A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 1)

The purpose of this short guide is to help teachers/lecturers and their managers to:

  • be precise about objectives in observing or being observed,
  • follow lesson observation processes accordingly,
  • raise awareness of the skills sets of accomplished observers and observees, and thereby
  • set about participating in lesson observations with increased confidence.

(My apologies if this guide sounds rather dogmatic. I have, however, based it on relevant literature and my experience as a teacher trainer.)

Objectives of lesson observations

  1. Performance appraisal
  2. External inspection
  3. Development of teaching skills
  4. Action research

1. Performance appraisal / 2. External inspection

It is common for teaching staff to be evaluated once or twice a year on their teaching performance through observation. The observer may be a department head or school vice-principal. Some would question the reliability of this form of appraisal, particularly in the case of inspections. See this article by Nick Morrison on Forbes for the arguments against and further references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/03/19/lesson-observations-are-no-way-to-grade-teachers/

However, for many teaching professionals it is still a reality to be faced. So, it is important to ensure that it is done as carefully as possible. There are many ways to conduct a lesson observation, but I suggest a three-step process based on reflective practice:

Reflection for action (Cowan, 1998)

    • Before the observation

Reflection in action (Schön, 1983)

    • During the observation

Reflection on action (Schön, 1983)

    • After the observation

Before the observation

Ideally, there should be a face-to-face meeting beforehand to clarify several matters. As Brown (1993) said, “It is not enough simply to devise a universal checklist and send line managers out to do it.”

    • The teacher tells the observer about the learners and the lesson objectives
    • The observer takes note of any special considerations
    • The teacher & observer agree on the observation process and focus
    • The teacher & observer make sure they understand the appraisal criteria & standards in the same way. For example, what does “maintains good pace of learning” mean?

During the observation

    • The observer tries not to distract the learners or the teacher
    • The observer pays attention to all criteria that were selected
    • The teacher focuses on the learners and learning and teaches as normally as possible
    • The observer summarises impressions by the end of the lesson

After the observation

    • The teacher completes a self-evaluation before forgetting the details
    • The observer considers the teacher’s self-evaluation and adjusts appraisal or feedback accordingly
    • The observer and teacher exchange views on how well assessment criteria were met, or on the focus of the lesson observation
    • The observer and teacher decide upon future priorities and concrete action points

Professional development

By contrast, this type of lesson observation is characterized by the following terms: voluntary, forward-looking, formative and constructive. Such an observation can be beneficial for lecturers/teachers at any stage of development.

Frequently, the observer is a peer, or possibly an external consultant without vested interests. The role of the observer is to act as a trusted colleague to assist their partner in reflecting on their teaching. The observer does not need to be more knowledgeable about learning-teaching approaches.

I would argue that written impressions by observers should not be recorded and stored in teachers’ records. Otherwise, there is a danger of them being used to inform decisions about contract renewals or promotions.

“The process of observation should be developed between those staff involved.” I suggest that the three-step process above could still be helpful, minus the appraisal element.

The focus of observation is also negotiable. For example, lecturers teaching the same subject could witness alternative ways of presenting the same content, or developing the same skills in students. Alternatively, a lecturer could experiment with a revised learning task and get a second opinion on its design and effec­tiveness. In order to ensure that the observer’s attention remains on the selected focus, an observation instrument can be devised.

Action research

Action research observations are similar in nature to professional development observations in that they are non-evaluative of the lecturer/teacher. They are distinguished by, for instance, their greater formality, use of more precisely designed observation instruments and pre-conceived ways to process collected data. Findings are written up for publication or presentation and may inform revisions in learning/teaching practices or curricula design.

In part two of this mini-guide, I will provide more detail about the skills of participating in lesson observations.

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79 (Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Key research findings about formative assessment

Formative assessment has a significant impact on learning, as much as 1 or 2 grades on GCSE* results.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

(This seminal article was a meta-survey of over 250 publications linking assessment and learning.)

Students can achieve learning goals when they (a) understand the goals, (b) feel like those goals are personal goals, and (c) can evaluate their own progress during courses.

Sadler, D.R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18, 119-144.

Formative assessment promotes effective learning and raises the quality of teaching.

Black. P, Harrison. C, Lee. C, Marshall. B, William, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Oxford University Press.

Learning gains from formative assessment are disproportionately greater for less-able students.

Assessment Reform Group (2002). Assessment for learning – 10 principles: Research-based principles to guide classroom practice. ARG/Nuffield Foundation.

Formative assessment encourages students to take an active role in the management of their own learning.

Juwah, C. et al. (2004) Enhancing Student Learning Through Effective Feedback. The Higher Education Academy.

Purely formative assessment, with no summative standard measurement, is ineffective.

Smith, E. & Gorard, S. (2005). ‘They don’t give us our marks’: The role of formative feedback in student progress. Assessment in Education, 12(1), 21-38.

*GCSE = General Certificate of Secondary Education in England, Wales & Northern Ireland

The formative and summative assessment disambiguator

Assessment for learning

Assessment of  learning

Also known as…

Formative assessment

Summative assessment

Purposes

To  diagnose student difficulties in reaching learning objectives; To identify student strengths that can be built upon; To inform future learning and teaching. To measure and summarise student achievement of learning objectives in the form of grades; To inform selection procedures for, e.g. promotion, entrance to higher education, employment.

Formality

Formal or informal (ad hoc)

Formal

Timing

Prior to / During school term

During / At end of school term

Consequences

Low-stakes

High-stakes

Perspective

Forward-looking

Backward-looking

Feedback

Specific, qualitative feedback in the form of evaluative comments on performance or   highlighted descriptors on a criteria marking scheme.  Students are provided with constructive and concrete advice on how to improve, time and opportunities for further development and practice. Scores   may be given to show students the result they would have achieved in a ‘real’ test, but the scores do not contribute to grades. Students should absorb teachers’ comments fully before seeing scores. Feedback is optional. If the students are going to do a similar test/exam in future,   then feedback could serve a formative purpose. If the test/exam content is the last time they will be tested on this, then of course no feedback, just grades. If the summative assessment is criterion-referenced, then students can refer to the   criteria marking scheme to understand what the grade implies about their   capabilities, but there is nothing they can do to change their grade.

Feedback providers

Self / Peers / Teacher

Teacher / Examiner

Understanding learning goals

Enhances student understanding of learning objectives, criteria, standards, etc. Merely checks student ability to meet learning objectives

Motivation

Positive

Negative

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.