Agony aunt

September 17, 1999

Is peer observation a useful tool to improve teaching or an excuse to spy on lecturers? A

With the expectation of demonstrable high quality at diminishing cost that pervades higher education at institutional and national level, it is hardly surprising that change is greeted with suspicion.

Observation of teaching invades the most intimate and personal aspect of a lecturer's role. Nevertheless, most of us are getting used to the experience despite our doubts about how the information gained may be interpreted and how it will be used.

To me a strategy of "collaborative reflection" should go some way towards addressing these concerns as it should denote some equity of power between the participants and suggest that the teaching event is a launch pad for deeper insights.

This is a developmental approach which, as recent research is showing, has as much to offer. Trust and honesty are the keys to success and a scheme that is more concerned with reported information will fail to deliver improved practice and real gains for the students. The institution has everything to gain from securing your confidence.

Graham Martin

Senior tutor (education)

Edge Hill College

A

Much depends on the purpose for which a peer observation scheme is set up. If the aim is to share excellence rather than to flag up faults, then success is much more likely. Staff will welcome such a scheme and will soon pick up useful ideas in a non-threatening environment. You must take away the idea that any one person might be doing something "wrong".

Keep feedback confidential but there is no harm in forming groups to discuss issues of good practice in a very general way. The observer could be a new member of staff or a seasoned lecturer. We all have something to learn from each other and the scheme here at NTU, after initial scepticism, has been widely welcomed across every faculty (our website is at www.celt.ntu.ac.uk)

Brenda Smith

Director of the centre for learning and teaching

Nottingham University

A

To ensure that peer observation is a useful tool to improve university teaching, the framework needs to be right. Our system deliberately does not "spy" on lecturers and relies on trust. The guidelines involved are:

Peer observation is reciprocal: if Dr Smith observes Professor Patel's lecture, then Professor Patel will later observe one of Dr Smith's classes

Observations are initiated by the observed, not the observer. This ensures that peer observation is used where it is most needed.

Staff are trained in a peer observation methodology that includes a discussion of aims and objectives before the teaching session, an agreed system of recording events during the observed class and a constructive feedback session after the class.

The peer observation process is confidential to the two people involved and any paperwork becomes the property of the person observed. A record that the observation took place (but with no other details) is kept by the department for quality control purposes.

Experience shows that the process has benefits for the observed and the observer. However, there is some effect on the conduct of the teaching session itself, for instance, students may not participate as much as usual (the embarrassment factor).

Jeremy Double

Undergraduate admissions tutor

University of Bradford

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