5 strategies for improving classroom observations

teacher at chalkboard

Your observer typically will sit in the back of the classroom, being able to watch you and your students in action.

As a faculty member, adjunct or teaching assistant, your teaching is observed by dozens and even hundreds of students in every class you teach.

Observations by other teachers does not happen very often. When you are observed by other teachers, those observations are very important. Here are some reasons you would be observed:

  • You’re nominated for a teaching award and are being evaluated by a member of the teaching award committee.
  • You are going through the tenure and promotion process.
  • You are being observed as part of a review for contract renewal.
  • Your department or college is being reviewed by an accrediting organization, and a member of the accrediting team is observing your class.

All of these observations can play an important part in your life — from whether you receive the teaching award to whether you receive tenure.

Here are some tips for having that classroom observation go well. I’m sharing tips from my experience of serving on the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teaching Award Committee that selects the top 20 teaching assistants on campus each year and from my experience of being a peer evaluator for more than 20 years for colleagues going through the tenure process.

1. Help your observer be prepared

Your observer is going to be better able to evaluate your teaching accurately and fairly if you help the observer be prepared.

* The observer should receive a copy of your syllabus. (I’ve written about creating a syllabus in a previous post.) At many universities, such as the University of Florida, all course syllabi must be posted online prior to the start of the semester. But don’t leave it to the observer to find your syllabus. Email your observer ahead of time with a PDF or a link to the online syllabus.

The syllabus enables the observer to see what your Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are and how those connect to student activities in the course and how students earn their grades – homework, research papers, individual and team projects, quizzes and exams, etc.

The syllabus helps the observer see how the class session observed fits into the overall course.

Your observer will know the course textbooks and reading assignments.

If you have an online site (such as Canvas) to support your class, be sure to include reference to that in your syllabus. Provide your observer with access to the site. Your observer will be able to see how you are using the course management system to extend your teaching and the students’ learning.

* Alert the observer to any class meetings that wouldn’t be the best examples of your teaching, such as when you are having a guest speaker.

In evaluating the effectiveness of the course, we observers are interested in seeing that you’ve included a variety of teaching/learning strategies, such as guest speakers, group presentations and field trips. However, if we’ve been asked to observe and evaluate you as the teacher, we want to see you teaching. Yes, you can have a group presentation as part of the class, but we expect to see you leading the majority of the class time.

If you have days planned that aren’t primarily you teaching, let the observer know that so she won’t arrive in class only to have you say, “Today we’re having group presentations.”

Sometimes you have to make changes in the syllabus dates as the semester progresses. That’s understandable, but you should let your observer know if you’ve changed the plans for classes. I made a trip back to campus to observe a teaching assistant who was teaching a 6 p.m. class. After finding a parking place (which can be challenging) and finding the classroom, the TA told me, “Oh, I had to change the schedule because of the guest speaker. He’s here tonight. You’re welcome to stay, but you’ll have to come back another day if you want to see me teach.”

2. Start class in a way that engages your students

Even though this may be the twentieth class meeting of the semester for you and the students, this is the first time I’m observing you. You want to start giving me a good impression.

Be ready to start class on time. Have your key points listed on the board or your slides uploaded and ready. Certainly be on time yourself. I’ve observed a couple of classes when the teaching assistant will arrive late. Often the students are already commenting about that – and sometimes telling me that the TA chronically is late. The TA is casual in getting ready to start class and, only upon seeing me, seems to be concerned about having lost 10 minutes of a 50-minute class.

Two good ways to start class:

  • Discuss what the objectives for the class session are. That helps the class know the progression of activities and have a better mindset. You can tie those objectives into the previous class or the readings.
  • Provide a scenario or give an individual or group challenge that has everyone getting immersed in the class. Then debrief from that experience.

However you decide to start class, be sure you make a clear start to class. I’ve observed in a few classes where the teaching assistant just starts talking in a low voice, with the students unaware that class has started. You may need to speak in a louder than usual voice to get their attention.

As observers, we’re also seeing how the students start class. Are they in class and ready or are they straggling in for the first 10-15 minutes, seeming to indicate that you haven’t cared if they are late.

3. Be confident in your teaching

That does not mean that you have to have the answer to every question the students may ask, but you should come across as the leader in the class.

Plan how to allocate your time to various parts of the lesson. When discussing the objectives for the class period, you may want to indicate how much time you’ll be spending on each to help the class see the tempo. I observed a class where the TA in a law class explained that the time available for individual reporting of news stories on legal issues was going to be shorter than usual because a group presentation was going to be made at the end of class. I could visibly see the students who were going to report on news stories sit up a little straighter, as if giving themselves a cue to not be too relaxed in sharing with the class.

You can use a variety of teaching tools – writing on the chalkboard or whiteboard, using presentation slides, showing YouTube videos, using handouts, etc. All of those can be very effective. The two key issues are matching the teaching tool with the objective. Don’t show a YouTube video just because it’s funny if the video doesn’t connect with an objective for the class.

Anyone who has taught has experienced technology problems. So if you have a problem, your observer understands the technology issue may not be your fault. Skype isn’t working for the short call in from a guest speaker. The projection unit isn’t working. What we will be watching is to see how you adjust to the problem.

4. Incorporate active learning into your class

Every class should include at least one active learning segment. Active learning promotes deeper learning and gets everyone involved. (See my blog post discussing active learning.)

Some courses lend themselves more to active learning than others. For example, I observed a teaching assistant teaching an improv class, and almost the entire two-hour class was students engaged in activities – doing warming up exercises to do group improv with their class in the audience. If they weren’t performing, the students were actively engaged in watching their classmates’ performances to critique and get ideas.

But every class has active learning opportunities.

I observed an introductory writing course where the students were learning to develop arguments to support their thesis statements. After the class had discussed a topic and then developed the thesis statement, the TA divided the class into groups of four and had each group develop a list of the arguments against the thesis statement and determine the two arguments that should be addressed in the essay.

The student groups quickly listed arguments but then had lively discussions on which were the two most important arguments. In debriefing from the small groups, students said that talking with their classmates in the small groups helped them better understand different points of view – something they wouldn’t have understood as well if the TA had led the full class in a discussion of arguments.

5.  Show that you know your students by calling on students by name

In a small class (30 or fewer students), you should know everyone’s name after several class meetings. Even in a larger class, you should know some students by name. You can refer back to something a particular student said in a previous class or included in an assignment. You aren’t trying to indicate that you have class favorites but that you have been making an effort to get to know the students. Most importantly, that helps your rapport with the class.

Should you announce that you are being observed? I’d recommend that you tell the class at some point during the semester that you will be observed. “I wanted you to know that I’ve been nominated for a teaching award for teaching assistants and will be observed twice by faculty from the awards committee” or “I wanted you to be aware that I’m going to be observed this semester by three colleagues as part of the college’s tenure and promotion process.”

You can continue by saying that the observer is there to see how you’re doing with your teaching and that class should carry on as usual.

You don’t want to make a plea (subtle or otherwise) for students to behave in a different way when you are being observed. I’ve been aware of a faculty member who told his students they’d receive donuts the class after the observation if they did well. No bribes. If word gets back to the observers, that will really undermine your credibility.

On the day the observer arrives, you typically want to carry on with class as usual and not call attention to the observer – almost like, “OK class, the observer is here today. Be at your best.”

Thinking about how your observer will assess your teaching isn’t just about having a better evaluation on the day you’re observed. My suggested strategies will help you be more effective in your teaching and will help improve your students’ learning in your course.

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