Peer observation as a learning tool

Here in the School we’re coming to the end of our autumn window for peer observations. Each semester, we have a two-week block where we organise observations of all teaching staff by one of their colleagues. I set up the rota for the year and collect brief summary notes from people, to produce an overview in the summer.

This is a system we’ve been running for a while now and it’s been a great help to us.  Firstly, it lets colleagues see examples of good practice and generates ideas for developing what they do.  Secondly, it is a very good way of helping those who are finding specific parts of what they do difficult to get support and guidance in a focused way. And thirdly, it maintains the culture of innovative pedagogy that has been a key feature of our taught programmes for a long time.

Importantly, peer observation has proved to be a parsimonious way of achieving these goals. As a relatively small unit, all of us have extensive teaching, research and administrative duties, so finding time to sit down together is very difficult. Moreover, when we do have such discussions, they often need to cover issues such as changing university regulations or School policy, rather than classroom pedagogy per se.

As a result, we’ve turned to a very decentralised peer observation system instead. The specific focus, coupled to a lack of any sense of compulsion, seems to work well. The final reports are not used in any formal way: my summary is intended to help further spread good ideas and to pick up more structural issues (e.g. inappropriate rooming), rather than going towards annual reviews.

Most importantly, it helps to keep our teaching fresh. As those who teach will know, it’s easy to fall into ruts, especially when you have the same modules as in previous years. Peer observation helps to pull out new ideas and get them moving towards a new step in practice. So it’s good for colleagues and for students.