• Author(s): Dr Jane Hughes
  • Title: Quality in Higher Education
  • Subject: HE - Education
  • Keywords: UKOER, UKPSF, OMAC, CPD4HE, teaching quality, quality management, quality assurance, quality enhancement, student learning experience, e-learning, peer observation of teaching, interdisciplinary teaching
  • Language(s): English
  • Material type(s): Text
  • File format(s): ZIP, HTML, PDF, DOC
  • File size: Various
  • Publish Date: 31st October 2011
  • Licence: CC-BY-SA


Institutional Approaches to Peer Observation of Teaching

Below is a document presented to an institutional committee whose responsibility was the management and enhancement of teaching quality. The name of the institution has been edited out.

Read the document and consider the following questions. You may wish to write down answers or to discuss the questions with a colleague.

1. What view of the purpose of Peer Observation appears to underpin the document? What other purposes are possible? How are these alternative views likely to affect the process?

2. What problems with Peer Observation does the document identify? Does this accord with your own experience?

3. What are the reasons for dissatisfaction with the current scheme in this institution? To what extent do you think these apply in your own institution?

4. Describe the Peer Observation of Teaching scheme (if there is one) in your own institution.

5. How have you experienced this in action? (Have you acted as an observer and/or been observed?)

6. Read one of the references at the end of the document and draw out of it one action point for your institution or for yourself.

Revision of Peer Observation of Teaching guidelines


There is a need to revise the Peer Observation of Teaching guidelines for staff, in order to take account of the increase in both online learning and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Amendments are therefore proposed to the Peer Observation Guidelines for staff, with additional changes of wording in the Institutional Policy Documentation. However, the developments mentioned above have implications that suggest a more fundamental review of Peer Observation of Teaching processes could be timely. Specifically, the observation of an individual teaching event might be absorbed into a wider-ranging and more flexible scheme.

Implications of the growth in e-learning

By the end of this year, all taught courses are expected to have a presence in the institutional VLE. It therefore seems essential that our quality management and enhancement processes, including Peer Observation of Teaching (PoT), should consider the role of the VLE in the students’ learning. A few of our courses are taught wholly online but the majority mix online and face-to-face learning in varying proportions. In such cases, even when the observed event is a lecture, the discussion and reflection that are part of the peer observation process should address the relationship between student online activity and the observed face-to-face event. Furthermore, since PoT in the institution is intended to support professional development, a lecturer might wish to make the online element of a course the main focus of observation. Again, unless a course is taught wholly online, considering the relationship with face-to-face learning would be a key part of the process.

The need to include the observation of online activity is beginning to be acknowledged in HE institutions, particularly with regard to distance learning, and some guidance is available in the literature (for example, Swinglehurst et al., 2008; Bennet and Barp, 2008). Issues to consider include:

  • Providing access to online course components for observers; negotiating the observer’s level of access and considering the implications for students.
  • Tailoring the scheme for blended learning as well as distance learning contexts
  • Defining the time boundaries of an online peer “observation”
  • Ensuring that e-learning that does not use the VLE can also be considered
  • Providing for possible participation in the peer observation process of non-teaching staff whose work has an impact on the student learning experience
  • Providing appropriate professional development and training for participating staff
  • Providing supporting documents, such as observation checklists; ensuring that these are consistent with guidelines on both VLE use and learning, teaching and assessment more broadly.

Implications of an increase in interdisciplinary teaching

The current institutional guidelines give Heads of Departments primary responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the implementation of PoT. Recent developments, such as restructuring departments and faculties into larger ‘schools’, already call this into question. Interdisciplinary courses provide additional complexity, for example:

Who is responsible for monitoring the process and to whom do they report? Where is the enhancement of quality in an interdisiciplinary course best discussed? Can the observer and observed be from different departments? How can peer observation contribute to development of a course as a whole?

Proposed changes to PoT guidelines

A small number of changes to the wording of statements in the Quality documentation would make the scheme more flexible and help to accommodate both interdisciplinary teaching and online learning. An additional statement could also be inserted to make explicit the requirement to consider online learning during the peer observation process.

Changes to guidelines for participating teaching staff are also proposed. The need to consider the relationship between online and face-to-face learning in discussion and reflection should be stated. Subject to relevant committtee approval, online learning will be included in the list of teaching “events” that may be observed. An additional sample observation checklist has been developed and should be added to the online support materials. It is proposed that central learning & teaching support services work together in order to develop further guidance materials and staff development activities to support the observation of online learning.

Possible alternative models

HE institutions all seem to face similar challenges in implementing an institution-wide PoT scheme (Gosling and O’Connor, 2009). These include: variable compliance; tensions between different perceptions of the purpose of the scheme; uncertainty about the impact on practice and about whether the observer or observed benefits more; the exclusion of staff who influence student learning but do not actually teach; conflict between the requirement for confidentiality and a desire for visible outcomes and reporting. Whilst still adhering to the basic principles of our PoT scheme, it would be possible to modify it, so that it would both accommodate more complex teaching contexts, such as interdisciplinary courses and blended learning, and address some of these issues.

Some HE institutions are moving towards schemes of peer-supported review or enquiry into teaching, in which participants consider an agreed topic rather than a single teaching event. These tend to be more flexible than a traditional PoT scheme, but typically follow a similar pattern: an initial meeting to negotiate the scope and focus of the enquiry and to agree on the evidence to be considered; the collection of evidence (which might or might not include observation of teaching); a further meeting to discuss the evidence and consider what has been learned. Some schemes allow the enquiry to involve a group of staff, such as a course team, rather than a pair. Swinglehurst et al., 2008 present an example of this.

A number of benefits are claimed for this type of peer-supported teaching enquiry, including:

  • The focus on topic rather than performance, reduces anxiety;
  • It can contribute to department or course development as well as to individual professional development, since outcomes can be reported and discussed
  • The Head of Department can influence the agenda, for example by asking all staff to focus their enquiry/review on a topic of common concern, such as assessment.
  • The process is suitable for groups as well as pairs of staff and can include non-teaching staff who influence the student learning experience.
  • The use of a research-like process strengthens the link between teaching and research and encourages a scholarly approach to teaching

It should be noted, however, that none of these alternative approaches is guaranteed to resolve institutional problems with a PoT scheme and some of them appear to demand a significant increase in staff time commitment.

The Committee is asked to consider whether a modification of the PoT scheme, along these lines, might be appropriate.


Bennet, S. and Barp, D. (2008) Peer Observation – a case for doing it online. Teaching in Higher Education, 13 (5), pp.559-70

Gosling, D. and O’Connor , K. M. (2009) Beyond the Peer Observation of Teaching. SEDA Paper 124, Staff and Educational Development Association, August 2009

Swinglehurst, D., Russell, J. and Greenhalgh, T. (2008). Peer Observation of Teaching in the Online Environment: an action research approach. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24, pp 282-292.


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Quality in Higher Education by Dr Jane Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at www.ucl.ac.uk.

Contact us: cpd4he@ucl.ac.uk

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