Advisory Committee Guidelines for Classroom Observation Approved January 14, 2010
Well-documented peer observation of a candidate's teaching is an important part of any tenure or promotion file. Teaching excellence is an extremely important criterion in these decisions, but it can be harder to see in a file than research success or service contributions. Professors who teach in or near a candidate's field are especially well-qualified to judge the quality of his or her pedagogy, and their comments provide an important part of the overall evidence of teaching effectiveness presented in the file.
All the members of a candidate's tenure or promotion committee, therefore, should have first-hand knowledge of what happens in the candidate's classrooms. They should describe their observations in letters or memos to be included in the tenure or promotion file. As a group, these letters should document the full range of the candidate's teaching-large introductory courses, special seminars, labs, and other offerings.
Importantly, because too many classroom observations during a short period of time can be disruptive, potentially burdening both faculty and their students, we highly recommend spacing these visits over the full range of the probationary period. Ideally, candidates for tenure should periodically be observed by the tenured members of their department from the first year of employment onward. If such observations occur at least twice a year over the probationary period, senior professors will have many opportunities to mentor (and learn from!) their junior colleagues and address any problems early, should this be necessary, and completed files will present a much richer picture of candidates' professional development.
The Advisory Committee recognizes that the 21st century classroom is one in which a diverse range of pedagogical techniques and styles are employed. In providing constructive feedback on and evaluating our colleagues' teaching, it's important that we remember that there are a variety of ways in which student learning can be achieved. In other words, we encourage observers to be open-minded about practices that differ from their own.
I. RECOMMENDED PROCEDURE FOR PEER OBSERVATION
The department head should devise a plan for what classes will be observed in what term and by whom. The head should consult the candidate in developing this plan. Following on that process, either the department chair or the classroom observers themselves should contact the candidate in order to schedule a day and time for the classroom observation. It is not the responsibility of the candidate to reach out to senior colleagues to arrange these visits. Once contacted, the candidate should provide the relevant syllabus to each observer, and both parties should discuss what sessions might be observed most usefully (no unannounced visits). Every effort should be made to space out these observations and limit the distraction caused by multiple visitors in any one class.
The process of observing a class involves interactions with the observed professor outside of class, sitting in on the session, and then documenting the experience in a letter. The letter should describe the professor's goals for the session and evaluate how well they were met.
The observer should:
- Try to understand the professor's goals for the session and course before the observation.
- Take notes during the session but not participate in the class (i.e., not speak or otherwise join in the discussion).
- Write a letter or memo describing the visit, give a copy to the candidate, debrief with him or her, and amend inaccuracies if necessary. This should occur within two weeks of the visit, before memories fade. Once completed and discussed with the candidate and any necessary revisions are made, the observation letter should be sent to the department head.
These letters have two audiences: the candidate and the committees that will ultimately evaluate the candidate. Letters should therefore be constructive, praising success and offering advice when relevant. They must also be very clear and specific about any problems and their relative urgency. They serve a double purpose in both judging achievement and nurturing a teacher's continuing development.
II. CONTENTS OF THE EVALUATION LETTER
1. Basic information
- The course title, class subject and date, length of the session, and number of students in the class.
- Where the session falls in relation to the broader structure of the course (e.g., the first session on a new unit; a review session at the close of a unit; a day devoted to drilling down more deeply into an important topic introduced the previous week).
- Any assignments due that day.
- The mode(s) of instruction employed (e.g., traditional lecture, "flipped classroom" activity, etc.).
- The approximate portion of time spent on each major activity during the session.
- How the class was staged: the arrangement of desks and position of the teacher.
- If that class involved discussion or other student-centered work, the approximate proportion of students participating.
- What media or visual aids the class employed, if any.
2. Description and evaluation of teaching effectiveness
An observation letter should also comment on at least some of the following points. Remarks should both note accomplishments and, where relevant, suggest specific ways to cultivate greater effectiveness.
- The content. Comment on the teacher's preparation. Are lectures clear? Are they insightful? Does the professor frame effective lecture materials or discussion questions at an appropriate level of difficulty? Do group work, presentations, and other activities seem to advance the students' understanding of the material or the development of key skills? What strategies does the teacher use to elicit student engagement?
- The methodology. What approaches does the professor bring to the material and how effectively are they executed? Do they explain terms and techniques clearly?
- The teacher's manner. Does interaction with students occur before the beginning of class and as the class disperses? Does the professor convey organization, enthusiasm? Do they listen to student comments and questions and respond appropriately? Does the professor shift gears when the students prove more or less proficient at a task than expected?
- The students' behavior. Do students appear to be engaged and prepared? Do they offer comments and ask questions?
- The mechanics of the class. Is the class appropriately paced? Are transitions between activities, when these occur, relatively smooth?
- Takeaways for the observer. It is not uncommon for classroom observers to learn a great deal, sometimes about disciplinary material and often about pedagogy, from these observations. It is entirely appropriate for the observer to highlight anything he or she has learned from the experience and to hold up practices that seemed especially effective.
Approved by the Advisory Committee: January 14, 2010
Updated and Approved by the Advisory Committee: June 30, 2020