This article was co-authored by Kathleen Jacobi and Sarah Ackermann

We know that teaching is a highly personal experience for faculty at Ball State, and that gaining feedback isn’t as easy as simply opening up your door for someone to peek inside. At Ball State we’ve put together structures and supports to facilitate a faculty-forward peer review program.

Classroom observations are common practice in the higher education space. Results from such observations depend on the context. Are you being observed by your supervisor as part of a formal review process? Or are you being observed by a colleague who’s simply there to provide meaningful suggestions for growth? Chances are one scenario made your heart race a little faster than the other.

Determined to take the fear-factor out of classroom observations and foster more growth-based and reflective conversations among faculty members at Ball State, our crew set out to create a Peer Review of Teaching Program that would provide useful and reflective data to practitioners. Designed for faculty, by faculty, Ball State’s Peer Review of Teaching Program provides educators an opportunity to observe and be observed within a safe, nurturing community.

Turning the Key

We believe that when done well and with authenticity, peer review practices can have a powerful impact on faculty confidence and success, as well as learner outcomes. Prior research points to several positive outcomes from a well-designed peer review of teaching program, including discovering new ways to talk about teaching, increased confidence and emerging self-efficacy among participants, more authentic collegiality among peers, as well as lessened feelings of isolation (Wennerberg & McGrath, p. 9).

The Peer Review of Teaching Program (PRT) at Ball State was established in 2021 as a pilot project by the Division of Online and Strategic Learning with these tenets in mind. Faculty in the program work together to set goals, observe one another, and reflect on instructional strategies. 

We wanted to ensure a program that felt 100% safe for faculty. We wanted folks to feel comfortable opening up their physical and virtual classrooms, because we know how personal teaching is to Ball State faculty members. We connected with instructors at the earliest stages of developing the program. Initial ideas were identified by focus groups representing multiple departments and colleges. This was followed by support from Faculty Partners, Mary Lou Vercellotti and Lynn Bielski, as we created documentation templates and built a robust Canvas space for learning and collaboration. Finally, a small group of faculty reviewers provided feedback and inspired additional tweaks prior to launch. Many of those who served in advisory roles have participated in the program since and continue to encourage others to partake.

As an early professional, meaningful feedback was a hot commodity. I was a photography teacher and one of few fine arts specialists in the building. When it came to yearly or semesterly reviews, I was routinely observed by academic leadership outside of my subject area. While my mentors were generous and nurturing with their summative feedback, I craved more regular touchpoints to build confidence and experience in the classroom.  Informally, I leaned on a few trusted educators, some arts educators, some generalists, to provide formative suggestions. Over time, we built rapport and eventually my mentors invited me to their classrooms to observe and provide them with similar feedback.

Fast forward to my time here at Ball State. I think often about those early years in the classroom, craving feedback, and woefully unsure about my impact on student learning. To satisfy my needs, I built relationships and forged my own feedback loop, but what if I didn’t have to do all the legwork? What if a formal peer review process had already been established for me all those years ago as an early professional?

Sarah Ackermann serves as Executive Director for Teaching Innovation and helps lead the Peer Review of Teaching Program

Opening the Door

Faculty participate in two peer review cycles in one semester. One cycle is illustrated in the image below. Every participant is reviewed twice, each by a different member of a triad. Each triad member serves as reviewer and reviewee. While wearing their “reviewer hat” participants provide feedback concerning observed behaviors and provide recommendations for growth. While wearing their “reviewee hat” participants benefit from the feedback of trusted peers.

Peer Review of Teaching Cycle: Step One – Prepare, Step Two – Pre-Observation Dialogue, Step Three – Observe, Step Four – Post-Observation Dialogue
Peer Review of Teaching Cycle

The goal of the program is formative. Participants gather “detailed information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. What makes an assessment ‘formative’ is not the design of a test, technique, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to inform in-process teaching and learning modifications” (Great Schools Partnership, 2014, para 2). This is significant because, as Steve Drew and Christopher Klopper (2014) remind us, there is often no shortage of formal evaluations of teaching and learning. End-of-semester course evaluations, for example, represent one specific set of stakeholders’ viewpoints. Considering the broader reflective needs among faculty today, student evaluation data alone is not always robust enough to inspire meaningful adjustments in the classroom. Peer review of teaching can help supplement the feedback gap and provide a fuller picture of teaching practice.

Resulting data from this program come in the form of observational notes and reflections, which are owned by the individual faculty members participating in the program. An individual faculty member may decide to share their PRT results as a part of the tenure and promotion/salary and merit process at Ball State. That decision is entirely up to the individual faculty member.

My experiences with teaching observation and feedback have typically been in the one-and-done format. The observer attended a class session, took some notes, wrote a report, and, sometimes, concluded the experience with a short debrief session. While I hoped to provide a context for the observation prior to the visit, often it was an announced pop-in. As a result, the debrief included after-the-fact statements such as, “I used that strategy because the students are [descriptor such as: freshman, or non-majors].”

Dialogue is a critical element in the peer review process. While a reflective conversation following an observation is quite typical, just as important is the pre-observation dialogue. This allows the one being observed time to identify a focus for the observation and sets the context for the visiting colleague which, ultimately, provides a more robust and meaningful peer reflection.

Kathy Jacobi serves as Director of Faculty Development and helps lead the Peer Review of Teaching Program

Stepping Over the Threshold

Since its launch in 2021, we’ve ushered almost thirty faculty through the Peer Review of Teaching Program. Those thirty participants committed to robust dialogue concerning how they assess teaching at-large, how they celebrate dynamic teaching, and how they support those in need of additional mentorship and encouragement (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, n.d.). In the spirit of ongoing growth, we ask participants for feedback each semester, which often leads to small tweaks to the program itself.

When we asked Fall 2022 participants what they felt the benefits of the program were, they offered the following insights:

Colleagues are uniquely positioned to understand the challenges of teaching at the college level and offer supportive and constructive feedback on ways we can continue to develop as faculty members.

Having adults and colleagues talk frankly about how you sound in front of students; having honest feedback from a fellow teacher that can be used to improve communication with students.

We often work in isolation. Observing peers allows me a fresh perspective on teaching and classroom management.

I think individuals from other disciplines often approach teaching in unique ways based on the nature of the topics they teach, so they can offer innovative ideas that have been tried in other areas but are perhaps less commonly used in my field.

We want to emphasize that last reflective comment in particular. It’s not every day that you cross over the threshold of someone’s classroom outside of your specific subject area, and we see a lot of value in that experience. So do others in the field. Neil Haave (2014) writes passionately about how a similar peer review program was effective because of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Haave shared that the “views and perspective of those who teach different kinds of content can be very helpful in providing new perspectives on the content being taught” (para. 6).

Putting Your Heart Into It

We know that teaching is a highly personal experience for faculty at Ball State, and that gaining feedback isn’t as easy as simply opening up your door for someone to peek inside. It involves opening up your heart to accept both praise and feedback for growth. Because of the formative structures we’ve put into place in the Peer Review of Teaching Program, as well as the growth mindset we’ve instilled in participants, some faculty have returned to the program during subsequent semesters. They come with the understanding that we never truly arrive as practitioners – we only continue to grow.

Lynn Bielski, Faculty Mentor during Fall 2022, helped facilitate the formation of peer groups and motivated participants along the way. She recently shared the following heartfelt words of celebration for Fall 2022 Peer Review of Teaching participants.

At this point you have completed two observations and have been observed by your peers. You have reflected on your own goals for developing teaching skills and provided constructive feedback for your peers. In many ways this experience has been different from other teaching evaluations you may have been part of in the past. Hopefully, it has been different. It’s supposed to be. The Peer Review of Teaching Program allows for critical reflection of our own teaching strengths and weaknesses, areas where we want to grow, no matter how long or how experienced we are as teachers. Although the experience of getting feedback from peers is valuable, another facet of the experience you may have appreciated is observing your peers. Perhaps you observed a peer use a teaching technique and thought “I can use that in my course!” Finally, the Peer Review of Teaching Program provided you the opportunity to get outside your comfort zone and make connections with faculty across campus. It is my hope that these connections will continue to provide you with support and comradery.

Lynn Bielski served as the Fall 2022 Faculty Fellow for the Peer Review of Teaching Program

A Look Through the Peephole

Registration for Spring 2023 Peer Review of Teaching participants is now open for all faculty, no matter the modality you are teaching in. Email Kathy Jacobi today

Interested in the Peer Review of Teaching Program, but not quite ready to take the plunge? No problem. We invite you to take a test drive with a trusted colleague from your unit or department. We share one of several observational tools you will gain access to as an official Peer Review of Teaching participant. This is a sample form for synchronous teaching observations. Teaching online and asynchronously? We’ve got tools for you too!  

If you trial this tool, we would love to hear how it goes, or if you have additional questions about the Peer Review of Teaching Program at-large, please reach out.

References

Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. n.d. “Peer Review of Teaching.” University of Michigan. https://crlt.umich.edu/resources/peer-review

Drew, Steve, and Christopher Klopper. 2014;2013. “Evaluating Faculty Pedagogic Practices to Inform Strategic Academic Professional Development: A Case of Cases.” Higher Education, 67, no. 3: 349-367. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-013-9657-1

Great Schools Partnership. 2014. “Formative Assessment.” The Glossary of Education Reform. https://www.edglossary.org/formative-assessment/

Haave, Neil. 2018. “Teaching Squares Bring Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives” Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/faculty-development/teaching-squares-cross-disciplinary-perspectives/ 

Wennerberg, Jeanna, and Cormac McGrath. 2022. “Breaking the Isolation: A Study of University Teachers’ Collective Development.” Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, 4, no. 1: 7-27. https://doi.org/10.47989/kpdc110