Formative Peer Review of Teaching
One of the hallmarks of an effective teacher is a commitment to reflection and continuous improvement; good teachers are constantly noting what works and what doesn’t and thinking about how to do things a little better next time. A powerful but often under-utilized resource in this improvement cycle is external feedback from colleagues. Sadly, although faculty are used to collaborating and soliciting feedback in order to ensure the quality of their research, we often approach teaching as if we were on a deserted island, reinventing wheels and forgetting that we are surrounded by people building the same wheels from whom we can learn and receive assistance. Inviting peers and colleagues to review our teaching can be scary but can often provide insights that we might never discover on our own.
The resources on this page are intended to help instructors interested in giving and receiving this external feedback on teaching. Although the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning is available for individual consultations with faculty (including classroom observations), the rubrics provided here can be used by anyone to review teaching performance and materials (including self-evaluation). These rubrics are based on the large and growing literature in the scholarship of teaching and learning that identifies specific, observable behaviors and characteristics of effective teachers.
The materials here are intended for formative review (if you are not familiar with formative versus summative, see below). In practice, the distinction between formative and summative evaluation is not always clear-cut. For example, student evaluations are required to be used in RTP decisions (summative) but of course, often provide information that instructors can use to improve the course (formative). However, when inviting peers to review one’s teaching, it is important to be clear whether the intention is formative or summative. For summative evaluation, it is imperative that evaluators consider multiple sources of information, using multiple methods to gather the information and over multiple points in time.
The Peer Review Process
Whether a review involves classroom observation, assignments or other course materials, effective reviews generally follow a similar process:
- Identify your needs/questions. What exactly are you interested in learning? Are your concerns related to content (e.g., is my course appropriately challenging for this level? Is the pace appropriate?), pedagogy, or classroom/student management?
- Find a good reviewer. If your concerns are related to appropriateness of content, you may want to find someone in your discipline; however, if you want to know whether your explanations of content are understandable to a novice (i.e., someone in the same position as your students), a colleague outside your field is likely to be a better reviewer. If you are interested in specific teaching issues or contexts (e.g., teaching in a large class, working with student groups, etc.), look for someone with some experience in those same issues or contexts (the CTL Director may be able to help identify appropriate colleagues). Given the purposes of formative evaluation, instructors should also try to find reviewers who will NOT be involved in their summative (i.e., RTP or periodic review) reviews.
- Have a pre-review meeting. Although much of this information could be exchanged via email, having a face-to-face meeting is often more efficient and helps build the trust and collegiality that is imperative for a useful review.
- Establish expectations. Be upfront with your reviewer about the specific concerns you have and the type of feedback you are hoping to receive. You should discuss the criteria, standards and instruments that will be used for the review (see examples of rubrics and reporting templates below, which can be adapted to suit your specific needs). Be clear that you are looking for formative feedback or if there is a chance that you will want to use their report for summative purposes (i.e., in your materials submitted for RTP).
- Provide context. Reviewers need context about the class, the instructor and the students. This is particularly important for classroom observations (see pre-observation discussion template below) but reviews of static course materials are also much more useful when the evaluator has this background information.
- Determine logistics. The reviewer and and reviewee should agree on the timeline: when will the review take place and when can the reviewee expect the reviewer’s report and/or when the follow-up meeting will occur. For classroom observations, you should discuss the logistics of the visit (e.g., where will the observer sit, will they be introduced, etc.).
- Reviewer completes the review.
- Have a follow-up meeting. This should be scheduled as soon after the review/classroom observation as possible (within a week is best) and the reviewer should complete their written report before the meeting (see reporting templates below). This is an opportunity to discuss the reviewer’s feedback collaboratively and should focus on constructive reflection.
- Process the review and make a plan for improvement. The review process is not really complete until you reflect on the feedback and consider how you will use the information to improve your teaching. Keep in mind that it is sometimes easier for colleagues to identify problems than offer concrete or appropriate solutions (not unlike our students when asked to do peer review!); if you need additional assistance with addressing issues raised in your review, the Teaching Issue pages on this site contain many resources or you can contact the CTL Director.
Advice for effective peer reviews
The following suggestions will help maximize the usefulness of peer reviews:
- Reviewers and reviewees should approach the whole process as an active collaboration. Remember that the purpose of formative evaluation is improvement; instructors should not feel anxious about feedback indicating they are not perfect. Reviews should be honest and constructive, conducted in a collegial and private manner.
- Confidentiality is crucial, and trust must be established between both partners.
- Reviews should focus on specific teaching practices or materials, and feedback should be based on reasoned opinions. Being a good reviewer requires reflection as well as reviewers should try to be aware of their own biases and judgments.
- Build on strengths. It is often easy for reviewers to focus on what needs work; be sure also to identify what went well.
- A single classroom observation is not sufficient for a summative evaluation. However, instructors may want to use the fact that they have engaged in a formative review process as evidence of their teaching effectiveness in summative reviews (see here for more discussion). This should be made transparent to the reviewer.
Formative vs. Summative
In Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook (2007), Nancy Chism discusses the difference between formative and summative evaluation of teaching as follows:
“Within the context of teacher evaluation, the term formative evaluation describes activities that provide teachers with information that they can use to improve their teaching. The information is intended for their personal use, rather than for public inspection, and thus is private and confidential. The information should be rich in detail so that teachers can obtain clear insights in the nature of their teaching strengths and weaknesses. Often, text comments or a multitude of very specific rating items tied to course goals and practices will be employed to provide this… Formative evaluation is informal, ongoing, and wide-ranging. It is the basis for the development of effective teaching throughout one’s career.
In contrast, summative evaluation of teaching focuses on information needed for a personnel decision – for example, hiring, promotion, tenure, merit pay. Consequently, the information is for public inspection rather than for the individual faculty member. Since it is not intended to provide rich and detailed data for the improvement of teaching, it is often more general and comparative in nature than data for formative evaluation… The information should provide comparative information as well, enabling the evaluator to determine the quality of the teaching performance with respect to the performance of other peers… The attempt is to judge merit or worth to the institution generally. Summative evaluation, in contrast to formative evaluation, is conducted at given intervals, such as annual or promotion and tenure reviews.” [p5]
The materials on this page can be used, or adapted, for summative use. However, for summative evaluation, it is imperative that evaluators consider multiple sources of information, using multiple methods to gather the information and over multiple points in time.
In order to have peers review an online course, the instructor must give reviewers access to their Blackboard site. The easiest way to do this is to add them as an ‘observer’ (add user and set role to Observer).
Note that Instructional Technology Services facilitates the Blended and Online Learning and Teaching (BOLT) program, in which participants use the QOLT rubric to evaluate their courses.