At a land-grant university in the Northeast one mathematics faculty member has begun experimenting with a peer visitation program in which a team of faculty visits her class at least twice a semester. What's unique about this process is that the team, usually three in number, consists of faculty both within and without the department and all visit the same class at the same time. This technique provides the instructor with a diversity of views on her teaching effectiveness. evaluations, since these are often mandated by university administrations. In an effort to generate discussion and broaden the perspective on evaluation of teaching, I initiated the experiment of peer review of my classes. I have experimented with inviting faculty members who have experience in ethnographic research1 and are from outside of my own discipline, as well as colleagues from my own department.
Observers in the classroom can document what actually goes on there. Having several observers in the class at the same time allows multiple perspectives on the class. Further, observers from other disciplines bring different perspectives and different expectations of teaching strategies; these enrich the ensuing discussions. A team of three observers is selected, either by the faculty member or (if part of an official departmental process) the department: one from within the department, the other two from outside the department. All observers should have an interest or previous experience in evaluating teaching. Observers visit the class at least twice during the term. Each time, all three observers are present, and the faculty member is informed in advance of the visit.
Background and Purpose
The University of Maine, the land-grant university and the sea-grant college of the State of Maine, enrolls approximately 8000 undergraduate and 2000 graduate students. In 1996-97 there were 24 full-time faculty and several part-time faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. The department had 42 majors and awarded seven degrees that year. Also, there were seven Master's degree students. The department uses "classroom observations" by department members on a one-time basis as part of an evaluation process for tenure considerations; it has no regular "peer review" practice.
Nationally, in the evaluation of teaching process, the pros and cons of having other faculty review a classroom have been widely debated. Proponents argue that peer reviews can provide the teacher with insights into the classroom learning environment unattainable in other ways, and that these reviews also strengthen the faculty's voice in personnel decisions. Opponents maintain that political and personal factors sometimes enter the evaluative process and the opportunity for misuse and abuse is real. While the debate continues, it is not uncommon that by default, the burden of evidence for arriving at a judgment of a faculty member's teaching effectiveness may fall entirely on student 1 In their book Ethnography and Qualitative Design in Educational Research , Goetz and LeCompte described this kind of research as the "holistic depiction of uncontrived group interaction over a period of time, faithfully representing participant views and meanings" (p.51) Before the first visit, the faculty member meets with the observers to inform them of what has occurred so far in the course and provide them with written materials such as syllabi, assignments, and samples of student writing.
During the visit, some observers may arrive early to chat with some students or observe student interactions. Observers may sit in different parts of the room, so that some can watch students' level of engagement from the back, while others can hear the muttered comments of shy students in the front. Observers may also stay after class to talk with some students. The faculty member should meet with the observers immediately after the visit to give context to the observations. The instructor can provide background history about the class which explained some aspects of classroom dynamics and the direction of the discussion or what was not done in the class. Without that knowledge, an observer might have come to a different conclusion of what had taken place in the class due to the instructor's actions or inactions. The results of these conversations were sometimes incorporated into the observation reports.
After the visit, each observer writes a report of what was observed (either in a format that the observer chooses, to give the widest possible range of records, especially if the review is done at the faculty member's request; or on a departmentally constructed format if uniformity is required for an official process). The observers may also meet with the faculty member to discuss their observations, either as a group or individually.
Between visits, the faculty member provides the observers with written information such as the course tests, test results and correspondences with some students.
For example, during the Fall of 1994, I invited a trio of observers to a Calculus II class of about 30-35 students. The observers consisted of (1) a colleague from the Speech/Communication Department who had participated in system-wide Women-in-the-Curriculum activities, (2) a sociologist who had attended Writing-Across-the-Curriculum workshops and (3) a mathematician who oversaw graduate teaching assistants. They visited twice during the term and wrote a total of four reports. In the Fall of 1996, the observers were (1) an English Department colleague who had coordinated the campus Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Program and who has the responsibility of evaluating part-time/fixed length (i.e., nontenure track) faculty in her department, (2) a sociologist who had won a university teaching award, and (3) a mathematician with whom I had discussed evaluation of teaching. This group observed my Precalculus class (30-35 students) three times and wrote five sets of observation notes.
In the classes observed, I was using a very collaborative lecturing style, inviting students to participate in what was being discussed and to interact with me as well as with each other. Sometimes the discussions were led in a certain direction because of comments or questions by one or more students; sometimes I cut short a discussion because I wanted students to gather all information they had after class and think more before we discussed a problem further. Most observers found that learning environment positive. They also had suggestions for improvement. For example, one observer suggested that I write on transparencies so that I could face the students more; one observer suggested that I leave more time for discussions of new topics.
Students did not seem to behave much differently with observers in the room. However, the presence of observers did have quite a psychological impact on me. For example, it is difficult to avoid eye contacts with the observers.
Use of Findings
Observers' suggestions can lead to changes in teaching style or strategies, both immediately and after some reflection on how to incorporate the suggestions in a manner consistent with the instructor's personality. Sometimes suggestions do not work with a particular class. However, when this happens, the instructor may think of other ways to remedy an identified problem.
I have found both the encouragement and critical suggestions by the observers useful in helping me work out my practices. Thus, I felt encouraged to continue working with students in helping them think through the mathematics that they are learning and doing while I became more careful in weighing how much time I could spend in drawing students into a discussion versus the time I would need for new topics. However, I found the use of transparencies very restricting and asked the students for their opinion; they suggested that I use the board for writing.
Together with some student work and students' evaluations, the peer review reports can provide a fuller view of an instructor's work in the classroom for a teaching portfolio a piece of much needed documentation of a faculty member's teaching. Above all, the peer review reports help inform the instructor from outside perspectives on changes that can be made. It also gives the instructor more colleagues with whom to discuss teaching.
This kind of peer review is very labor intensive and time-consuming: scheduling multiple visits for three people while avoiding test dates for the class is a logistic challenge and the writing of reports takes tremendous time and energy. In an institution where peer review is not an established practice, it will take persuasion to convince colleagues to participate.
Ideally, the purpose of observing a class is to assess how students are learning; nevertheless, a great deal of learning should be taking place outside the classroom, but most observers will be assessing teaching performance or "teaching effectiveness" on what is observed in the classroom. As views of what is "effective" may vary widely, the faculty member being reviewed should exercise judgment about the sensitivity of these colleagues to his or her teaching goals and make these goals explicit to the observers in advance. Providing the observers with any material such as syllabus, assignments, discussion topics given to students and student writings will afford the observers a context in which to view the sessions.
To avoid the misuse and abuse that opponents of peer reviews worry about, there needs to be some consensus in a department so that the practice is seen especially by the students as a departmental effort to help students learn. Faculty development workshops may provide training for faculty members in observing and commenting sensitively on teaching.
An alternative form of peer evaluation is having a faculty member visit the class, with the instructor absent, and hold focus group discussions with the class. For further information on this, see Patricia Shure's article in this volume, p. 187.
 Goetz and LeCompte, Ethnography and
Qualitative Design in Educational Research , 1984.