Peer Review of Teaching

The University of British Columbia is moving towards emphasizing and improving the practice of peer review of teaching. This website explains the project and its history:

I have recently received a draft of a set of guidelines for the Faculty of Arts, a draft that is still in development so what I say below may change. But still, I find the whole project very interesting and potentially quite valuable.

Explanation and evaluation of some specific aspects of the program:

1. Data sources for peer evaluation of teaching are wider than just one class visit. The guidelines give several options for other sources, stating that not all of these need to be used. Some options:  course materials, such as syllabi, assignment instructions, even possibly samples of student work; one or more meetings with the instructor; meeting with students; statement of teaching philosophy; past student evaluation results; contributions to curriculum or new course development; innovations in teaching practices and/or use of technology; evidence of professional development re: teaching beyond the classroom; evidence of reflection upon teaching; teaching load (number and types of courses); grad students supervised; grad student publications and awards; information solicited from grad students. This seems an excellent way to get a better picture of someone’s teaching capacities than just visiting one course meeting. Of course, it has to be handled carefully within departments so that what is requested of each person in terms of documentation is relatively uniform so as to avoid perceptions of unfairness. Considerations of workload come in here too–gathering and looking over this information can take a significant amount of time and effort, on the part of both the reviewer and the instructor him/herself.

2.  Peer reviews should be conducted by two-person teams, ideally of people who have gone through training on doing peer review of teaching (provided by the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at UBC). One of the reviewers will be from the instructor’s department, and the other from outside the department (“to provide a measure of arms-length credibility” the Faculty of Arts draft report says). The two reviewers will visit the same class meeting and review the same materials, then produce a report together, negotiating their different views–either by coming to agree or noting differences. The report, though, should not tie any views to one particular person. Then, according to the Faculty of Arts draft document, “Instructors are to have access to the results of the final summative report, subject to the Head’s discretion to protect confidentiality including that of students.” The instructor then meets with the Head to discuss the report, and has a chance to respond. I think this is an interesting idea, as in my experience I’ve only ever been reviewed by people within my own department. There are potential problems, of course, in that approaches to and goals of teaching could vary significantly amongst different disciplines (see #4, below). Still, it may also be possible to get some interesting ideas for new approaches to teaching that one might never have considered before, b/c they aren’t popular in one’s own discipline. The need for credible, arms-length reviews seems also a valid reason for having an outside reviewer.

3. How often? At least two peer reviews for pre-tenure faculty and those seeking promotion. This seems reasonable–much more and the workload would be too much. Just one would not provide an adequate picture of potential progress.

4. Criteria for reviews: there is a list of suggested criteria, but the document states that these are not “offered as rigid template that all units need mechanically follow.” The issue of criteria is tricky. It could too easily happen that peer reviewers use criteria that aren’t well-suited to the particular situation because they don’t fit the teaching style or approach of the instructor or the course, or for some other reason. It could be that reviewers from outside the department insist on criteria that don’t work well for the discipline of the instructor they’re reviewing. I’m not sure how to handle the problem of criteria. It seems it would be useful for departments to have their instructors reviewed on at least similar criteria, for the purpose of comparison across instructors, but teaching philosophies, approaches, and differences between courses may make this difficult. I also think the instructor should have some input into the criteria chosen for the peer review. The instructor may have certain things s/he has been working on, and wants to get feedback on that; plus, having the instructor at least have input on the choice of criteria may help the reviewers get a better sense of what the instructor is trying to do with his/her teaching, which can help them avoid misunderstanding a particular style or assignment. I actually think the criteria on the Faculty of Arts document are pretty good in themselves, and they are backed by research on peer review of teaching. But I do see that making them rigid won’t allow the necessary flexibility for different department and individual needs.

Overall thoughts on the program

The goals and purposes of the peer review of teaching initiative, noted on the website given above, are:

  • Contribution to reflection on teaching and professional development of faculty members.
  • Increased awareness of the value of teaching within the university.
  • Positively impact the quality of teaching and student learning experience.
  • Identification of teaching development needs of faculty members.
  • Enhanced evidence to support assessment of teaching for decision-making purposes(regarding tenure, promotion, career progress, merit, PSA, teaching awards, etc.).

These are all excellent goals, and I think that this project might be able to help UBC make good on its claims that it values undergraduate teaching as well as research and graduate training (though by itself, it can’t achieve this, it is a step in the right direction). I do believe the project can, in those who take it seriously, contribute to reflection on teaching by those who both give and receive reviews, and by making peer review required and standardizing its practice to some extent, it can help to increase awareness of the value of teaching within the university. Whether it will have a positive impact on quality of teaching, and whether it will help identify professional development needs of teachers are harder to predict–these depend more heavily on how well the practices are implemented and taken seriously by individuals and departments. It can certainly provide further evidence of quality of teaching than only student evaluations (which have often been the main source of such evidence in the past), but whether this evidence is taken seriously again depends on departments and faculties.  This is not a perfect system, and it’s still in development, but it is, at least, an improvement on past practices.

The main problem I see at the moment is that it adds significantly to faculty workload, which is already too heavy. The idea is that some people in a department will volunteer to go through the peer review of teaching training, and they will then be able to review those inside and outside the department. One real danger is that there will be few people willing to do this, and those that are get asked to do too many reviews. This will have to be managed carefully, including paying attention to how many internal and external reviews each person is being asked to do in a year. It should definitely count as part of one’s service load in a department if it goes beyond one or two per year, I think.

I imagine some may view this as just another requirement coming down from the top, to add to our already overburdened lives. But myself, I think that it’s a valuable step towards encouraging a greater emphasis on and improvement in the value of teaching.