A peer visitation program for both junior and senior faculty at a small, liberal arts college in the East has been put into place to help improve the quality of teaching. Every junior faculty member is paired with a senior colleague to exchange class visits. This program is designed to foster discussion of teaching, and the sharing of ideas and to provide constructive criticism about the teaching effectiveness of each member of the pair.
Background and Purpose
Williams College is a small liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts with an enrollment of 2000 students. The Mathematics Department has 13 faculty members covering about 9.5 FTE's. Williams students are bright and very well prepared: the median Math SAT score is 700. The academic calendar is 4-1-4: two twelve-week semesters are separated by a four-week January term called Winter Study. The standard teaching load is five courses per year; every other year one of the five is a Winter Study course.
We put a lot of effort into our teaching, as well as into evaluating teaching and supporting the improvement of teaching. Many of the more formal aspects of teacher evaluation exist in large part to inform decisions on reappointment, promotion, and tenure. Some of our evaluative procedures also serve as good mechanisms to foster discussion among colleagues about teaching. In particular, we find exchanging class visits between junior and senior faculty a highly collegial way to learn about and from each other.
To put the evaluative aspects into context, I will briefly describe the general procedures Williams uses to evaluate teaching. As at many other institutions, Williams has a structured, college-wide protocol for evaluating teaching. The Student Course Survey (SCS) is required in all courses. Students give numerical ratings anonymously on various aspects of the course and instructor. All data are gathered and analyzed by the Vice Provost, who produces detailed comparisons of individual results with departmental, divisional, peer group, and college-wide results. Teachers receive the analysis of their own results, with results for nontenured faculty also going to the department chair and the Committee on Appointments and Promotion (CAP). The SCS also includes a page for descriptive comments from each student; these are passed directly to the teacher after grades are submitted.
Following specific guidelines, departments themselves must also gather student opinion on all nontenured faculty members annually, using either interviews, letters, or departmental questionnaires. Though not required, the college encourages class visits, in accordance with specified guidelines. All information on a nontenured faculty member's teaching gathered through the above means is discussed with the faculty member, and summarized in an annual report to the CAP.
In the Mathematics Department, senior faculty have been observing classes of junior faculty for many years. The goals were to evaluate nontenured faculty and to offer comments and constructive criticism. Even if being observed was somewhat awkward, the system worked well and was seen by all as an important and useful complement to student evaluations of teaching. During the 1980's, as anxieties about tenure decisions rose along with the complexity of procedures for evaluating teaching and scholarship, junior faculty in many departments at Williams felt more and more "like bugs under a microscope." In an effort to alleviate some of the anxiety, and in turn expand the benefits of class visits, our department decided to have pairs of junior and senior faculty exchange class visits each semester. Thus junior faculty are now also observers as well as the observed. They appreciate the opportunity to see their senior colleagues in the classroom, and we all benefit from increased exposure to different teaching styles.
Every semester, each junior faculty member is paired with a senior member to exchange class visits. The department chair arranges pairs so that over the course of a few years, every senior colleague observes each junior colleague. The chair also insures that someone observes every course taught by a junior colleague at least once. (So if the junior faculty member teaches Calculus III several times, at least one of those offerings will be observed.) Special requests are also considered, such as a senior faculty member's curiosity about a particular course offered by a junior colleague.
Because visits to classes are part of the department's evaluation of junior faculty, they follow a formal structure under college guidelines. Early in the semester the two faculty members meet and go over the course syllabus. The junior colleague may suggest particular classes to visit or might leave the choice open. Two or sometimes three consecutive classes are visited. In the discussion following a visit, it is important to put observations into context. What looks to the observer like an inadequate answer to a question might make sense once the visitor learns that the same question had been addressed at length the previous day. What looks like an awkward exchange between a student and the teacher might be the result of some previous incident in which the student was disrespectful. The two come to an understanding of the visitor's evaluation of the class, which the senior colleague then conveys to the junior colleague in writing, with a copy to the department chair. This letter becomes part of the junior faculty member's file. The write-up includes a general description of the class, specific comments both positive and negative, and the suggestions or ideas discussed after the visit.
Visits by junior faculty to senior faculty classes are less structured. As with senior visits to junior classes, they are intended to foster discussion of teaching, sharing ideas, and constructive criticism. Unlike senior visits to junior classes, they are not evaluative. Because these visits are not a formal part of departmental evaluation procedures, sometimes they don't even take place. (We encourage but do not require junior faculty to visit classes.) Those visits that do occur are followed by an informal discussion of the visitor's impressions, comments and criticisms. We recognize that not all junior faculty are going to be comfortable criticizing their senior colleagues, no matter how valid those criticisms may be.
Some outcomes of these class visits are predictable. The visitor might have suggestions about organizing the lecture, improving blackboard technique, or responding to and encouraging student questions. Sometimes more subtle observations can be made. A visitor in the back of the room can watch student reactions to various aspects of the class in a way the teacher running the class may not be able to do. On the positive side, I have seen classes where the students were so engaged and excited that while the teacher was facing the blackboard some students would look at each other and smile, clearly enjoying both the material and the teacher's style. On the negative side, I have seen classes where some students were engaged but many others were not, and some were even doing other work. In each example it was helpful to share my observations with my colleague.
Another subtle effect of a class visit might be hearing a colleague's impression of how one comes across to the class. In a basically positive report of a colleague's visit to one of my classes (both of us tenured), he described my style as somewhat businesslike. Though not intended as a criticism, I was quite surprised. I had thought of my teaching style as quite warm, friendly, and encouraging. Not that "businesslike" was bad, it just wasn't how I thought I came across.
Use of Findings
Every faculty member reacts in their own way to comments about their teaching. Following the "businesslike" comment on my own teaching style referred to above, I tried to pay more attention to the tone I set in the classroom. For example, I used to take a fairly strict approach to collecting quizzes precisely at the end of the designated time period, in an effort both to be fair and to keep control of class time. Thinking about the atmosphere such a policy created, however, I realized that it was more strict and formal than I really wanted or needed to be. As a result, I'm now more relaxed about quiz time and about some other things as well. The students still respect me, I still have control of my class, but I feel we're all more relaxed and hence able to learn more.
One junior colleague's classroom style was quite formal, even though outside of class he was very friendly and engaging. While visiting classes of two senior colleagues he admired and respected, he noticed they were closer and friendlier with their students in class than he was. He has since incorporated some of that spirit in his own classes. For example, he now arrives in class a few minutes early so he can chat with his students, not only about mathematics, but about other things going on in their lives.
Not all faculty take the advice given. After being told his pace was slow, one junior colleague decided not to speed up the class. He decided his own pace was the appropriate one. Thus even in a department with lots of visiting, discussing, and evaluating, faculty members retain their teaching autonomy. Structuring class visits as a two-way street really helps. One junior colleague commented that while he knows he's being evaluated, he also knows that comments he makes to senior colleagues about their teaching will be taken seriously.
Classroom visits do have their limits. One sees only a few classes, not the entire course. In smaller classes, the very presence of a visitor can affect student behavior and class dynamics. It is our practice to have the teacher being observed decide whether to introduce visitors, explain their presence, invite them to participate, etc. In some cases the visitor remains unobtrusive and unacknowledged. The latter approach has the advantage of perhaps producing a "purer" observation. The former has the advantage of informing students about and including them more directly into the process of teacher evaluation and improvement.
Over the last few years, the tenure balance in
the department has shifted. We now have only two
nontenured members and eleven tenured. Being familiar with
one-to-one functions, we recognize that a true "exchange" of
class visits between junior and senior faculty will either
exclude many senior faculty each year or will impose an
unreasonable burden on the junior faculty. We now also encourage
class visits between senior faculty. Such visits are both
relaxed and stimulating. We have all taken ideas from our
colleagues to use in our own classes; we have all benefitted from
even the simplest of observations from another teacher about
our own teaching. The result, we hope, is a set of junior
and senior colleagues, all aware of each other's teaching
efforts and challenges, and all ready to support and learn from
each other's creative energy.