Classroom observation: why and how?

As part of the TLC ‘Teaching Matters‘ series, I got to give a workshop! and had a great time doing so.  We had a good mix of people in the room – faculty and grad students alike, from a bunch of different departments.  Awesome!  (Come and join for the next ones!)

Why go to class?  Why bring someone to yours?

In this workshop, we focussed on discussing why you might invite someone to observe your class, and why you might want to go observe other teaching.  Lots of fantastic reasons to do both!  For me, the number one reason that resonated was about being part of a community of people who talk about their teaching — whether you’re teaching faculty, research faculty, sessional, or graduate student.   It’s great to have a second set of eyes in the room, a colleague you trust; and we’re all here help each other out!


Observer and instructor, together in the field!  Cheesy but true!
What to look for

Then we talked about: when you’re going to be part of classroom observations, what might you want to look for in the classroom?  Again, lots of options — usually depending on what the goal is at the time.  (So, it’s highly beneficial to discuss beforehand – what is the instructor hoping you’ll look for?  What is something they are working on, that they’d like feedback about?)  Focussing on what is a directly observable, tangible behaviour was a theme that emerged.

  • Are you looking for student engagement?  then consider watching for students on- or off-task, throughout the class.  Or, drawing a map of which students ask questions, how often, from where in the room.
  • Are you giving feedback about the specific activities are being run?  Then it’s good to make note of how long they last, and how well they align with learning objectives.  (Unlike most class observations, for this one you’d need a discipline-familiar observer.)
  • Are you looking for quantitative data on observable teaching practices that you can document in your teaching dossier, or use in a research project?  then consider using a quantitative tool such as COPUS or PORTAAL to really nail this down (and give you a nice graph).
  • Are you looking for a general overview, to get a sense of how the other classroom works?  You can always ask for ‘what is one thing that was great, and one thing to consider changing.’

In any of these cases, we agreed that it was best to to focus on specific topics/behaviours that will support the instructor actually making tangible change with the targeted feedback.

We’ve been talking about setting up opportunities to visit each others’ classes — either teaching circles or similar.  When we do so, we should talk with Kevin Oldknow about his successes with pairwise teaching exchanges in Applied Sciences.


We did a round-up of a bunch of observational tools, all of which have their own pros and cons.  I’m attaching all the resources below.

Slides from the workshop, including examples of classroom data

Observation protocols:   (but don’t be afraid to build your own!)

Thanks Veso, Joan, and Cindy for setting this up!  and thanks Jane for many of the resources here, and for hashing this out with me to prepare!


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