Going to the back of the class

October 3, 1997

Brenda Smith explains why lecturers need to listen to each other and criticise

What would your reaction be if a member of staff stopped you in the corridor and asked you to come into their next lecture and observe them teaching - to be critical of their technique?

You would probably suspect that students had been complaining about their teaching, or think it was a management technique to get rid of weak lecturers. Your reaction might be "Why me? Who am I to give you advice?" And would you feel comfortable if someone walked into your next lecture to observe you teach? Academics usually regard teaching and learning as a veryprivate activity, even though 200 students may be present. Somehow it is different if colleagues observe us, as we feel there must be something wrong. Yet there is a lot of good practice that would be much better shared thanhidden.

The basic premise must be that good practice needs sharing. However, all of us need to update our skills and knowledge, continually reflect on practice and work with our learners to help them develop appropriate strategies for themselves.

Staff seem to have trouble finding time to keep abreast of new developments in teaching and learning. One academic said to me recently that he had been teaching for a long time and therefore he did not need to learn anything new. Enormous changes and developments have taken place over the last ten years. Never before have we needed to learn so much from each other. Peer observation can enable that sharing to take place.

Money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning has enabled staff at Nottingham Trent University to devote some time to peer observation. Each subject area has a local coordinator, allowing a support network to develop and centrally produced materials to be modified.

In each subject area there are between 20 and 40 staff involved, divided into groups of four or five. It is important that these groups are selected at local level for staff to take on ownership. Some have been selected on a topic area, while others quite deliberately have chosen staff from different areas. One lecturer observes two colleagues in each group, and in turn is visited twice and given feedback. A major strength of the project is its flexible approach, which alongside central guidance promotes ownership at local level.

Those participating include professors and principal lecturers, part-time staff and research demonstrators. Good practice identified at small-group level is passed to subject and faculty level. Subject coordinators organise faculty events to discuss themes and issues that need to be addressed.

All the staff involved have received training in observation skills and the giving and receiving of feedback. A number of videos have proved to be extremely useful here (for example Making the Grade from the Universities and Colleagues Staff Development Agency, and the Teaching Matters series from the University of Technology, Sydney). This enables us to see other people teaching and to talk about appropriate feedback in a critical yet supportive environment.

Initially academics were very apprehensive about giving too many "you might like to think about the following comments". What has proved interesting, however, is that once they feel secure about being given feedback they ask for the observer to be more critical, as they find the feedback useful and constructive.

Before one is invited into the lecture/seminar/laboratory a pre-meeting takes place to talk about the focus for the observation, and this stage is crucial. It has been interesting to note that the observer learns as much if not more than the person being observed. It is very important to involve students in peer observation, otherwise they will wonder who the stranger is sitting in their session.

A typical comment:"The only obvious effect was that the overheads were bigger and clearer - but somehow the way she explained things became more straightforward, as though she had thought through everything really thoroughly."

As the project is all about "sharing excellence", it is important that the good practice identified is shared with others. The groups therefore meet as a department to discuss their findings, which at the end of the year are shared with their faculty and university as a good practice day in teaching and learning.

Peer observation is a valuable learning experience for the observer, observed and the students. Academic staff often do not feel that they know how effective they are with their students: peer observation has increased confidence in classroom skills. But it can cause staff to feel apprehensive. Its introduction therefore needs careful thought, set in a climate of open debate and with a willingness to share good practice. Introduced in this way the rewards are enormous.

Brenda Smith is teaching and learning quality manager at Nottingham Trent University.

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