Giving feedback in peer observation of teaching

Imagine a colleague asks you to observe his intro financial theory class. He tells you that he has been getting low scores on his students’ evaluations of his teaching in the category, “Instructor lectures in a way that facilitates taking notes.” You are eager to help your colleagues out when you can, so you agree to sit in on the class one day. Here is part of what you see (watch up to about 1:09:55).

Presumably, you can come up with some suggestions for your colleague. But what will you say? Is there anything else you wish you knew about this person’s course before you give your recommendation? How would you like the follow-up conversation to proceed?

These questions are important because the great value of receiving formative comments from a peer concerning your teaching can easily be compromised by the delivery of those comments. Streams of criticism often turn people defensive, and defensive is not a good posture for learning.

So you might consider “sandwiching” your criticism and recommendations between two fluffy pieces of praise. Can you think of two things that this colleague did well  in the brief excerpt from the lecture? Did he engage your attention? How? Was there anything that you learned about teaching from observing him? If there was, let him know. (In your imagination. Please do not actually email Prof. Geanakoplos. He has other important matters to attend to.)

One model for peer observation is to think of it as an extended conversation between colleagues. Colleagues meet to discuss their courses and agree to visit each other’s class at least once. In this conversation, they talk about context: what are the goals of the course, of the class session to be observed? What teaching methods will be used, and why?

Once they have begun this conversation, they can proceed with the actual observation. It is important to pay attention not just to the instructor, but to the students, too. Apart from that, what one pays attention to in an observation can vary. It is not really necessary to rely on a form for taking notes, since this is not meant to be a summative evaluation of your colleague, but there are many different forms available. (Conduct an Education Research Complete database search or ask CELT to provide you a form.)

Then comes the tricky part: what to say in the post-observation meeting. This can be a good chance to discover more of the context of what you observed in your colleague’s class. Take a look at earlier parts of the financial theory video. Is this professor totally committed to his haphazard work at the chalkboard? Does he have any resources elsewhere in the lecture he might rely upon to make this part of the lecture clearer for students?

To offer appropriate praise and to gain a better sense for context, you can say things like, “I liked how you did ________. What motivated you to use that approach to teaching that material?” Focusing on one or two areas for improvement will give your colleague something manageable to work on for the future and might get you invited back into his or her class. It also might keep your colleague from going too negative when he or she observes your class!

So here’s another chance to practice. Imagine that the same colleague as before asks you to observe his teaching again. This time, he tells you that the dean has instructed faculty to focus more attention on helping students to think through alternative solutions to problems.Watch from this point until about 1:17:00. What would you say in the post-observation meeting?

Now that you have had this practice, are you interested in participating in a peer observation exchange this semester? If you are, please let CELT know, and you can be paired with a colleague and receive any other information or help you need.

This post is a synopsis of my presentation at the 2012 King’s College Faculty Development Day. The presentation was inspired to a large extent by a workshop given by Therese Huston of Seattle University’s CETL at the 2011 POD Network Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

What do you want to say to your imaginary colleague? How will you frame your recommendation to him? Do you have any advice for formative observation of colleagues’ teaching?

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