Sample Peer Observation

Note: This is a sample report on classroom observation, accompanied with an open discussion with students with the teacher no longer present. The teacher developed a formative evaluation form that was administered before discussion began.

This is an admittedly extended example, but may highlight the spectrum of dimensions of a class that can be noted through observation. In addition, though the observation was done as part of a formative evaluation, it may also clearly serve to portray the achievement of this particular class and the level of challenges that teacher faces in further improvement.


Report on Classroom Observation and Discussion with Students
[professor], [course], [date], [observers]

You asked us to observe a sample segment of your upper level biology class, in which you are applying a combination of collaborative (team-based) learning, problem-solving approaches, discussions on "what-if" scenarios and student-teaching.

Our assessment task was open-ended. Below you will find a general overview of the class, a crude analysis of reasons for various successes and problems (that may apply to using this approach elsewhere), and finally a more detailed analysis of things to address in this particular class.

Overview

The class atmosphere was congenial and the students were actively engaged in discussion. You have clearly developed a format where students participate in "authentic" discussion and understand their accountability to that discussion and to their peers. The learning environment is impressive for an upper level course of this size (~30).

Students themselves give the class overwhelmingly high marks. Nearly all the students are working harder in this course than in any other. Nearly all find the approach interests them more in the material, and roughly two-thirds feel they are learning more material, learning it more deeply, and learning better communication skills in the process.

What's Working, What's Not--and Why

Students very much appreciate the chance to be engaged in "real" problems and analysis of complex situations and "what-if" scenarios that challenge them to think. Some of this seems to be enthusiasm for an upper level course, but much of it also seems to draw on your free-wheeling style (versus pre-planned lecture) that explores each situation opportunistically. Roughly half the students feel the course can succeed mostly because of what they have learned earlier in other classes: in this class they develop a deeper appreciation of the context and connections of concepts they've already learned, while also acquiring a deeper conceptual understanding. Some students wanted to encounter this approach from the outset of college, but others felt the need to have something to build on first. Your specific style in this class may thus be tailored only to upper level classes. I suspect (from the cross-section of comments) that stronger students respond more favorably, while those less experienced in organizing information want/need a bit more structure.

Students enjoy being able to ask questions (and feel the freedom to do so). While students take substantial notes from the reading and in preparing material in small groups, during class discussion they learn more from the dialogue itself and from recurring examples. There is an important "learn-by-doing" component--suggesting that what is learned (if learned) will be more permanent.

Students report that they invest considerable time in the course--probably the major reason they are learning more material. So motivation is key. It appears that the most significant factor is intra-group accountability. They respond to "peer pressure" and to the system of rewards that promote contributions to other members of the group and coming to class prepared. They readily admit to responding to the point-system. Almost all acknowledge the increased level of pressure on them, yet they seem to find the pressure good, not stifling or oppressive. Our estimate was that about one- quarter of the students have learned to engage in the material "professionally," while performance for the other three-quarters depends mostly on this motivation/reward system. Hence, there are some potential tensions still to be resolved between short- term class goals and long-term learning goals.

Your written survey/questionaire focused mostly on the content. Note, however, that ~60% of students would add that they are learning communication and presentation skills, while developing confidence in such group situations through practice. This is another valuable dimension of learning that ought not to be overlooked--and perhaps incorporated into the class reward/grading structure.

By not following a strict ("lecture"-driven) trajectory, you seem to be able to identify what students do not understand well. They appreciate being able to revisit material and having multiple opportunities to learn. This is especially important where students rely on other students who may not be fully prepared or skilled at presenting material. Students also recognize your keen ability for posing questions that expose their uncertainties and the unfinished edges of their learning.

Note that you often become involved with specific individuals, virtually excluding the rest of the class. At one level, you are modeling an interaction for all to observe (and many do watch)--but you do not draw explicit attention to this, or always expand the focus to include the whole class. You simply might want to try being more aware of individual versus whole-group focus and how this affects classroom dynamics.

Recommendations

Few students feel that they know how they're doing in the course. Almost ALL want more feedback in terms of grades, points from group evaluations, or how they "measure up" against course expectations. At the same time, nearly all feel that they can articulate clearly exactly what they've learned.

Intra-group accountability is working well. Keep it (but note peer pressure above.)

By contrast, inter-group accountability seems to falter significantly. Students do not like (=resent?) having to teach what has been taught to them when initially taught by a group weaker than themselves--with no opportunity to accommodate the other group's weaknesses. Relative level of satisfaction is significantly lower here. Students would like to know who will teach them in advance, so that they can prepare against it if needed(!), OR be given a one-class turn-around time between being taught and teaching the same material. Consider even eliminating second-order group teaching (keeping "plain" group presentations). If I gauge the situation correctly, the peer accountability feedback loops are working well in small groups, but not at the intra-group level. My unvalidated impression is that most students just go back and learn it on their own afterwards--defeating the purpose of the group interaction. If you continue this type of interaction, you may need to increase the amount of commentary/ feedback (or degree of point-accountability) for each group. Self-selected groups, however, may stratify the class and make uniform performance (even through accountability) difficult.

Many persons found the inter-group teaching to slow things down. Still, most acknowledged that when they went over the material a second or third time, you introduced more examples that deepened the discussion. Note that only half agreed fully that your approach allows them to learn the material more quickly (any increased rate may well be due to other basic motivational factors, not group processing). Survey responses and comments offer the perpetually cryptic contradiction that the pace is both too fast and too slow at the same time. Clearer review or periodic retrospective synopses may help clarify where the pace really is.

Students are keenly aware that your approach keeps them on top of material and prepared for each class (good), but that this also puts a premium on preparation. They would like more advance scheduling so that they can accommodate the work to their schedules -- especially when groups have to coordinate outside class.

You have a very competitive group(!). Is it clear how each person has an opportunity to receive a good mark based on some known grading standard or set of explicit expectations? (It seemed that intra-group processing led to ranking, rather than absolute achievement -- some student anxiety here.)

Not all students are enamored of this approach. Hence, you may need to consider, more than usual, how to accommodate the minority.

Consider the approriateness of stating more explicit or more organized instructional goals at the outset. (Do not rely exclusively on lists of problems and working through them. Identify the structure or conceptual scaffolding?) I'm guessing occasional recaps that identify what was learned in the past (day? week? 2 weeks?) might also help. (Post review "maps" on web?)

Studies nationally indicate that students don't mind extra work if it is worthwhile. Still, you might want to monitor workload to ensure that students do not feel undue sacrifice relative to other classes--and that the workload is indeed commensurate with the credit hours received. You might remind students of your own work for/time commitment to the course--often less visible in this format. (Remind students how you are not merely avoiding your job by shifting the burden of "teaching" to them.)

Be attentive to noise and voice levels. A loud fan in the room does not help, of course. I found I could not hear many students--and noticed that many other students "tuned out" on occasions where they could not hear: they did not ask their peers to speak more loudly. You might consider how you set an example, by asking each person to speak loudly and clearly (in a sense, honoring their contribution for all), and inviting others to feel free to request the same on their own.

Some students apparently want more visuals -- animation or handouts. Some of this may be insecurity, but it is also easily remedied. Some of it may be related to the advanced level you expect, which could be clarified by additional visual information.

Articulate more clearly the relationship between lab and "lecture," and perhaps give stronger or clearer justification for lab grade being 50%.

Your openness to questions in "lecture" seems not to be paralleled by an equal openness in lab?


Overall, I hope this summary means that things are generally working well. The intra- group work is probably the strongest element, with the open-ended "what-if" discussions in class ranking second. Development of communication skills is another valuable dimension worth highlighting. Need for more (grade) feedback and attention to second-order teaching dynamics seem to be the two elements most needing some attention. Advanced schedules and more explicit course expectations would additionally help smooth things, especially for the weaker students.

Teaching Portfolios