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Max. Classroom Capacity: On Conducting Teacher Peer Evaluations

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

 

Dear readers,

When Marcus Dickson, my colleague and mentor, and the creator of this column, asked me to fill his oversized shoes in writing this column, he explained that Max. Classroom Capacity is about helping all of us realize our potential as instructors of I-O psychology. As a collective, part of this endeavor involves each of us mentoring other instructors. You may think that this kind of mentoring should be limited to very experienced instructors—I disagree! I can remember being asked to evaluate classes taught by graduate students and adjunct instructors as early as my third year as an assistant professor. Although I wasn’t very experienced, I had probably taught two dozen classes at that point (including throughout grad school)—a lot more than many of the graduate students whose classes I evaluated. Plus, I wanted to help and enjoyed talking about teaching—conversations that don’t happen as often as they should in many places. As the years went by, I realized that conducting teaching evaluations was also teaching me an awful lot about my own teaching, not least from younger, more tech-savvy, and innovative grad student instructors (my evaluations of Baruch College PhD graduates Elliott Larson and Rachel Omansky stand out in my mind). I am now into my third decade as a teacher, yet I still receive valuable feedback from peer teaching evaluations that makes me question my assumptions, reflect on the reasons why I do things the way I do, and consider new techniques and perspectives. I’m a better teacher for it, and I’m very grateful to the many colleagues who have evaluated my teaching. If you are at an institution where you are not required to undergo peer teaching evaluations, I encourage you to (a) seek out accomplished instructors in your department and ask them if they would observe you and give you feedback on your teaching, and/or (b) offer to observe and provide feedback to a colleague on their teaching.

My goal for this column is to present some ideas for providing mentorship to colleagues in the form of peer teaching evaluation. By peer teaching evaluations, I mean the formal process where instructors receive feedback from peers, typically for the purposes of job performance evaluation. Of course, we know that there are deep literatures on performance evaluation and feedback giving that are relevant but which I won’t review here. Also, I discussed best practices in providing feedback to students in a previous Max. Classroom Capacity column. Although the present column focuses on peer teaching evaluations, many of the ideas are also applicable to more informal teacher mentoring.

I’m going to start by describing how I tend to conduct peer teaching evaluations. But first let me say that I don’t assume that my way is the only or best way to do it, and I would love to hear about how you may conduct peer teacher evaluations differently—email me! My first step in conducting a peer teaching evaluation is to communicate with the instructor (i.e., the person whose teaching you will evaluate) to develop a shared understanding of the objectives of the evaluation. My first question is this: “Have you ever been evaluated like this before?” It is not unusual to be assigned an instructor who is new to your institution or new to teaching. In these cases, instructors may be apprehensive about taking part in a formal performance evaluation with a more senior evaluator, especially when that evaluation may play a role in determining their future employment. Moreover, the classroom may be a safe place for many instructors where they are in positions of authority relative to their students. Having an evaluator in class can flip this power dynamic on its head, which may be disorienting and anxiety provoking for the instructor. Explaining the purpose of the evaluation and your own goals as the evaluator is really important here, in part to avoid misunderstandings later on, in part, ideally, to set the instructor at ease so that their performance during the evaluation is not undermined by nervousness.

The classic dilemma of practitioners of performance management applies to peer teacher evaluations: How can we reconcile the developmental and evaluative purposes of the evaluation? In other words, how can we expect instructors to provide a representative sample of their teaching and be open to developmental feedback when the result of the evaluation may be used in ways that could threaten their job security? Some would argue that we should get rid of performance evaluation entirely and just focus on development. Whether or not you agree, as academics few of us can institute such systemic changes even if we wanted to, at least not in the short term. The vast majority of peer teaching evaluations that I have been involved in did not result in any negative personnel actions but did (I hope) result in some developmental benefit. Therefore, my approach is to emphasize the developmental purpose of the evaluation. When broaching the issue with the instructor, I usually say something along the lines of

We all have different ways of teaching, there isn’t one single way to teach effectively, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers when it comes to what is or isn’t effective in the classroom. I will do my best to offer you developmental feedback that I hope you will find useful.

A good initial topic of discussion is the instructor’s class syllabus. The syllabus can provide some insight into the instructor’s approach and philosophy, and can also highlight aspects of the class that they may be teaching in a way that is not aligned with how the class was conceived or intended to be taught. It is often the case that the class description in the syllabus must be identical to the class description in the university catalog. The same may be true of the course learning objectives and other information, depending on your institution. At CSUN (I learned from writing this column that) there are 10 items that must appear on every syllabus! I have had experiences where I reviewed an instructor’s syllabus only to find that they were essentially teaching a substantially different class than the one that students had signed up for—a losing situation for everyone. Often this comes about because the instructor simply wasn’t aware of how the class was intended to be taught. Maybe they had taught a similarly titled class at another institution and assumed that the content was similar. Many adjunct instructors receive little to no guidance when teaching a class for the first time. The peer teaching evaluation is a great way to detect and (hopefully) nip such problems in the bud. There may be other aspects of the syllabus that are required or encouraged by your department or that you think the instructor may benefit from adding to their syllabus, including statements about academic integrity, accommodations and services, and other resources for students.

The syllabus also may provide you with valuable context for evaluating the lesson that you will later observe. You can develop a sense of what topics have been taught prior to the lesson, where the instructor is going, and where s/he wants to end up. You can have a conversation about what goals the instructor has for the class you will evaluate and how they plan to assess whether they met them. I find in my own teaching that I usually have a fuzzy sense of what I want students to walk away with after each class. Articulating specific goals and thinking about how I will assess them comes less naturally to me. Consequently, as an instructor, I find this to be a very useful exercise in clarifying my own goals and building into each class meeting some form of informal assessment, at least. One simple way to do this, as I learned recently from my colleague and brilliant teacher, Rick Moore, is to reserve the last 5 minutes of class to ask students: “What did you learn today? What do you walk away from this class knowing or understanding better than when you walked in?”

In the initial meeting, you can also ask the instructor if there is anything in particular on which they want you to provide them feedback or any concerns that they have about the course, their class, or their teaching. For example, I have had instructors tell me that they have a very quiet group of students and they want ideas on how to increase class participation in discussions. Their own goals may play a role in determining which specific class meeting they want you to observe depending on the activities they have planned for that day. Finally, I ask instructors to share with me whatever materials they plan to use in the class you will observe, if they are comfortable doing so, including slides, activities, assignments, and so on. I also mention that during the class visit, I will sit at the back of the class where I can observe both the instructor and the students, I will have my laptop open so that I can take notes during the class, and that they can introduce me and involve me in the class or completely ignore me, depending on their preference.

During the class visit I find it very useful to arrive early so as to get a sense of the environment. I enjoy seeing how instructors interact with their students informally before class (if they do) though I’m not sure it is at all predictive of teaching effectiveness. Taking attendance has been mandatory in most places I have worked. There are many ways to take attendance, some of which present opportunities to develop a positive classroom environment. For example, in small classes I take attendance as students enter the room by greeting each student by name and marking them present. Most of the attendance is done before class starts, saving precious class time, and it allows me to show students that I see them and appreciate their attendance. In a prior column, I’ve described one way to efficiently take attendance and learn students’ names in very large classes. 

Here are some things I try to take note of while observing a class. I jot down the number of different students who participated by answering questions posed by the instructor. I take note of the number of students who failed to participate in any group activities that may have taken place. I record the number of students who look clearly disengaged—reading or texting on their phones, laptops, and so forth. I also listen for students’ comments to each other that might indicate that, for example, students didn’t hear the instructor’s question and consequently cannot answer it (always repeat questions to the class at least once and wait a slightly uncomfortably long time before calling on a student to answer—this ensures that students understand the question and gives them more time to process their answers).

I like to give instructors feedback on their nonverbal behavior when I think I can help them. I remember a class where the instructor spent nearly the entire time with her back to the class so that she could look at her slides, which were projected on a screen at the front of the class. In that case, I encouraged her to project her slides to her laptop as well and position the laptop so that she could see her slides and the class at the same time. Sounds obvious but not necessarily to a new instructor. A different instructor had the habit of speaking clearly at first, and then trailing off so that the ends of his sentences were barely audible. In other examples, instructors never looked at individual students, looked only at one half of the class ignoring the other, or gazed off into the distance with an inscrutable, faraway look in their eyes! I think directing one’s gaze at individual students provides them with a sense of being seen and of being personally accountable to whatever is going on in class at the time, though perhaps others would disagree. Anyway, I think we are rarely aware of our own nonverbal behaviors, and we rarely receive feedback on them. Yet, to the extent that the nonverbal behaviors are relevant to our job performance, we can benefit from feedback on them. 

A lot of the observation notes from a class visit will concern the content of the class (too much/little, too deep/shallow, need more/fewer examples, need more/less theory, etc.), visual aids (organization of slides, amount of detail, relevance and appropriateness of videos, etc.), pace of presentation, effectiveness of in-class exercises, management of student participation and disruptive classroom behaviors, and so on. Some of my notes will focus on areas where I think I can suggest changes that will help the instructor. Other parts of my notes will focus on areas where I think the instructor was particularly innovative, effective, attention grabbing, thought provoking, or fun. 

Sitting in someone else’s class can be a humbling experience, both for the instructor and the evaluator. I recall a recent evaluation of an instructor who I considered to be a thoughtful and caring instructor who was also a reasonably entertaining presenter. Nonetheless, from my vantage at the back of the classroom, I watched one student spend the entire class using her laptop to buy tickets to Coachella (a popular music festival in Southern California) and several new outfits/costumes, presumably for the event! It made me wonder about how much attention my students pay to me. Prior to COVID-19, I had a policy of no electronic devices in class to limit students’ access to distraction. As an instructor I try to be engaging and encourage active participation. But at the end of the day, you can’t force students to pay attention to you: You always rely on students’ consent to the learning process. As an instructor, you can try your hardest and still fail. In my mind, this is one compelling reason to focus on continuous development as an instructor—I don’t think one ever reaches a point where teaching has been mastered, and no further development is needed. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, teaching new students with different life experiences in evolving external environments requires constant adaptation. This can be difficult, but I think it’s a good thing—if you are constantly adapting and improving, then teaching will never be boring! 

The last step I’ll talk about is the follow-up meeting with the instructor in which your observations and feedback are discussed. I usually start these meetings by asking the instructor how they thought the class had gone. I find that listening first to the instructor’s own views of their class often brings up some of the issues that you as the evaluator noticed, as well as other issues that you didn’t. Some instructors will be very self-aware, whereas others will be less so. Regardless, respectfully asking the instructor to share their views on how the class went rather than, for example, immediately telling them everything that you think they did wrong reinforces the developmental objectives of the evaluation. When it’s time to offer my observations, I first reiterate that my views and feedback are offered humbly and with the intention to help them become a better instructor. When sharing my observations, I try to establish agreement with the instructor about the observation itself to make sure that there are no factual disagreements about what happened in the class. It’s hard to imagine developmental feedback being adopted when the instructor doesn’t agree with the observation that prompted the feedback. When sharing ideas for solutions or changes to teaching practices, I find that that process works best when it’s a two-way discussion. I try to keep in mind that even if an instructor bombs the evaluation, that all of us have the capacity to improve, and what that instructor needs most from you is honest feedback, a clear path forward, and enough support and encouragement to walk that path. On the other hand, some instructors will be so fantastic that they will blow your mind! I think it’s just as important to discuss aspects of the class that you think were fun, innovative, and/or effective as those for which you identified potential problems. Discussing the instructor’s successes can be incredibly beneficial for everyone involved. Beyond providing support and encouragement to the instructor, this is a great way of developing collegial relationships in which everyone can share teaching ideas, challenges, techniques, and opportunities for collaboration that can benefit both instructors and the evaluators. Mentoring can be a two-way street, and everyone wins!

Readers, as always, please email me with comments, feedback, or just to say hi! Loren.Naidoo@csun.edu.

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