is respected by colleagues.
A complete newbie may also have limited experience with—and thus a limited perspective on—teaching. It is important to make sure that your buddies and you are both fully informed about the expectations for teaching in your department. You will need to have conversations about teaching with other departmental colleagues to get a feel for the mission, if it is not already explicit.
Another risk of the buddy system relates to the size of your department. In small departments where the hiring of new faculty occurs only occasionally, it may be impossible for newer faculty members to find “buddies” in the same or related field. If the Buddy System is what the department decides to promote, it may be necessary to seek buddy candidates in another department or even in another college.
A final difficulty is that the buddy system may not work if imposed artificially. It works best when two colleagues “discover” common interests and pursue them together. Engineering such a discovery is a tough act, even for the best administrators. (Return to top)
What do "buddies" do to help each other?
In the Buddy System two colleagues exchange services. These can include but are not restricted to…

So how does a department set up a buddy system?
Since it rarely works to “assign” a buddy to someone, if the department wants to use this system it will have to make explicit the expectation that incoming faculty members seek out colleagues on their own, either inside or outside the department. For those faculty members
who have been at the university for a while, it should be relatively easy for them to find a trusted colleague with whom to work. For newer faculty, it will be necessary to make a conscious, concerted effort to socialize with other newer faculty from across the university. This is not always easy. Fortunately, this process can be facilitated on your campus by the office of faculty or instructional development, which sponsors workshops, brownbags, and other socializing events on teaching. This office will also have access to an active accounting of which departments have new faculty, and which new faculty are likely to be looking for buddies. (Return to top)
What about accountability? If faculty members choose not to do it, how will the system work?
If the department truly wants to be systematic about adopting this strategy, it will need to institute some means of assessing whether faculty are actually doing it.  This can be done through each faculty member’s documentation of his/her collaboration as a part of an annual teaching self-evaluation or as part of a teaching portfolio. The documentation would not include the content (such as results or peer reports) of the peer observations, but just a record that the collaboration occurred, and perhaps an indication of any new instructional ideas that grew from that collaboration. (Return to top)
What is the "Team System"?
The assumption behind the Team System is that there is safety in numbers.  This is the faculty equivalent of a support group.
The “Team System” is similar in many ways to the “Buddy System” in the sense that it is an exchange of services (see that list, above), but it has more flexibility in terms of who can comprise a team. Some of the same values prevail, but here there is less emphasis on homogeneity and more room for diversity. Also, there is less concern about power relations and more concern for multiplicity of perspectives. While the Buddy System is designed to work around departmental power alignments by avoiding them altogether, the Team System offsets issues of power, authority and hierarchy through multiple participants and multiple perspectives. (Return to top)
What are the challenges?
These are the same as they would be for the Buddy System.  It is hard to assign a team that works. Accountability is not easy. (Return to top)
What are the advantages?
The great advantage is multiple perspectives on your teaching.  You will be amazed at how two or three of your peers can reach such very different conclusions about your teaching, based on their own assumptions.
Another advantage is convenience. With more peers available to you, you are more likely to find someone who is free to visit your classroom. You do not need to exchange visits one-on-one. If you observe colleague A, he/she can observe colleague B, who might observe you. (Return to top)
How does the Mentor System compare to the Buddy and Team Systems?
The Mentor system is by far the easiest of the systems for departments to implement formally, since the model works within the power-and-influence relations that are common between veteran and new faculty members. The assumptions are that someone who has “been there and done that” will be an effective guide to a newbie (an apprentice), and that a newbie, out of respect (or fear) will work with whoever is assigned to him/her. Given this traditional format, a department
chair or a dean can reasonably assign a mentor to a new faculty member, and expect the new faculty member to feel committed to work with the mentor. The challenge for the administrator is to choose carefully an appropriate mentor for new faculty member. This decision will be based on a range of criteria, among them being personality, ambition, interests, level of confidence, expertise, and might even include such things as gender and ethnicity. (Return to top)
Do the mentor and mentee exchange services, just like in the buddy and team system?
Ideally, yes, since one good way to mentor someone is to ask them to do for you what you hope they will ask you to do for them. Establishing an exchange of services reduces the potential for friction implied in the power relation.  In some mentoring systems, unfortunately, the mentor carries out the feedback services for the mentee, as on a one-way street. Therein lies one of the problems of this system, since it reinforces systemically the lower status of the mentee. (Return to top)
Why do mentor systems sometimes lead to pain and agony?
Mentor systems can go wrong because the assumptions of hierarchy upon which they are based are not true for all of those who participate, whether mentor or mentee. While many new faculty may appreciate the attention of a dedicated mentor, others perceive the relationship as an unwanted intrusion and even a threat.  In some cases there are simply clashes of
personality, especially since the mentor is typically imposed, not chosen. In other cases, poorly handled power relations can complicate other embedded issues, such as those of gender and ethnicity. (Return to top)
So, with all that could go wrong, why bother?
Mentor systems have a higher rate of success when they are managed outside of the departmental power structure, and when the mentor comes from a different department or college.  This removes the mentee’s potential fear of being observed by the same person who might be in a position of judgment at a later date. (Return to top)
Which system is right for your department?
There are no rules, since each department has its own strengths and issues. If your department is small and has a history of congeniality and talking openly about teaching, an informal mentoring system can be effective, in that it might function much like a buddy or
team system. On the other hand, the mentoring system works better in a large department, where it is possible to assign to a new faculty member someone who can keep some distance from the candidate’s tenure judgment.
Departments with severe political divisions or problems of incivility should avoid the department-based mentoring system, and look for mentoring opportunities led by external organizations such as your teaching center. (At UAlbany this is the Institute for Teaching Learning and Academic Leadership.) Another option in such cases is to encourage new faculty to find buddies or work with teams in other departments, and provide documentation in their teaching portfolios. If this becomes your strategy, be sure to check with the chair to make sure that this documentation will be considered valid as part of your portfolio.
A handbook with best practices for mentoring is available at the Provost's Office website. (Return to top)