Has someone got their eye on you?

March 9, 2007

Peer observation is not judging the quality of a lecturer, says Harriet Swain. It is about developing and sharing teaching methods and styles that will benefit both the observer and the observed.

Well, all you can say is that it's not the way that you'd do it.

Tricky, because that's exactly what you mustn't say as a peer observer.

"You need to avoid looking at someone and thinking, 'that's not what I would do,' or trying to make a judgment," says Paul Orsmond, senior lecturer in biology and an education researcher at Staffordshire University. "You should be saying, 'that's interesting. I wonder why they did that'."

Vaneeta D'Andrea, director of academic affairs and operations at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London, says the best kind of peer observation takes place when two colleagues decide to observe each other. The worst is when observation done for regulatory reasons is confused with that carried out for formative development. She argues that this can inhibit the learning process. "I think you mustn't mix those two up."

David Gosling, a research fellow at Plymouth University and independent consultant in higher education, says it can be helpful to have a senior lecturer observing a less senior one and vice versa - one can pass on experience, the other new ideas - although the less senior person may be unwilling to give critical feedback. It may also work to pair people from different departments but the same academic school so they don't have too much personal history between them but do have some expertise in each other's subject.

Caroline Walker-Gleaves, a professor in the School of Education at Sunderland University, recommends arranging for peer observation from people inside and outside a discipline. "Non-subject specialists will often not be afraid to ask 'obvious' questions around orthodoxies in the way that certain subjects are traditionally taught and may give important pedagogic insights as a result," she says. On the other hand, peers from the same discipline can make subtle observations that might be key catalysts for more effective teaching.

D'Andrea says you should approach peer observation of a colleague like any other scholarly activity and do your homework. This means reading course materials, the course handbook and any other written evidence, particularly if it has been especially prepared for that session. Then you should talk to the person you will be observing so you have both established ground rules for the observation and know what each would find useful for you to observe. "To do an observation that's just overarching and looking at everything doesn't help anybody," she says.

Walker-Gleaves says that if the observed person wants someone to watch out for aspects of a lecture or seminar such as dynamics and relationships, for example, it is useful to provide a narrative on the whole lesson. This would include things such as, "he said... she said... you did... and then you asked and so on", as well as whatever questions strike you - "basically, a stream of consciousness but with an inquiring twist to it".

She says such commentaries are powerful in shedding light on small interactions that the observed person may not be conscious of.

D'Andrea says that observation skills have to be learnt and recommends that academics take some kind of continuous professional development course before embarking on peer observation. Failing that, she says, it is important to read up on it.

In The Lecturer's Toolkit , Sally Brown says it is important not to observe new staff against a framework of detailed criteria intended for practised and experienced teachers. Nor should you put all the emphasis on presentation skills. You also need to observe the quality of handouts, overheads and class exercises and make sure the person observed knows this so that they do not become too anxious about presentation.

She also advises against giving too much negative feedback, suggesting three positive comments for every negative one. "If people are given too much adverse comment, they may lose track of which are the most important parts of the agenda that they need to address," she says.

D'Andrea says the observation must be systematic but you need to limit feedback to the person being observed. "It is a very intimidating process no matter who does it and it's something that needs to be handled diplomatically and with a lot of understanding."

She says the most psychologically effective way of giving feedback is to present positive before negative comments, although many people now know about this so she recommends simply making sure that the person being observed is ready to hear whatever constructive comments you have to make.

Orsmond argues that giving negative feedback is often unnecessary. If there is an issue of concern, start with what the person observed was trying to achieve.

But Walker-Gleaves says giving only positive feedback rarely serves any useful purpose. She says you should make clear that your comments are your own and be prepared to defend them.

Gosling says it is important to realise that there are benefits from the process for the observer as much as for the person observed. Realising this makes discussion after the observation more of a conversation, rather than putting the onus on the observer to make judgments. It also makes it part of a process of identifying questions and follow-up actions to improve teaching rather than one-off assessed event. "We are trying to make the interaction between observer and observed a more meaningful one and one that has longer-term consequences," Gosling says.

He says that such a discussion will be frank only if it is confidential, but there may be points raised that it would be useful to put into the public domain. "We need to find ways of moving away from overemphasis on individual performance and think more about the departmental context," he says.

Further information

The Lecturer's Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Learning, Teaching and Assessment , by Sally Brown and Phil Race, Routledge Farmer, 2001.

Higher Education Academy: www.heacademy.co.uk

Reflecting on Reflective Practice within Peer Observation, Studies in Higher Education , by Linda Hammersley-Fletcher and Paul Orsmond, 2005

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