Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Observation of teaching

Sarah Nixon, Liverpool John Moores University


Reviewing others’ academic research is widely accepted practice in Higher Education (HE) and peer observation of teaching is of the same order when we are reviewing each other’s teaching by observing and discussing it. The general premise for observation of teaching is for this to be a supportive and positive experience for all parties, working with a colleague or a small group of colleagues to explore and reflect on your teaching and ideally get new ideas and teaching strategies to further develop your practice. Each institution is likely to have its own approaches or requirements concerning teaching observations and what types of session you would want to use to be observed.

If there are particular issues you are having with your teaching, then this might be a good chance to get somebody to see what is happening and help, but usually observations are opportunities to explore teaching issues in non-threatening contexts. If you can choose who observes you and who you want to observe, it’s worth choosing academics whose teaching you have admired or heard about from the students. This can give you opportunities to learn both as an observer and an observee. Choosing a buddy might be a good way for relatively new teachers to work in a reciprocal fashion to support both of you. Similarly if you team teach, this can provide excellent opportunities for reciprocal conversations about teaching approaches, the classroom context and individual teaching styles.

A pre-observation meeting is important to allow you to discuss the session and agree ground rules. After the session it’s important to ensure there is a chance to follow up in an informal conversation. This feedback is a crucial part of the process and honesty and empathy are crucially important: you need to listen and ask questions if you are not sure of particular matters, ask for examples of how to do things differently and learn from one another. The points it is suggested you look at are probably more helpful in the long run than just praise. After the observation process, you can decide on what you might want to do differently in the future and, if your observer is amenable, how best to continue the dialogue about your teaching.

Some suggestions:
  • Observe as many good teachers as possible and adapt the ideas you see or hear to fit into your own teaching strategies and context.
  • Be brave and don't just repeat your best well-rehearsed session when you are being observed: instead run a teaching session that challenges you and where you feel an external person’s feedback could help.
  • Don’t feel you have to be watched for a whole session (particularly if you teach in three hour blocks): you might just be interested in getting feedback on how to introduce your teaching, how you manage questions, or how you summarise learning at the end, so negotiate the time frame with your observer.

Useful further reading

Gosling, D. and Mason O’Connor, K. (2005) Beyond the Peer Observation of Teaching, Seda Paper 124. Accessed at http://www.seda.ac.uk/?p=5_1

Race, P. et al. (2009) Using Peer Observation to Enhance Teaching, Leeds: Leeds Met Press. http://repository-intralibrary.leedsmet.ac.uk/open_virtual_file_path/i01n324964t/Using%20peer%20observation%20to%20enhance%20teaching.pdf

The Higher Education Academy has resources on observation of teaching that may be useful. These can be accessed at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hlst/resources/azdirectory/peer_observation