More universities using peer observation to assess teaching

Reflecting concern about validity of student evaluations, Australian institutions following North American and European move towards greater use of observations

June 3, 2019
Source: Getty
Rigorous ‘the criteria the reviewers use to write their reports have to be strongly evidence-based’

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.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: More universities using peer review of teaching to assess staff

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Reader's comments (4)

The problem with student evaluation is that they can be manipulated by the teacher. In one unit that someone else was teaching the average grade was 87% with a range between 75% - 97%. This Lecturer always received strongly positive reviews from his students. The same students in my class were unable to show the same high standard and I assessed their performance based on their written and spoken abilities. Unfortunately my reviews were not always flattering, even though I had co-authored the text book. Bribery and corruption was rife at the University I was employed at, but I refused to participate in this practice, and was eventually sacked because I refused to take bribes - cash, sex, free holidays etc. I fully agree with peer reviews provided those peers are working in the same field as the Lecturer - one would not expect an Accountant to comprehend the nuances of a Small Business Unit.
It is very sad that you feel that you were subjected to bribery and corruption at your institution. These conditions should never be allowed. However, I do take some objection to your comment that associates writing the text book to your ability to teach the content. Disciplinary and content expertise do not always reflect the ability to communicate and teach this material to students. Additionally, I disagree with your comment that an Accountants inability to comprehend the nuances of a Small Business Unit. Again, your focus here seems to be on knowledge of content, not the process of teaching. I believe that someone from a different discipline from mine can offer good feedback on my general pedagogical techniques and my ability to actively engage my students in learning.
Could I suggest using both student evaluation and peer observation to evaluate teachers. Evaluation by students should focus on particular areas of pedagogies and peers on others. A lesson over the years is that students do not like responsiding to too many evaluation questions. I wonder if student focus group discussions could be utilised as well. Sereana.
I agree that you do not need to be an expert in the area to review teaching practice if the key focus is on pedagogy rather than content. As someone mentioned, knowing the content does not necessarily mean that one can teach it. However, I also see the benefits of having someone who you can discuss the content with. Perhaps, the best way here is team teaching where staff have opportunities to plan/discuss the module design as well as content together. I personally find it very beneficial sharing modules with other lecturers and having 'critical friend' chats whenever possible.

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