The peer observation cycle at the R(D)SVS is approaching its end, which means we’re all hurriedly looking around for someone to come give us some feedback on how we teach. My teaching load has changed hugely since I started (hello new course organising responsibilities!) and I was feeling quite blasé about the peer obs process, mentally putting myself in reserve for those people who were undoubtedly going to run out of time and need a buddy last minute. 

Up until a colleague approached me and asked if we could buddy up because we teach very similar subjects. Why not do it right, after all? 

This is the first time in all my peer observation/feedback on teaching sessions that I’ve ever been observed by a more experienced colleague, and a considerably more experienced colleague at that (Dear Peer, if you’re reading this, your experience is simply a reflection of your very hard work, and in no way a commentary on years teaching 😉 ) And to my surprise, I found myself nervous about it. 

When I’m talking to people about our peer observation sessions I give lots of advice that I did not follow myself. For example, you have complete control over your peer observation sessions. If things are stressful or you’re not feeling it, you can always reschedule. But of course the time I’d scheduled with my peer just happened to fall over another colleague’s sick leave that I was having to unexpectedly cover for, a period of feeling under the weather myself, and a very stressful busy work period. But we went for it anyway. 

How did the session go? Well like many of my teaching sessions, I walked away thinking there was so much more I could have done, and my peer picked up on some of those in our debrief. But what was interesting was that the thing I’d asked my peer to focus on was what my peer considered to be the strongest part of the lecture. And this is a recurring theme in all my peer observations. The things I’m fretting about are usually not the things the peer picks up on. 

In this particular session I’d been asking about the engagement, and worrying about how the students were responding to the more ‘active learning’ parts of the session. My peer helped me see how positively they responded, and then was able to share some of their practice with me that I am definitely stealing drawing from next week when I continue the session. 

My peer also asked me a few questions, like why I didn’t scaffold in breaks, that made me think a little bit more about my approach to preparing teaching. Many of the questions my peer asked could have been answered “Oh I usually do that but…” and that alone is a fascinating observation. I spent a crazy amount of time designing these courses, and working hard on programmatic level innovation. Despite all that hard work, when I’m under pressure I default to teaching in the way I’m most comfortable with, the way I was taught. 

This realisation has also highlighted for me that building engaged and active learning opportunities actually costs me more preparation time than a more traditional lecture, despite the fact it seems like the student is doing most of the work. None of these observations are new to the field I’ll point out – people have been making this discovery for years, and  I suspect I’ve discovered this before too. I think the value of the peer observation session is helping to catch out those little bad habits you can slip back into. 

My final observation on the peer observation is that I’m really proud of myself for accepting the feedback. Working on feedback has been something of a project for me over the last few years. It reminds me of a time when a peer review came back on a paper I’d submitted, and I’d been grumping over the reviewer comments as you’re wont to do, until I got to the end and saw the reviewer’s name on this completely open journal. The reviewer was somebody I highly respected, and suddenly my entire perspective on the feedback changed. Having my peer be a more experienced colleague who I really respect was a great way for me personally to become more open to the feedback I was receiving. 

Ultimately lots to work on, and lots to be proud of, and all for a little bit of an uncomfortable an un-British conversation where we asked each other “how am I doing?”


3 Comments

Carol · October 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm

Some great observations here – you could almost have reflected on your own teaching session but having a different opinion is really useful. Do you think it peer observation works as well when you are being observed by a less experienced teacher than yourself?

    admin · October 24, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Hi Carol – thanks for the kind words! 🙂 I do think that peer obs works when you’re being observed by someone less experienced, in both cases the questions your peer asks you makes you think about why you make the choices you make. But having the more experienced peer this time meant I was able to take advantage of their depth of knowledge and experience, e.g. they were able to show me some things they do. I think its good to try and have a balance!

Linda Lyon · December 21, 2019 at 10:01 am

Approaching feedback objectively is an enormously difficult and undervalued skill in itself, particularly in a discipline that in all other areas rewards ‘being right’.

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