How Peer Review Could Improve Our Teaching

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This essay is excerpted from a new Chronicle special report, “Building a Faculty that Flourishes,” available in the Chronicle Store.

Mention peer review of teaching in a faculty meeting, and you’re bound to generate immediate skepticism. Assistant professors will nervously envision all of their teaching innovations — like fewer lectures and more in-class group work — as reduced to: Professor Felicia Smith is engaging but did not cover a great deal of material.

No doubt that scenario rings a bell for many readers. It illustrates how much is missed in the typical approach to peer review of teaching. To wit: A designated faculty peer drops by an instructor’s classroom, observes a single class session, and remains unaware of all the work that went into designing and teaching the course.

We can do better. Both our programs and our students would benefit from a system that supports an instructor’s pedagogical development and creates opportunities to talk through teaching successes and failures. We advocate for a more scholarly, comprehensive, inclusive, and effective approach to evaluating teaching that would:

  • Consider its many dimensions beyond mere classroom performance.
  • Include multiple measures of effectiveness.
  • Hold peer review as a cornerstone.

Of course peer review is already deeply embedded in academic culture when it comes to evaluating scholarship and creative work. And the idea of bringing peer review into teaching isn’t new — there is a considerable body of work on the subject, extending from the 1990 Boyer report, “Scholarship Reconsidered,” and we’ve already noted the relatively common practice of peer “classroom observations” at many institutions.

Given this long tradition of faculty review, it would require only a modest investment of time and energy to reorganize how we evaluate teaching and integrate peer review in a far more substantive way. Not only would that enhance the value of teaching within the constellation of academic work; it would also resolve the many shortcomings in the way we now evaluate teaching (such as the overreliance on course evaluations and ratings from students).

Peer review is a scholarly act, and, as such, there is no turnkey, one-size-fits-all solution. But in what follows we offer some key practices of peer review and advice on how to use them effectively:

Know what you’re looking for. Develop a shared understanding or a definition of effective teaching — within a department or across an entire college — to foster consistency and fairness and to reduce bias. Create plenty of opportunities for faculty members to discuss what they value about teaching in general, in the particular discipline, and in the specific department or program. Some rubrics defining effective teaching are already available. Draw from them to devise a system that works for your department, program, or institution. Align peer review as a part of a holistic approach that includes other data sources such as self-reflection and student perspectives.

Quality peer review goes well beyond classroom visits. While peer observation of teaching is a common and effective practice, a thorough peer review evaluates substantially more. It considers how the instructor prepares for a course, develops syllabi, establishes learning objectives, selects materials, designs activities, provides feedback to learners, and offers evidence of impact (the quality of student work). Engaging in a dialogue on these topics enables instructors to articulate the thinking behind what they do before, during, and after class — i.e., the intellectual work in teaching. Such conversations can significantly improve the peer evaluator’s understanding of the instructor’s course materials and of what goes on in a class session. It can also be developmental for both the instructor under review and the peer reviewer, as they exchange ideas about teaching.

Decide how peer reviews will be used. That includes making sure all faculty members understand what is at stake. Are peer reviews solely for formative purposes — to help instructors reflect on teaching and student learning, and identify areas for improvement? Or will the reviews be used for summative evaluations — that is, for annual reviews and promotion-and-tenure decisions in which salary and career success are at stake? Some instructors and reviewers hesitate to highlight areas for growth and improvement if the peer review is for a high-stakes evaluation. Alleviate tensions between summative review and formative feedback by adopting summative criteria that reward reflection and improvement. Consider designing a formative process that builds toward a higher-stakes summative evaluation. For example, instructors’ reflection on their teaching for a formative peer review could be included in materials the faculty members submit for a tenure or promotion review.

Build the peer-review process into a department’s regular structures and operations. One way to integrate peer review into the flow of departmental work is to set up a regular schedule or rotation for this work. For example:

  • Review a certain number of faculty members each semester.
  • Decide on the frequency and timing of reviews for any single faculty member or for categories of faculty members (e.g., lecturers, tenured professors, etc.).
  • Develop a system for assigning reviewers (e.g., faculty mentors and instructors of related or adjacent courses).
  • Determine how many observations are appropriate during the semester of a faculty member’s review and how these observations will be balanced with other components of the review process.
  • Settle on what the review process will include. We recommend a structure that includes an initial conversation, one or more in-class observations, a faculty-observer debriefing conversation or memo, and/or a post-review reflection and written commentary by the instructor.

Prepare peer reviewers. Few faculty members receive formal pedagogical training in graduate school, and even fewer have substantial background in the evaluation of teaching. For that reason, leaders in departments should create a process to prepare faculty members to engage in peer review. Several resources and strategies can be helpful: Look for online resources, such as our website on teaching evaluation; seek out scholarly frameworks that define quality teaching, rubrics, peer-review protocols, and observation protocols used at other institutions; check with your teaching center’s staff members about resources and suggestions they may have. Before faculty members participate in a review for the first time, work with the teaching center or seasoned reviewers to discuss the criteria to be used, practice applying them, envision and discuss the steps reviewers will follow in the process, and outline the expected pre- and post-review interactions.

Prepare the instructor who is about to undergo peer review. The process should be clear, detailed, developmental, and scholarly. Both the faculty member being evaluated and the peer observer should know in advance what is going to happen, and when. In consultation with the instructor, decide what specific aspects of teaching are the focus of a given peer review. Faculty members are at different points in their careers, so not all aspects of teaching must be included in a given review. For example, a review of a rookie instructor would be far different than one for a faculty member who has been teaching for 10 years. In an effective peer review, subjects should know what is to come and should be actively participating — preparing materials, articulating goals, and reflecting on their own teaching and the outcomes of the review.

Emphasize formative, developmental feedback. You want faculty members to experience the peer review of their teaching as an opportunity, not a punishment. It’s a process that will help them become better teachers. It’s a chance to talk with colleagues about a subject — how we teach — that often gets little formal attention within a department. Try coupling a peer review with a “teaching circle,” made up of a small group of faculty members who are either peer observers or among the reviewed, and can mutually mentor one another during the process. Effective peer evaluation highlights and celebrates strengths and excellence, while identifying areas and developing strategies for further consideration or growth. Be sure to include opportunities for self-reflection.

Value and take peer reviews seriously. Recognize, allocate, and value the time needed to design and carry out a thoughtful evaluation of someone’s teaching. Discuss your department’s shared understanding of standards for good teaching, and use those standards as criteria to guide peer review. Discuss how teaching expectations will change over the long arc of a faculty career. Over time, a faculty member’s relative balance of responsibility for the department’s teaching mission may vary, depending on career stage, other responsibilities, and changing professional portfolios.

Faculty members may worry that peer review of teaching will eat up a lot of time they don’t have. But the process we recommend amounts to investing a modest amount of time over the course of years (rather than a burst of activity just before promotion), which will support the growth and development of all faculty members involved.

So how would these principles work in practice?

Let’s revisit our hypothetical assistant professor (let’s call her “Felicia”), who has been experimenting in the classroom and is now up for tenure and promotion. A thorough, effective, and fair peer review of her teaching would look something like this:

  • A year before Felicia goes up for promotion, her chair assigns a senior colleague to write a peer teaching evaluation. The colleague and Felicia meet over coffee to look at course materials and discuss her approaches. He learns that, in recent years, she has added reading guides and low-stakes assignments that enable her to adapt her teaching plans quickly (based on the results). She also devotes more class time to group work and to practicing difficult skills.
  • When asked whether those approaches are working, Felicia shows how the quality of student work and the rates of course completion have markedly improved, although some students grumble about the group work.
  • The colleague visits Felicia’s classroom, sits in, and later offers some suggestions for supporting students in group work and building rapport.
  • The following year, the colleague makes a second visit to Felicia’s classroom. That visit, along with student feedback, suggests that her students are more consistently seeing the value of group work.
  • Felicia continues to use her assessments of student learning to adjust her teaching.
  • The colleague later adds reading guides to his own class, and revises an assignment to build on skills that he saw students developing in Felicia’s course.

Peer review of teaching is, perhaps, easiest and best organized at the department level. But senior administrators have an important role to play in making this more substantive form of teaching evaluation a campuswide priority. They should:

  • Champion campuswide conversations about peer review of teaching.
  • Share general processes that individual departments can adapt.
  • Create workshops to prepare peer evaluators.
  • Clarify how peer review will be used within high-stakes processes such as tenure-and-promotion decisions. Do problems revealed in a peer review diminish the strength of a candidate’s promotion case? Or is evidence of teaching improvement valued?
  • Ensure clear communication about institutional expectations.

The choice is clear: We can stick with outdated, cursory methods of evaluating teaching that are uninformative, ad hoc, and subject to bias. Or we can create a system that ensures high-quality practice, is developmental and supportive, treats teaching as scholarly and worthy of collective responsibility, and supports our foundational missions as institutions of higher education. We know how to do better. Will we?

Learn more about the authors’ work on teaching evaluation at TEval.net.

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