Australian universities are increasingly formalising peer observation of teaching as a tool that can be used to assess academics in promotion and performance reviews.
The trend is being driven by widespread dissatisfaction with student evaluations and a desire for better evidence about what constitutes good teaching. But it will have to overcome an inherent contradiction, with research suggesting that using reviews for formal evaluation can undermine the collegial spirit that gives peer observation – also known as peer review of teaching (PRT) – its strength.
Chi Baik, an associate professor in higher education at the University of Melbourne, said that “summative” PRT schemes – designed for recognition rather than just reciprocal improvement – required comprehensive consultation and careful structuring. “The criteria the reviewers use to write their reports have to be strongly evidence-based,” she said.
“It can’t be just a personal feel for what makes good teaching. The criteria have to come out of research literature around effective teaching practices.”
Dr Baik is overseeing a pilot of formal PRT in the university’s medicine and business faculties. The university has appointed a 41-strong “college of reviewers” to conduct the voluntary assessments.
The hope is that the scheme will be rolled out throughout the university in 2020, with academics able to have their teaching reviewed once every three years or so – and after 12 months if they attract negative assessments. But Dr Baik stressed that a university-wide scheme was far from a done deal.
“It really depends on this pilot,” she said. “We could find that it’s too difficult or there’s too much apprehension, in which case we’ll have to rethink it. Or we could find that it’s worked really well.”
She said the initiative had been driven by staff rather than the university administration. “PRT, in the less formal sense, has been around for decades,” she said. “Academics really value it for personal improvement, but they can’t use the report or feedback for anything else. They can’t forward it as evidence of teaching quality when they go for promotion or confirmation.”
Other Australian universities including UNSW Sydney, Flinders University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Tasmania facilitate summative PRT as well as the less high-stakes version. The practice is more established in North America and Europe.
The University of Liverpool, for example, expects all teaching academics to be reviewed every two years. “I sense a growing focus on it because of the increased attention to quality of teaching,” Dr Baik said.
Australian developments in PRT – including an overview of the Melbourne pilot and a literature review of Australian research findings – were being presented at the university’s teaching and learning conference on 5 June.
The literature review found that PRT was most effective if it was voluntary. But the benefits were hard to quantify, with a lack of hard data around its impacts on learning exacerbated by ambiguous definitions of the practice.
Dr Baik said that adequate resourcing for PRT – particularly the reviewers, who incurred the bulk of the workload – would be critical to its formal expansion. She said university leaders needed to champion it in a practical as well as a verbal sense.
Print headline: More universities using peer review of teaching to assess staff
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