Preparing and Using Classroom Observations in Faculty Teaching Evaluations
Evaluation of faculty teaching plays an important role in the success of the individual faculty member, the department, and, most importantly, student learning. And yet, many department leaders have had no formal training in observing and evaluating teaching. As the education world becomes increasingly evidence driven, it is more crucial than ever to create appropriate and consistent faculty teaching observation models. It seems most prudent to use an evaluation process as a means to improve teaching, which, in turn, should improve learning. Teaching observation and evaluation should not be an excruciating process that a faculty member must try to “survive.” It should be a beneficial, positive process that supports faculty teaching development.
The following is a model that (1) helps the evaluator and faculty member prepare for the observation, (2) provides the evaluator with a list of items to be observed, and (3) provides a look at what feedback and reflection are important after the observation. As always, the evaluator must keep in mind the importance of context-specific observation and evaluation. For example, an evaluator will be observing a faculty member teaching a biology lab differently than a faculty member giving a history lecture.
The three-step process is fairly intuitive, but a written document will aid in the consistency of the process across faculty evaluations.
Step 1: Pre-observation discussion with faculty member
The pre-observation discussion should center on what will be specifically observed, including what the faculty member wants the evaluator to observe and those foundational items that the department or institution says must be evaluated. This could include various goals or standards of teaching and learning. A mutually beneficial time for the evaluator to observe should be arranged. Surprise visits from an evaluator may not be in the best interest of either party. Planning to observe a faculty member only to have that person showing a long video or hosting an invited guest may be a waste of valuable time. There should also be mutual agreement as to the length of the observation as well as the number of observations, if there is no department or institution standard.
The faculty member and evaluator should agree on what materials the faculty member will provide ahead of time, including such things as the course syllabus, any assignments that may be discussed, a copy of lecture notes or a lesson plan, or any other materials that will be helpful in the observation and evaluation process.
Step 2: Classroom observations
There are a host of things that the evaluator will be noting during an observation. These include:
- Knowledge of the subject matter
- Effective presentation of the subject matter
- Organization of course materials (all materials needed are present; distribution of materials is planned)
- A structured approach to the presentation of the subject matter
- Clear explanations of course concepts and expectations; explains in different ways if necessary
- Appropriate pedagogy, including active learning experiences
- Tries to reach many learning styles
- Passionate when presenting the subject matter
- Student engagement throughout the class period
The evaluator will also want to note if the instructor uses any forms of assessment of student learning. Is there ongoing informal assessment such as questioning? Do the students have a chance to discuss concepts in small or large groups? Are there any in-class activities that solidify learning or can be used to test student learning? Also important is whether the assessments match the objectives of the lesson. Is there any remediation or reteaching if students do not understand the concepts or subject matter?
One of the most important aspects for an evaluator to note is the faculty member’s relationships with students. Points of observation of positive relationships include:
- Mutual respect of the students by the faculty member and of the faculty member by the students
- Ethical behavior by the faculty member and students
- A classroom environment that is safe and open; students feel free to ask questions, voice opinions, answer questions, and engage in discussions
- Appropriate classroom management techniques; students respond positively
- The use of humor (not essential, but often important)
Step 3: Post-observation meeting
After the observation(s), it is essential that the evaluator and faculty member have a chance to debrief together in a timely and unrushed manner. To start the conversation, the evaluator may want to ask the faculty member his or her thoughts on the lesson. This gives the faculty member a chance to reflect on his or her teaching first and can give the evaluator insight into the confidence and best-practice beliefs of the faculty member. The evaluator can then give a more focused response. The evaluator should always start with positive feedback. Find something to confirm, even if it is to note how professionally the faculty member dressed or that the faculty member appeared to be very passionate about the subject matter. Starting off with criticism will immediately put the faculty member on the defensive—not a good communication technique.
It is just as important not to say anything you don’t mean. Don’t allude that something is terrific when it isn’t. It is unfair and disrespectful (some may even say unethical) to lead a faculty member to believe that he or she is a pedagogical wonder when it isn’t true. Remember to give feedback on the standards or “musts” observed as well as on the other agreed-upon items. Constructive feedback should be given so that the faculty member understands why the evaluator is giving this specific feedback and suggestions to improve. Feedback without suggestions feels like criticism.
Always save a little positivity for the end of the conversation. Again, a positive observation does not have to be award worthy, just something that the faculty member can take away and feel good about.
There should be some time for questions and clarifications by both the evaluator and the faculty member. If necessary, a written plan for faculty member improvement may be created. This may include specific, realistic goals and how to reach these goals. There may be a timeline for the achievement of the goals included.
Faculty evaluations should be viewed as an opportunity to affirm those best-practice teaching skills that are present, as well as encourage and plan for the continuation of improvement of other skills. A department leader who appropriately supports and inspires has faculty who feel valued and appreciated.
Peggy Thelen, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Alma College. She is the current chair of the Education Department and also serves as the Early Childhood Education program director.