Experiences of and attitudes to peer observation of teaching
My colleague Olaojo Aiyegbayo and I went along to the British Educational Research Association conference in Manchester, 3 to 5th September, to present the findings from a small scale study of HE staff’s experiences of and attitudes to peer observation of teaching (POT).
The background to the research is that the current decentralised organisation of peer observation of teaching within seven academic schools did not enable cross University peer observation of teaching. The Teaching and Learning Institute team was tasked with setting up a scheme that would enable staff to share good practises across schools, thus sharing experiences and teaching approaches University wide. In order to do this we decided to explore:
- what staff thought of the then current process
- the impact of POT on practice
- whether the process enabled sharing good practice
- the challenges of engaging in this process
- whether they thought there were any alternatives
- their thoughts on establishing a cross school and hence interdisciplinary scheme
Quality assurance or professional development
We also undertook a review of the University POT documentation, policies and literature (mostly UK focused) and developed a survey on the basis of this. The survey closed in Dec 2010, had 141 responses from staff who had undertaken POT and this covered all schools and represents a fairly good response rate there is about 700 academic staff.
The literature review revealed a key theme concerned with the aims and purpose of peer observation of teaching. In short, whether POT is understood to be a quality assurance tool used mainly by management with a focus on evaluation and the implication of ensuring compliance or whether POT is a tool to support the professional development of staff, an opportunity to develop their practice and freedom to experiment with innovative approaches in an environment of mutual trust and respect.
This issue is often talked about in the terms of quality assurance and quality enhancement with much disagreement about whether POT can accomplish both or whether the two aims are inherently incompatible.
The impact of peer observation of teaching
Around 60% said they were aware of the University policy and as we had anticipated this we had taken 3 statements from the policy to evaluate whether staff agreed that this was indeed what their experiences of peer observation of teaching (POT) was about. Approximately two thirds agreed that it enhanced their practice and the quality of the teaching whereas just under half thought it encouraged discussion about teaching and learning issues.
But what was the impact on their practice? In the responses to open ended questions about impact, of which there were 128, approx. 25% said POT had no impact. The ones who elaborated on this response reported that they saw it as simply a hoop to jump through, a bit of admin or part of bureaucracy.
The majority were more positive about their experiences of POT, saying that they had used it as an opportunity to reflect on their practice, get new ideas, had actually made some changes to delivery and also that it gave them confidence that their approach was good. Although this is not part of the research we believe that this sense of validation of practice, in a role and profession that is very often quite an isolated experience, is very important. One respondent commented on their experience saying:
“Gives confidence that you are on the right lines in relation to approach, methods and style”
When we asked about the challenges of POT and about alternatives to POT some of the responses echoed the theme that we found in the literature. On the one hand the respondents who thought that POT was a quality assurance tool (even if not explicitly presented as such in the policy) found it lacking, as it had no clear criteria and hence was not formalised enough. On the other hand a number of responses – that indicated they considered POT to be about developing professional practice – thought the current process of a one off annual event did not allow for a cycle of improvement and to build on feedback. One comment sums up some of the contradictions experiences:
“POT would be most effective both in subject areas and across schools if colleagues were able to observe each other and then in informal discussions discuss their observations. I ran a POT….which was based on mutual respect. It was very successful in encouraging sharing of positive practice and building confidence. It is the paperwork and the sense of “evaluation” that really undermines the system here”
Since this research, the Teaching and Learning Institute has set up a completely separate voluntary Supporting Peers Scheme to develop sharing of good practice across the University. The scheme was partially inspired by another survey response:
“I always found I learned about my own teaching observing someone else’s”
The full Working paper that this extract is based on will be available shortly at the University of Huddersfield repository. Or contact us and we will email you the report.
Jensen, Kathrine and Aiyegbayo, Olaojo (2011) “Peer Observation of Teaching – exploring the experiences of academic staff at the University of Huddersfield”, Working Paper No.2, Teaching and Learning Institute at the University of Huddersfield. The working paper is made available under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative commons license – CC BY-NC-SA
Posted by Kathrine Jensen (@kshjensen)