It was Robert Burns who wrote:
Oh, would some Power give us the gift. To see ourselves as others see us!
Burns was not writing about higher education, but the point he makes is of general application. For a teaching observation, or some other review, provides an opportunity for those of us who teach to see our teaching as others see it. It can be an uncomfortable process, but nevertheless important for development and for genuine reflection. Given the changes to teaching caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the perspective provided by peers will be particularly important.
From lectures and tutorials to blended learning
It is no exaggeration to say that, within the past 12 months, the delivery of teaching within higher education has undergone a dramatic shift. Traditional modes of delivery focussing on scheduled contact time in lectures and tutorials/seminars have made way for blended learning. Prior to the 2019–20 academic year, there would have been for many an assumption that the bulk of our teaching was that which took place in rooms on campus. While blended learning approaches involve regular synchronous or live contacts between teacher and students (whether online or campus), much of the input from academic staff in 2020–21—both in terms of time and creativity—has been in the preparation and development of teaching materials necessary to make blended learning work. There may be things to learn from each other about the conduct of classes using online platforms, but peer review of blended learning provision requires something that reaches beyond the observation of a synchronous session.
POT and PRT
Peer observation of teaching (POT) has been a constant feature in higher education since the 1990s. All those teaching within higher education will have had their classroom teaching observed, and will most likely have observed a colleague’s teaching. POT is common for those new to teaching or when starting to teach at a new institution; it may also be done as part of promotion or progression processes. Many, if not most, institutions conduct regular POT exercises as part of their ongoing quality.
There is a significant amount of scholarship on POT and the broader idea of peer review of teaching (PRT). There is a smaller subset of literature on PRT in the online or blended learning context. POT is concerned with classroom observations but PRT is more holistic in its remit and approach. PRT includes what goes on in the classroom, but is by no means limited to it. Gosling, whose work in this area is frequently cited, described three main models of PRT: evaluative, developmental and collaborative. And – while those models have different purposes, outcomes and relational dynamics – a collaborative approach, as the label suggests, is the one most conducive to a constructive dialogue between colleagues.
What does this mean for those teaching in higher education at a time of unavoidable change?
We should adopt a PRT perspective that includes POT but is not limited to it. POT can be a valuable exercise but is necessarily narrow in focus. A more holistic PRT approach allows for two things. One is the opportunity to review teaching and learning across the academic year or semester, a contrast with the snapshot provided by a traditional POT. The other is a better understanding of the various teaching activities and opportunities for learning that comprise
And we need to carefully consider the purpose and intended outcome of the PRT process. An evaluative or developmental approach will have a role to play where, for example, a colleague new to teaching is observed by one more experienced. Yet, a collaborative approach may be better at ensuring genuine staff engagement, especially where PRT is conducted within a school or department on a regular, perhaps annual, basis.
PRT processes should be reviewed regularly. Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond speak of “refreshing the process” to ensure its ongoing relevance. So, while POT will probably always have a place within PRT, there could be a benefit in peer reviewing other aspects of teaching and learning such as feedback on student work, assessment or learning materials. Alternatively, one might introduce some variety by pairing teaching teams rather than individuals.
Individual schools/departments should be allowed autonomy within institutional frameworks. There is a tension here between two views of PRT. Is it primarily about institutional accountability with regard to quality assurance? Or, about making teaching and learning as effective as possible? The report by Scott et al indicates opinion has been shifting towards the latter. If correct, that suggests individual schools or departments should be given significant autonomy in the way they conduct PRT, albeit within a broader institutional framework.
The recent move to blended learning could be seen as an opportunity to reconsider peer review. The speed of the shift to blended learning was unexpected but, as with other aspects of life, may accelerate changes that would have happened in any event. The need to reconsider peer review/observation processes in the light of current circumstances should provide the impetus for reflection not simply on the logistics of PRT but also its aims and purposes. We have been forced to rethink the way we teach. That should prompt us to rethink the peer review of our teaching.
Mark Campbell is grateful to Imogen Moore for comments on an earlier version of this article.