Peer Observation | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


At the end of the last AFHEA seminar, everyone in the class paired up in preparation for the peer observation exercise. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the wonderful new experience of watching a colleague teach, and had her visit my classroom in turn. Here, I reflect on what happened, using Brookfield's reflective lenses to think about my experience during the peer observation process. 

I wanted to step outside of my normal teaching experience in the humanities, so I swapped with a colleague who teaches maths tutorials. We wrote some notes to brief one another on what we wanted to achieve in the tutorials, and what we wanted feedback on from the observation session, and met to discuss these notes before the observation. After the observations were complete, we debriefed one another, and exchanged written notes from the observations.

The peer observation exercise was incredibly productive for me. Observing a colleague deliver a tutorial in another discipline showed me definitively that many of the challenges of teaching are independent of subject-area; that is, they affect the profession as a whole. My colleague’s worries were similar to mine: how do I get all of the students to participate? Am I teaching in a well-paced, understandable way? This perspective is unique to the reflective lens of the ‘colleague’. The other lenses – assessing my own autobiography, asking the students for feedback, and reading scholarship and research on teaching – may point to this conclusion, but the evidence that hits the point home comes from observing another’s teaching.

Another way that the observation was productive for me was because of the excellent feedback my colleague provided on my own tutorial she observed. The autobiographical lens gets caught up in how it felt to deliver that tutorial, and about whether I managed to convey the finer points of the content; similarly, student feedback is always about the classroom experience of individuals. When a colleague observes your teaching, they get a holistic sense of how the classroom works as a whole. They can see your rapport and interaction with the students, and how the students engage with you, because they are free from the burden of inhabiting either perspective.

The experience of having done a peer observation has encouraged me to participate in reciprocal observation as a tool for reviewing my teaching in the future. Whilst I have been observed before, I had never observed a colleague before, and I had never engaged in reciprocal observing. It was very productive to discuss the successes and challenges in our teaching, with the reference to our notes from the observations, and I hope that it benefits both of us in our teaching development. For this reason, I plan to seek out colleagues to do observation exchanges with in the future. I would also like to engage in this kind of activity again as a way of developing my critical feedback skills, for the day in the future when I am a course organiser observing new tutors for the first time.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Yesterday, I attended the second workshop of the IntroAP course. In the first session, the discussion focussed in on the first two core Professional Values of the UK Professional Standards Framework:

V1: Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities

V2: Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners 

This time, our focus was on the third Professional Value:

V3: Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development 

This is, essentially, a call to becoming a critically reflective teacher: one who works towards improving their practice by engaging with and incorporating information and advice from different sources, from articles and workshops to conversations with colleagues from all kinds of different disciplines. 

The key reading I enjoyed in this session is the chapter on 'Becoming Critically Reflective' Stephen Brookfield's 'Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher'.¹ There are four lenses through which we can review our teaching practice, he writes (p29-30). These are:

  1. Autobiography: our own experiences as learners and teachers. What formative experiences have shaped our practice today?
  2. Students: attempting to see ourselves through our students' eyes, and taking student feedback on board. How do the students experience my classroom?
  3. Colleagues: having critical conversations with colleagues, or observing each other's practice. What is everyone else struggling with? What are they doing to improve?
  4. Theory: reading about pedagogy. What's happening in the scholarship?

These lenses can help us step outside our own assumptions about our teaching practice and gain new perspectives. Thinking about my history as both a student and a teacher helps me realise why I do certain things in the classroom, and why I feel more comfortable with this activity over that. My students and colleagues are often better placed to identify where I could improve than I am - and it's necessary to be open and receptive to that feedback. Reading theory shows us how common many of our classroom experiences are, and gives evidence-based explanations for different teaching and learning styles. 

Brookfield discusses many of the results of becoming critically reflective. The one I think is most important is, 'We See Ourselves as Being in Continual Formation' (p42):

It is in the nature of the reflective process for us always to be evolving. We never have the luxury of regarding ourselves as fully finished critical products who have reached the zenith of reflective evolution. We see our ideas and practices as needing constant investigation. [...] At no time do we ever consider the possibilities for learning and change to be fully closed.

This passage identifies the the heart of my motivation for taking this course in the first place. Just as I never consider myself as having 'finished' becoming a researcher and philosopher - in fact, I feel like I'm constantly learning new things, new approaches, and new methodology - I certainly haven't 'finished' becoming a teacher. One doesn't 'become' these things, and become a static end-product; one is always 'becoming' them. I am always becoming a philosopher, a teacher, and a researcher. Critical reflection on these processes of 'becoming' is essential.

Between now and the next workshop, we're completing teaching observations of one another. I wanted to observe the teaching practice of someone in a problem-based tutorial subject rather than a discussion-based tutorial subject area, to see what I could learn from the difference in practice, so I paired up with a colleague who teaches mathematics. I'll observe her tutorials, and she'll observe mine, and we'll exchange feedback. As preparation, I'm thinking about some of the following issues:

  • What kind of feedback would I find helpful or like to receive if I were her? 
  • What can I learn from her practice to incorporate into mine?
  • What aspects of my own teaching practice do I want to hear the most feedback on?
  • What can I learn from this exercise for when I conduct tutorial observations in the future?

All in all, I'm quite excited at the prospect of stepping outside of my comfort zone here: both by conducting an observation for the first time, and by exploring teaching practice outside of the humanities. 

1. Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) "Becoming critically reflective" from Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a critically reflective teacher. pp.28-48, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass