Class Observations and Peer Review of Teaching

How do you know if all students are learning? If the lessons you designed and techniques you’ve implemented are working as intended? Classroom observations are a powerful tool for finding gaps between your goals and your impact. 

Class observations in context

When planning a class observation, it is important to consider what you want to assess and to be mindful that different people are appropriate for different kinds of information. For example:

  • Students cannot adequately assess instructor expertise, but fellow faculty can
  • Faculty can make observations about student engagement and enthusiasm, but asking your students directly is even more effective

How do I conduct an effective class observation?

Each school, program, or department might have its own guidelines and rubrics for how to conduct an observation, what to focus on, and how to report your findings. Check to ensure that you are following any procedures already in place.

Faculty Development approaches class observations using a 4-step process:

  • Faculty reflection: the instructor self reflects and provides background on what they would like reviewed
  • Pre-observation meeting: using the completed reflection as a guide, the reviewer and instructor meet to co-construct a plan for the class visit(s). 
  • Class observation: the reviewer takes copious notes during class session, marking what students are doing. Later, the reviewer translates the field notes into comments on what the instructor did well and areas for improvement.
  • Post-observation meeting: the reviewer and instructor meet to discuss how the class went, share feedback, and map the next steps. Questions to discuss include:
    • How did the class go? Did things go as you expected? Was this a typical class period?
    • How can you most effectively support student learning?
    • How can you make the environment more inclusive?
    • What might you like to change as a result of this feedback? What resources could be helpful?

Ideally, this process is iterative. The most effective, comprehensive class observations involve 2-3 visits, with reflection, implementation of suggestions, and new goal-setting each time. 

What can I look for when observing?

There are many different lenses through which to consider course delivery. Some are more open-ended, while others zero in on specific characteristics of effective teaching. These resources can help you examine course delivery: 

  • The Teaching Dimensions Observation Protocol (TDOP) is customizable, peer-reviewed, and can be helpful for distinguishing between teacher-focused and student-focused instruction and conversation. 
  • COPUS, the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM, attempts to “reliably characterize how faculty and students are spending their time in the STEM classroom” by coding the activities that students and instructors are doing at any given time. 
  • The Observations guide from Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California focuses on racial and ethnic equity.
  • Classroom interaction maps provide a visual method for tracking the dynamics of participation during a lesson. Interaction maps can show, for instance, whether an instructor tends to address or call on learners from one side of the room more than the other, or whether students respond to each other or only directly to the instructor. They can highlight which learners are quiet and which dominate, and they can help surface gender, racial, or other dynamics that may affect instruction.  
A classroom interaction map consisting of an instructor at the top and 3 rows of students. Of 22 students, 17 are male. Almost all questions and answers come from four male students. Eleven students do not pose a question or answer during the session.

In this sample classroom interaction map drawn for a math course by Vilma Mesa, circles represent answers, and stars represent questions. Note the gender disparity, concentration of answers coming from just a few students, and how questions come almost exclusively from the instructor denoted by the triangle at the top of the map. 

How do I take effective notes in the moment?

Faculty Development recommends taking “field notes” that capture your observations but do not need to be shared with the instructor you’re observing. As you are taking notes:

  • Note what students are doing every 2 to 5 minutes. 
  • Consider: when is the instructor doing the intellectual work, and when are students doing it?
  • Pay attention to how the instructor elicits participation. What does effective participation look like? Is participation distributed evenly throughout class time and across students, or do some dominate?
  • Heed any discipline-specific considerations or course specific situational factors that might affect what you see. 

To organize your thoughts in the moment, we suggest using a triple column note-taking method. Laurel Willingham-McClain provides a column structure: 

  • Column 1: time stamp 
  • Column 2: during the visit, describe what students are doing. How is the room laid out? What tools are being used? Write down everything you notice, and don’t edit as you go along
  • Column 3: after the visit, think about what you see. What patterns emerge? How do the actions taken connect to the outcomes?
Alt text: Image showing the 3-column method of note-taking. The first column has time-stamps like 9:02, 9:06. The second column contains observations and quotations from the teacher, e.g., “We’re gonna build on what we learned on Tuesday by focusing in on… First we will…, then…, and finally” (Lists this on the board).” The third column provides observations like, “Could have asked students to give their list of keywords, but maybe not enough time.” Courtesy of Laurel Willingham-McLain at Syracuse University

How do I produce a helpful report? 

The principles of giving effective feedback apply to colleagues and students both. Too much feedback can be overwhelming so in your report, highlight 3-4 things the instructor did well and 3-4 aspects they may wish to improve. 

As you hone your feedback, use your definition of good teaching to shape your focus. Some attributes to pay particular attention to include:

  • Does the instructor ask students to demonstrate higher-order thinking? Are there places where the instructor could involve students more fully, shifting the onus of critical thinking to them?
  • Does the instructor use inclusive teaching practices
  • How is the lesson designed? Does the instructor make the purpose, task, and criteria for success clear for all activities and assessments? We look for solid design of a class and materials, with learning objectives supported by good assessments that give students sufficient practice and feedback.
  • Are students aware of how the lesson connects to the course objectives? Do they have opportunities to provide feedback to the instructor? 

A report of a class observation may take different forms depending on the type of assessment conducted. 

How can Faculty Development help?

Faculty Development conducts formative observations for improvement. While these observations are separate from the formal evaluation or tenure and promotion process, they can provide valuable feedback to help faculty prepare for higher-stakes evaluations. 

Faculty Development can also conduct peer observation training, using a sample teaching video to practice producing effective observations and reports. For information, contact datias@gwu.edu