The Value of the Non-Evaluative: Rethinking Faculty Observation
This project was inspired by my participation in the Teaching Academy at Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY). The program has encouraged me to look at my teaching practice as a source of scholarship, and has given me the opportunity to reflect and further grow as an educator alongside a cohort of generous colleagues.
Two years ago, I was in a second-round job interview for my first full-time teaching position. I deeply wanted this job, because I loved the idea of working in a college environment that privileged teaching over research. My interviewer was the Acting Dean of Academic Affairs, an older gentleman on the brink of retirement who had been everything from a faculty member to the president of a small college in his previous professional lives. At some point during our interview, I took a risk and shared something personal: I confessed that I had always felt academically unconfident as a college student; back then, I truly believed that my classmates had more intelligent and interesting things to say, so in turn, I hardly ever spoke up at all.
This confession arose as I explained my current practice of seeking out and attempting to connect with my quietest students in the classroom, a method I first learned about from a colleague before deciding to experiment with it in my own classes in the following semesters. After I finished my explanation, my interviewer began to open up about his past teaching experiences and his passion for experimentation in the classroom. He left me with two pieces of advice: first, to throw out my lesson plans every two years and start over from the beginning, even with the courses I regularly taught. His second piece of advice was to be as honest and objective as possible if I was ever in the position to observe another colleague. My interviewer told me that if more faculty members followed this advice, everyone at the college would benefit, including, most importantly, the students.
Reflections on Peer Observation
Currently, within the CUNY system, the purpose of faculty observation is twofold: “to encourage the improvement of individual professional performance and to provide a basis for decisions on reappointment, tenure and promotions” (Article 18). The first stated purpose of the faculty observation is, therefore, to strengthen the “professional” or teaching performance of faculty members – teaching being implicit due to the structure and setting of the classroom observation. However, after faculty members earn tenure (or, for lecturers within the CUNY system, certification) they are no longer required to be observed by colleagues. Similarly, adjunct faculty members are automatically exempted from the peer observation process after ten semesters of teaching. This is problematic in that it assumes that tenured and certified faculty members, as well as seasoned adjunct faculty members, no longer need to improve or strengthen their teaching practice after reaching a certain professional threshold. The need for ongoing reflection upon the “individual professional performance” of teaching faculty does not diminish with time. As faculty members achieve a level of consistency and continuity with their teaching, there arises a need for experimentation with new teaching methods as well as intentional and structured reflection upon one’s practice.
Creating a Culture of Pedagogical Professional Development
When college faculty refer to professional development, they often mean attending academic conferences, writing scholarly or creative work, publishing, peer-reviewing the work of colleagues, and/or participating in committee work. Teaching is only one of many duties that faculty must balance, and sometimes, it receives less attention among the myriad of other obligations. Whether at a community college, four-year college, or a graduate/research institution, teaching faculty should be required to hold teaching responsibilities as their top priority. One of the most effective ways to do this is to encourage consistent professional development opportunities around pedagogy and practice - specifically formative opportunities that allow for experimentation and reflection as opposed to evaluation or consequence. According to Koops and Winsor (2005), “[l]ifelong learning must start with educators. A formative evaluation process can encourage teachers to grow and develop in the profession. Thus, professional growth can contribute to a learning environment where pedagogy and practice are frequent topics of faculty discussion” (62). Another effective way to hold teaching practice to a high standard is to foster a departmental culture of prizing pedagogical excellence. Imagine an academic department that rewarded its instructors for a semester of strong, thoughtful classroom practices with the same fervor as earning a generous research grant. This is not an unrealistic or inconceivable goal. However, creating this kind of culture in higher education will require a cultural shift from the top-down within individual institutions. Specifically, it will require one that dismantles existing power structures that privilege summative assessment of teachers and teaching over more formative, reflective processes. In turn, this institutional emphasis on teaching excellence will help to foster the desire for further pedagogical professional development on the part of faculty.
The Non-Evaluative Observation and Formative Assessment
The creation of a non-evaluative observation process is a fitting example of a formative professional development tool. As Koops and Winsor further note, “evaluation must be a continuing, constructive, and cooperative process...aimed at the goal of providing quality instruction for students” (62). The non-evaluative observation outlined in this paper is a reimagined process that seeks to privilege professional growth over evaluative judgment. It is a fact that, as Carter ((2001) states, “[p]eer review works best when it resembles formative assessment (intended to focus on improvement) more than summative assessment” (87).
Within the proposed non-evaluative peer observation process, establishing pairs of observation partners across rank is critical to establishing a formative and non-hierarchical dynamic. Pairing faculty across rank also validates the fact that adjunct faculty, which now comprise the majority of teaching faculty within some colleges and universities, often have as much teaching experience in terms of teaching hours and seniority as full time faculty. Essentially, establishing a horizontal relationship between observation partners credits all faculty members with having much to offer one another in the observation process, regardless of their rank. Additionally, the rank-blind peer observation process can serve as an opportunity for both parties to create a professional relationship that serves to connect part-time and full-time faculty members within a department. Similarly, newer faculty are offered further support and connection, while more seasoned faculty have the opportunity to reassess older practices and stay informed of current trends and challenges through the respective lens of their colleagues.
Beverly Black and Charles Bonwell (1991) discuss the imperative for further teacher training by using Teaching Assistants as an example of newer, untrained faculty that are frequently in need of guidance, and, like many graduates of master’s and doctoral programs who move on to academia, have had little to no formal pedagogical training while in graduate school. According to Black and Bonwell, the critical components in effective training for college and university instructors include “a structure for regular interaction” between faculty regarding teaching matters; access to opportunities to observe other faculty teaching similar courses; receiving “concrete instructions and training in using different methods of teaching;” and structured reviews that “provide feedback on how they are are doing on a regular basis” (441). While the aforementioned study focuses on untrained instructors, the steps they outline are just as applicable and effective in the ongoing training of more seasoned faculty members within an academic department. The process outlined below considers these factors and others, and seeks to apply them into a structured practice using a series of guided worksheets.
The following interview questions are designed to give each faculty member insight into their observation partner. The interview should be conducted in-person (or over the phone, if necessary). Record your partner’s answers to each question below.
1) How did you begin teaching?
2) What do you enjoy most about teaching?
3) What do you find most challenging about teaching?
4) How is your current semester going? Do you have any concerns in terms of:
· Course material?
5) What aspects of your teaching would you like specific feedback on during the observation? (Create 1-2 questions for the Observation Report form based on your answer.)
6) From the list provided, please choose one teaching method to experiment with during your observed class session (if you plan to use a method that is not on the list, please describe it below). Why did you select this particular teaching method?
7) Currently, how are you feeling about trying this teaching method?
Use the following page to create a visual diagram of the classroom that is being observed. Draw the position of students, the instructor, as well as any necessary objects or teaching tools in the room. During the post-observation meeting, it may be helpful to reference specific students based on where they sit. Also, this diagram can be used to inform the observed faculty member of how they use the space in the room while teaching. The suggestions below are examples of the kind of symbols and observations possible for this form:
· Circle any students who seem highly participatory/engaged in the lesson.
· Draw a triangle around students who seem distracted/disengaged.
· Draw an arrow to indicate the movements of the observed faculty during the lesson.
In the space below, describe the class session you observed. In addition, respond to the guided questions. You can use the information from this form during your post-observation meeting and share your findings with your observation partner.
1) Describe the class session you observed:
2) What was the focus or content of the observed lesson?
3) Describe the teaching method(s) used. (Lecture, group-work, pairs, etc.)
4) When did students seem most engaged?
5) When did students seem least engaged?
6) Which students participated most actively? (Show on the Classroom Diagram)
Observed Faculty-Created Questions:
7) Sample Question: How was the pace of the lesson? Did I move too quickly through the material? Too slowly?
8) Sample Question: Was I audible to students in the back of the classroom?
The post-observation meeting should be conducted in person. The observed faculty member should complete the top portion of this form in advance of the debrief meeting. The observer should complete and discuss the bottom of the page during the post-observation meeting.
1) How did you feel during the observed lesson?
2) How did it feel to experiment with the teaching method you used during your observed class? Do you feel it was successful?
3) Would you continue to use this teaching method? Explain your answer.
4) Describe 1-2 goals you would like to set for yourself regarding your teaching.
5) Based on the class session you observed, describe two specific strengths of your observation partner.
6) Describe two specific suggestions for your observation partner regarding their teaching practice.
7) Include any additional comments or questions:
Self-Reflection of Teaching Practice
Please complete this form in reference to your own teaching practice. Submit this form the the Observation Committee mailbox during week fifteen of the current semester.
- Reflect upon your experiences using your selected teaching method this semester. How did your first attempt compare to your later attempt(s)?
- Describe one thing you intentionally changed or did differently when employing your selected teaching method for the second time?
- Why did you make the change you described above (Question #2)?
- Would you continue to use this teaching method in the future? Why or why not?
- What kind of support do you feel you need from the department/college in order to be an effective teacher?
- In what ways has this semester’s observation process been helpful to you?
- In what ways could the observation process be more helpful/effective to you in the future?
- Please include any additional comments you would like to share with the Observation Committee.
Please complete the following forms with your observation partner and submit them to the Observation Committee by week ten of the current semester.
Each faculty member in the department will be paired with a colleague in the same department. The pairings are blind to rank and seniority. Each partner will take turns conducting a peer-to-peer interview before the observation, classroom observation, and post-observation debrief. All three aforementioned meetings should be conducted in person.
Before the classroom observation takes place, observation partners will schedule a time to meet and conduct a short interview. The observer will ask each question listed on the interview form, and will record the responses given by the faculty member to be observed. The purpose of the interview is to foster a level of personal/professional investment on the part of the observer. Essentially, this interview “allows the observer to put the observed class into a broader context” (Kohut, Burnap, Yon, 21). In further understanding their colleague’s personal/professional background and thoughts around teaching, the observer can better relate to their colleague’s need for growth. Also, the observer “should not make assumptions about what the instructor intends”, but instead, should “confirm his or her understanding of course goals and instructor strategies (Carter, 86). The interview process helps facilitate these conversations in a structured manner.
During the peer-to-peer interview, the observed faculty member will specify one teaching method they will commit to experimenting with at least twice during the semester: 1) during their observed class (Question #6), and 2) in at least one follow-up class before the end of the semester. They may choose from the provided list of suggested teaching methods, or they may use their own specific teaching method. Committing to using the same method twice will allow for comparison and revision which is particularly important for professional self-reflection.
Observation Report & Classroom Diagram
During the classroom observation, the observing faculty member will take detailed notes on the lesson. In addition, the observer will need to answer the specific questions on the Observation Report form. During the peer interview (see above), the observed faculty member will create 1-2 questions that will also be included on the Observation Report form.
The observer will also need to use the Classroom Diagram form as a way to visually represent the classroom during the observed class session. The purpose of the diagram is to provide the observed faculty member with information that he/she/they may not notice from their vantage point and while focused on teaching. This form is meant to help answer the question: what is happening in the classroom during the lesson? Student conduct is “a rich mine of information about how well the class is progressing” (Carter 87). Do students’ eyes follow the instructor as he/she moves? Do they stare out of the window or at their cell phones? Do they take notes? Does the instructor write on the blackboard in a way that is organized? The Classroom Diagram form provides visual feedback on the behavior and movement of both students and the instructor for the sake of constructive feedback.
Observation partners will schedule a final in-person meeting to discuss the classroom observation. In advance of the debrief meeting, the observed faculty member will complete the top portion of the Post-Observation Debrief form. During the debrief meeting, the observation partners will discuss the responses to those questions. Lastly, the observer will offer strengths as well as suggestions for the observed faculty member to consider regarding their teaching.
The post-observation meeting “allows an exchange of ideas between observer and observee” (Kohut, Burnap, and Yon, 21) and encourages the observer to “focus on helping rather than judging” (Carter, 87). Research shows the importance of the post-observation meeting in establishing a sense of fairness as well as support for the observed party, in particular. It allows for idea-sharing, constructive suggestions, and as Carter notes, compliments, which “are in order for things done well” (87).
Self-Reflection of Teaching Practice
During the last week of the semester, instructors will submit a Self-Reflection of Teaching Practice form to the Observation Committee. This form is completed by each instructor regarding their personal teaching practice over the course of the semester, and follows up on the selected teaching method they used during their peer observation process.
Once the observation partners have completed the process for both parties, they will make two copies of all forms. One copy is for their personal records, and the remaining two copies will be placed in the Observation Committee mailbox by week ten of the semester.
The committee uses the results of the observation to help inform the following:
- To frame the list of suggested teaching methods for the following semester
- To inform professional development workshops
- To collect information on the common challenges and concerns that faculty members in the department incur regarding teaching
- To publish a departmental report on professional reflection and self-evaluation based on collective findings from the Self-Reflection of Teaching Practice form.
Any questions or concerns may be directed to the Observation Committee. If any faculty member desires, they may submit completed forms using an assigned identification code (in lieu of their name).
Suggested Teaching Methods
Choose one method from the list below to try during the observed class session. Faculty may also choose to experiment with a method that is not listed, if they would prefer.
Pose a discussion question aloud. Instruct students to wait 15 seconds before they raise their hands to respond. This allows students who need more time to think to feel included, and can help equalize students with different abilities in the classroom.
Instruct students that everyone must raise their hands when a question is posed in class. The instructor may call on anyone. If a student is unsure or does not want to answer, they can either say “I don’t know” or can choose a classmate to answer instead.
After a question is posed aloud by the instructor, students are given 30-60 seconds to discuss in pairs. When they are called upon for an answer, they must share their partner’s answer aloud instead of their own.
The instructor poses a question on the board. Students are given a few minutes to brainstorm whatever ideas come to mind in response to the question (even just single word responses). Students then share aloud, and the instructor records their answers on the board.
Students are given real-life scenarios related to the course content. They work in groups to discuss and/or resolve these scenarios. For example, in a literature course, students who are reading Romeo and Juliet could respond to a case study regarding a real-life scenario of forbidden love between two people from different backgrounds.
Either at the beginning or end of a class session, the instructor poses a question about the course content, e.g. What is something you struggled to understand from the reading? What is something we did in class that you found helpful?. Students take a few minutes to write their responses (anonymously, if desired) and then pass them to the instructor.
The instructor posts large sheets of paper around the classroom with a different discussion question posed on each. Students walk the room and record their ideas/responses under each question. After writing their responses, students can then browse their peers’ answers and either comment aloud or in writing. When students have finished walking the room, the instructor can also read selected responses/comments aloud.
Small Group Discussion
The instructor poses a few questions on the boards. Students work together in small groups (3-5 students per group) to discuss their ideas in response. After an allotted time, students share their group’s ideas aloud. (Instructors can also assign roles, for example, the youngest person takes notes or the tallest person keeps time, etc.)
Similar to Answer Swap. When the instructor poses a question, students work in pairs to discuss their respective answers. They then try to collaborate by combining their responses and sharing the results aloud.
“Article 18: Professional Evaluation.” Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY).
Black, Beverly, and Charles Bonwell. 1991. “The Training of Teaching Assistants in Departments of History.” The History Teacher 24.4: 435–444..
Carter, Vicki K. 2008. “Five Steps to Becoming a Better Peer Reviewer.” College Teaching 56.2: 85–88.
Kohut, Gary F., Charles Burnap, and Maria G. Yon. 2007. “Peer Observation of Teaching: Perceptions of the Observer and the Observed.” College Teaching 55.1: 19–25.
Koops, J. Barry, and Kim A. Winsor. 2005. “Creating a Professional Learning Culture Through Faculty Evaluation.” The Journal of Education 186.3: 61–70.
Mento, Anthony J., and Andrea Giampetro-Meyer. 2000. “Peer Observation of Teaching as a True Developmental Opportunity”. College Teaching 48.1: 28–31.
Yon, Maria, Charles Burnap, and Gary Kohut. 2002. “Evidence of Effective Teaching: Perceptions of Peer Reviewers.” College Teaching 50.3: 104–110.