Teaching Observations

Guidelines for Participating in a Teaching Observation

Participating in a teaching observation can be an extraordinarily valuable experience for improving our teaching practice. At the onset, the teaching observation process can be intimidating. Yet, it provides us with a valuable opportunity to identify our successful teaching practices; to reveal specific areas for improvement; to test and receive feedback on ‘new’ or experimental teaching techniques; to address previously identified or known instructional challenges; to share particularly innovative and effective teaching strategies and techniques; to more broadly disseminate pedagogical knowledge and expertise; to develop effective peer/self evaluation and appraisal skills; and to provide time to intentionally reflect upon our approaches to teaching (Blackmore, 2002; Martin and Double, 1998; Blackwell and McLean, 1996; Millis, 1992)

Figure 1: Overview of teaching observation process

The teaching observation process typically involves three key stages (Figure 1): pre-observation planning & discussion, the actual teaching observation, and a post-observation discussion & summary (Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond, 2004; Martin and Double, 1998; Millis, 1992). In order to prepare for and to provide some context to the teaching observation process it is important to plan a Pre-Observation Meeting. The following questions may help to guide this process:

What are the learning objectives for this class? What are the key learning outcomes? What is your learning plan? What will you and the learners do during this session? What specific teaching strategies will you use to engage your students throughout the session? In general, how do you feel about your teaching experiences in this course? Are there any general areas of concern that you have regarding your approach to teaching? Are there any issues that have been identified by the students or in past teaching evaluations that you would like to address through this process? Are there any specific aspects of your teaching that you would like to receive feedback on? What are your goals for participating in this teaching observation process?

It is inevitable that the presence of an observer will alter some of the conduct, behaviours, and interactions between the instructor and students during the classroom visits (Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond, 2004; Martin and Double, 1998). We recommend that you inform the students of the visit. Most students will be very impressed to learn that you are participating in this exercise to enhance your teaching. The observer should act as a silent data collector, rather than an active class participant during the teaching session. It is helpful to make comments on the methods of instruction, general format and presentation of the course content, instructor/student interaction, level of student engagement, learning space, and any other general observations regarding the instructional approaches and levels of student engagement. Comments should relate both to the instructor’s and the students’ actions and behaviours. Some observers will prefer to take notes at structured intervals (e.g. every 3-5 minutes), while others may use an event-based observation record. To provide some additional context to your remarks, and to allow for a more detailed assessment of the general flow of the class, it is helpful to record the time next to your observations. This will provide particularly useful data when commenting on issues such as student engagement and levels of distraction.

The instructor is also encouraged to prepare a self-reflection based on their teaching experiences in this class. The following questions based upon Stephen Brookfield’s (1995, pp.72-74) recommendations for keeping a teaching log may help to guide this self-reflection:

  1. In general, how did you feel about this teaching experience?
  2. At what moment did you feel most connected, engaged or affirmed as a teacher?
  3. At what moment did you feel most disconnected, disengaged or bored as a teacher? Was there a particular moment that caused you the greatest anxiety or distressed?
  4. What event surprised you most (e.g. a particularly positive or challenging situation, or an event that caught you off guard)?
  5. What would you do differently if you were to teach this class again?
  6. Based upon this teaching experience, what do you feel proudest about? Why?

After the teaching sessions, you should meet to collectively discuss and share your feedback and reflections, and to establish some specific actions for improvement. This discussion should be honest and constructive, and should take place in a comfortable location with minimal interruptions and distractions (Martin and Double, 1998). You should collectively share in a collegial, scholarly and non-judgmental dialogue regarding your observations and reflections as both an instructor and observer, with a common goal of improving your teaching practices. This meeting should take place shortly after the completion of the initial teaching sessions. Martin and Double (1998) recommend that the feedback meeting begin with a general review of the learning objectives and lesson plan, and that the discussion focus on the specific details regarding why an event was particularly successful or required improvement, "Questions such as: Why do you think that happened? What would you do next time? How did you feel at this point? or What led you to that view?, will be of particular value" (p.64). Following this discussion, the observer should provide the instructor with a classroom observation summary report for their teaching dossier. The comments made in the report should remain focused on providing effective feedback that is balanced, non-judgmental, and supported by both the evidence observed during the classroom visits, and the collaborative pre/post observation discussions. It should provide a clear narrative of, "…both positive areas to reinforce good teaching practices and areas in which the teaching practices seemed less successful" (Millis, 1992, p. 197).

Completion of a subsequent classroom observation session can provide a valuable opportunity to actively translate the feedback received and discussed into practice. It will also provide an additional opportunity to collect data and to reflect upon your classroom teaching experiences. "Repetition of the process will expose more experience for analysis and highlight areas which need to be informed by pedagogical knowledge, while at the same time refining the sophistication of the collaboration" (Martin and Double, 1998, p. 165).

Instructors are encouraged to complete a final reflective report based upon this experience. The following questions may help guide this reflection:

  1. What have you learned about your teaching from this experience?
  2. What themes emerged through the observer’s feedback or through your personal reflections about your teaching? Was anything particularly surprising?
  3. What will you continue to do in your teaching? What were your strengths and how can you build upon them?
  4. What specific areas for improvement were identified? From your peer’s observations and feedback? In your personal reflections?
  5. How will you improve your teaching practices? If you were to teach these classes again, what would you do differently? Take the time to identify a few specific action steps for addressing these areas. Focus on a philosophy of continuous improvement.
  6. Have any of your assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning changed as a result of this experience?
  7. What is one thing that you learned that will make your teaching more effective?
  8. What is one thing that you learned that you will apply in your future teaching experiences?

The recommended process and forms included in this handout are meant to provide a guideline for your involvement in this process. For further details and many useful tips for conducting an effective teaching observation, please refer to Millis (1992) and Martin and Double (1998).

Contact Information

If you would like to arrange for a teaching observation with one of our Educational Developers or with a peer, please contact Janet Wolstenholme at jzkwolst@uoguelph.ca.


Blackmore, J.A. 2005. A critical evaluation of peer review via teaching observation within higher education. International Journal of Educational Management 19(3): 218-232.

Blackwell, R. and McLean, M. Peer observation of teaching & staff development. Higher Education Quarterly 50(2):156-171.

Brookfield, S.D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, CA.

Hammersley-Fletcher, L. and Orsmond, P. 2004. Evaluating our peers: is peer observation a meaningful process. Studies in Higher Education 29(4): 489-503.

Martin, G.A. and Double, J.M. (1998) Developing higher education teaching skills through peer observation and collaborative reflection.Innovations in Education and Teaching International 35(2): 161-170.

Millis, B.J. 1992. Conducting effective peer classroom observations.To Improve the Academy 11: 189-201.