There are a number of reasons and occasions for teaching observations. Broadly speaking, teaching observations might be broken into two categories: formative and summative.
Formative Teaching Observations
Formative teaching observations can be conducted with varying levels of formality. They tend to be lower-stakes for the purpose of sharing ideas, getting feedback, and generally improving teaching practice. Formative teaching observations are sometimes focused on either a developmental or collaborative approach (Fletcher, 2018). Formative teaching observations that take a specifically developmental approach involve an expert or experienced faculty member who acts as an observer to facilitate an instructor’s reflection and growth in their teaching practice. Formative teaching observations that take a collaborative approach involve multiple instructors seeking to review and enhance their teaching practices through mutual dialogue and sharing of strategies.
Formative teaching observations might reflect the following occasions or reasons for observation:
- A more experienced instructor or expert who observes and provides constructive feedback to an instructor who is newer to the practice or to a particular teaching environment.
- An instructor or expert who observes and provides constructive feedback to a student teacher (such as a TA or TF).
- A student teacher (such as a TA or TF) who observes an instructor in order to learn about teaching strategies and classroom procedures.
- An instructor who shadows another instructor in order to learn about their approach to a particular course or their teaching practice.
- Colleagues (within or across disciplines) who mutually observe each other’s teaching practices and collaborate over approaches.
Summative Teaching Observations
Summative teaching observations are typically part of a formal, higher-stakes review process (such as a departmental review for instructor promotions or tenure.) They often emphasize teaching observations as part of an overall performance review of an instructor and typically generate a formal, written report as a result of the teaching observation process. Schools and departments usually have their own policies and procedures for formal summative teaching observations. Given existing institutional guidance, those involved in summative teaching evaluations may not be able to implement all of the practices named in this resource, but may be able to implement some of the practices or an amended version of those practices.
Benefits of Teaching Observations
Teaching observations can serve to make teaching more visible within an institution, recognize the value of developing a good teaching practice, and create a culture that records, shares, and learns from a variety of pedagogical strategies. They can serve as opportunities to give or receive constructive feedback, develop reflective teaching practices, collaboratively craft plans to improve instruction, share teaching approaches, and foster relationships with colleagues that support instructors in their practice. The reflective teaching culture which peer observations foster has been shown to have benefits for both instructors’ practices and student learning.
The presence of such social support networks for instructors can positively impact both job satisfaction and teaching performance (Thomas et al., 2014). Formative teaching observation processes which center instructor reflection and enable instructors to take an active role in their own development can lead to measured professional improvement (Atkinson & Bolt, 2012; Cosh, 1998; Drew et al., 2017; Martin & Double, 1998). Teaching observations have also been shown to have formative and reflective benefits for the observer in relationship to their own pedagogical practices, in addition to how they may facilitate reflection and growth in the teaching practice of the observed instructor (Hammersley‐Fletcher & Orsmond, 2004).
Concerns and Proactive Steps
Teaching observations do not come without concerns or potential issues, and those involved—both those observing and being observed—often bring real anxieties into the process. However, there are proactive steps that all parties involved can take to address concerns and reduce the impact of potential issues. For example, being conscious of the potential impacts (positive and negative) of teaching observations and identifying possible issues in advance (such as in a pre-observation meeting) can help to alleviate some concerns and mitigate difficulties which may arise.
A common concern in teaching observations is confidentiality and the potential impact of observations on an instructor’s social and professional roles within a larger institution. One way to mitigate this is for those involved in formative observations to agree to keep the information confidential between the observer and observed parties and to focus on constructive feedback. With more formal, high-stakes, summative observations, expectations regarding confidentiality and with whom written reports will be shared should be clarified in advance. Often schools and departments will have their own pre-existing policies and procedures about summative teaching observation reports and confidentiality.
An inherent risk and potential issue in teaching observations is the function of implicit bias. Implicit biases are culturally formed attitudes or views which influence people’s perception or actions subconsciously or pre-reflectively. Such biases are activated without a person’s awareness and can function apart from their intentions. Those involved in teaching observations can take some steps to mitigate the potential influence of implicit biases in the process, but it may not be possible to eliminate or avoid their effects entirely.
A significant first step is for parties to reflect on their own implicit biases. This is valuable, not just for mitigating bias in teaching observations, but for developing a more just and inclusive teaching practice in general. The process of identifying and making conscious previously subconscious biases can allow individuals to disrupt patterns of unintentional bias and intercept reactions which might otherwise stem from them. In reflecting on issues of implicit biases ahead of a teaching observation, parties might consider the intersections for potential bias rooted in the social and cultural identities of those in the classroom (such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.).
Observers in particular should recognize that biases may function positively or negatively, serving at times to advantage some while disadvantaging others. An observer might work to identify and mitigate implicit biases by reflecting on whether or not they would have the same reaction or draw the same conclusions from something if it came from an instructor of a different demographic. Another thing observers can do to mitigate the influence of implicit biases is to come with a preformed set of criteria for evaluation and be specific about what they observe in relation to it (see Conducting an Observation for examples). When making evaluations and observing classroom dynamics, it is also important for observers to recognize that implicit biases may be influencing how the instructor and students interact.
Some risks and issues can be mitigated with how teaching observations are presented to students and colleagues and by normalizing them as part of a teaching culture. For example, instructors who have concerns about the potential for students to misinterpret teaching observations as a negative reflection on an instructor’s performance can preempt this potential for misinterpretation by addressing general reasons for conducting a teaching observation and its benefits. On a department or school level, general concerns about the impact of teaching observations on instructors can be mitigated when leadership helps to create a supportive and respectful teaching culture where low-risk observations are common and in which feedback centers on the constructive development of instructors’ teaching practices (Fletcher, 2018).