May 24th, 2017

Peer Review Strategies that Keep the Focus on Better Teaching


Peer Review. Two colleagues chatting.

The peer review processes for promotion and tenure and for continuing appointment provide committees with what’s needed to make overall judgments about the quality of instruction. For teachers, however, peer reviews usually don’t contain the diagnostic, descriptive feedback they need to continue their growth and development in the classroom. The assessments are broad and in the interest of preserving collegial relationships, any negative comments lurk between the lines or in vague statements that can be interpreted variously.

Teaching Professor Blog It’s too bad that we don’t do better with peer review because faculty consistently list colleagues as the best source for new ideas on teaching and frequently wish that instructional collaboration with peers was more substantive. Perhaps a list of peer activities with greater potential to improve instruction might lead us in more productive directions. But first a gentle reminder: collaboration works best when peers can communicate comfortably with each other and can get beyond only saying nice things about each other’s teaching. Furthermore, unless you have questions about what content you should be teaching or how to explain or assess it, I recommend collaborating across disciplines. When you don’t know each other’s content, the discussion stays focused on teaching and learning.

Syllabus Review – Exchange syllabi. Read your colleague’s syllabus carefully, noting what you’d conclude about the course and the instructor if this was the first introduction to both. Then exchange reactions. “If I was taking this course, here’s the questions I’d have.” “After looking at this, here’s what I’d think about the instructor and how he/she will be conducting the course.”

Classroom Observation – Dispense with all thoughts of what’s done for the promotion and tenure review. Instead, truly observe and experience what it’s like to be in one another’s classroom, and then have follow-up conversations after each. Here are three approaches to try. For the first two, you observe each other. The third one has you observing someone else.

  • Be in class as a student. If there’s assigned reading, do it (ditto for any homework assignment). Take good notes. The goal here is providing quality feedback, not replicating student behaviors. Follow-up by sharing your notes and thoughts. “Here’s a spot where I was totally confused.” “The example you gave here really helped.” “I wished you’d asked for questions at this point. If you had, here’s what I would have asked.”
  • Focus your observation on an aspect of instruction, say participation. How long before the first teacher/student question? Record the questions. Wait time: how long is the teacher waiting after asking a question before doing something? How’s the teacher handling wrong or not very good answers? Who’s answering the questions? Share your observations and talk about whether what you saw achieved the teacher’s overall goals for classroom interaction.
  • Observe someone else teach—someone who’s a good teacher, someone who uses a particular approach (team-based learning, a flipped course). Talk to each other about what you saw and how well it promoted learning.

Course Evaluation Exchange – Review a set of your most recent student ratings and write down the three general conclusions you’ve drawn from them and a couple of questions raised by them. Then share the ratings with your colleague but don’t reveal your conclusions or questions. Review each other’s results and write down three general conclusions and some follow-up questions. Do you think the conclusions you’ve drawn will be the same ones your colleague arrived at after looking at your results?

Facilitate a Focus Group – Identify five to seven students in one of your courses and ask them to meet with your colleague for 30 minutes. Give your colleague three questions you’d like the group to discuss. When facilitating the focus group discussion, encourage students to offer the feedback constructively. Providing each other with a written summary of what you heard is helpful. When the two of you talk, consider how representative these opinions are and what (if anything) should be done about what students said.

Jointly Implement Something New – It doesn’t have to be a highly innovative approach or something that requires lots of extra preparation. For example, the two of you may decide you’d like to try a different approach to quizzing. Start with some goals: a quiz structure that promotes thinking, one that better prepares students for the exam, or one that changes how students study. You may experiment with just one quiz or several. Maybe you each try a different approach—but you both do something new. Pay attention to what happened and then get together to talk about the results and their implications.

Do you have ideas about using peer review to improve teaching? Please share.