Peer observation of teaching is being held up as the next big quality tool. But will staff want to score one another? The THES reports.
Universities anxious to convince inspectors that their teaching is of high quality and they deserve a "light touch" when being assessed are looking to peer observation as the solution.
The idea was first mooted last July in a consultative paper that paved the way for a task group, chaired by Ron Cooke, vice-chancellor of York University, to look into procedures to replace Quality Assurance Agency subject reviews.
Peter Williams, acting chief executive of the QAA, believes that most institutions have developed sophisticated internal systems for the review of their teaching and learning. "This being so, it is sensible to begin to use evidence from internal procedures such as peer observation of teaching (POT), review of student feedback and student work as the basis for external judgements about the quality of teaching and learning," he says.
POT has become widespread in training for lecturers. It typically involves academics from the same department visiting one another's classes and giving constructive feedback. Schemes can be organised around rotating pairs or groups. Records are generally confidential and unconnected with management procedures.
POT has not always been so popular. In the early 1990s many lecturers in new universities were uneasy about having colleagues observe their teaching. There was a fear that peer observation was a ploy to bring in a form of performance-related appraisal. Lecturers' union Natfhe was strongly opposed to any attempt to link teaching performance with pay.
Liz Allen, Natfhe national official, says: "There were a number of disputes in the 1990s when compulsory peer observation was mooted in the context of introducing appraisal."
Natfhe's position softened as the threat receded, and many union branches are now involved in developing schemes as part of staff development. In the old universities, where there were no such links with externally driven appraisal, POT is seen by the Association of University Teachers as part of staff development.
Although some staff wonder whether POT is just a mechanical response to external pressure, Ms Allen believes that "the main issue to emerge is the extent to which resources are made available to support participants and the process and realise the benefits".
While observation by inspectors is well established in schools, its inclusion in subject review has caused concern. Mr Williams says: "The abandonment of grading in 1998 undoubtedly took much of the tension and apprehension out of the observation process in subject review."
For institutions operating on the border of further and higher education, the issue of grading has reappeared through the extension of Ofsted responsibilities into colleges and the establishment of the Adult Learning Inspectorate for Adult and Community Learning.
Ofsted and the Ali are undertaking joint inspections in the non-HE post-16 sector where Ofsted leads on 16-18 provision and the Ali on adults. Not only do inspectors make graded judgements about classes, but institutions are encouraged to include such data from internal observation of teaching in their annual self-assessment.
Although grading is not compulsory, it is unclear whether inspectors will accept analysis lacking ungraded evidence from classes.
Susan Orr, teaching and learning coordinator at the London College of Fashion, believes "staff involved in POT are not generally keen to score each other. They fear it will be divisive and undermine developmental benefits".
Based on the Natfhe and subject review experiences, it seems unlikely that grading would be welcomed more broadly in higher education institutions.
A different trajectory is suggested in the United States, where POT has been around as a staff development process since the 1970s. There, it has become part of broader "bottom-up" initiatives from staff, designed to enhance individual approaches to teaching and learning and provide more sources of data on quality.
Some processes associated with "peer review", such as mentoring, are quite common in the UK because staff and education developers have promoted them. But the extent to which they are genuinely peer based is questionable.
Discussion groups or "teaching circles" do exist. One was found in the higher education college covered by Ms Allen's study, but with one or two exceptions they have not been supported systematically in the UK.
Vaneeta D'Andrea, director of the Educational Development Centre at City University, one of the exceptions, suggests that "the next step for the UK might be to promote such processes, linked to the enhancement agenda, and to develop attempts to professionalise teaching and foster the scholarship of teaching and learning". The replacement for subject review could do much to assist - or retard - such a trajectory.
POT is here to stay. It can be implemented in many ways and could be linked to individual professional, departmental, and institutional enhancement strategies.
Richard Blackwell is senior adviser to the Generic Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network. The centre is holding a conference on peer review on May 29.
Details: www.ltsn.ac.uk/ genericcentre/projects/peer-ob
How POT grew into PRT in US
Vaneeta D'Andrea, director of the Educational Development Centre, City University London.
In the United States, peer observation of teaching has become part of a more comprehensive process known as peer review of teaching (PRT).
POT was part of the increased activity in faculty development in the 1970s, becoming relatively dormant in the 1980s, only to be revived in the 1990s by a project on PRT led by the American Association for Higher Education. Now it is integrated into the Scholarship of Teaching movement.
PRT goes beyond an analysis of student evaluations by including observation of teaching, analysis of curriculum design and review of academic advising.
Multiple peer processes are also common, setting POT in the context of peer discussion of improvement strategies, for example, in "teaching circles", peer mentoring and the production of portfolios for career enhancement.
Following this active period, PRT itself has become part of a wider debate on the scholarship of teaching and learning led by the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
Evidence is mounting that at universities that use PRT, students and staff are better informed when improving teaching and learning.
Evidence also suggests that staff on research-led campuses in the US have found it useful in their work as teacher-scholars.