Gathering momentum: Deciding on a focus

It is never easy to decide on an area of focus for peer observation. One of the first considerations is determining what ‘shape’ or ‘form’ the observation may take. That is, it needn’t be ‘observation’ in the traditional sense, eg. one colleague watching another, but can take many other forms. This is mainly due to the multi-faceted nature of teaching and learning.

Teaching and Learning is not simply a ‘chalk and talk’ activity. All learning ‘events’ begin at the idea stage, a point when it is decided that there is a need for concepts, skills or ideas to be shared, acquired or transferred to another person. So, ‘observation’ can be conducted at many points in this process, from idea to completion stage, and in many forms. Some possibilities include:

  • reviewing curriculum design
  • evaluating resources
  • comparing approaches to individual support
  • refining approaches to assessment
  • engaging learners through technology-enhanced learning
  • considering the challenges and opportunities of work-based learning

Therefore, one of the major obstacles of peer observation is overcoming the initial mindset that it is a ‘live’ observation. The activity still needs to be dynamic, however, it can occur at various points in the process. This is a significant consideration of the project and one in which teaching and learning in HE will need to overcome, if it is to be a self-improving system.

A number of the peer observation activities have gotten started. Here are some of the types of observation taking place:

  • Approaches to supporting students who are deaf/hearing impaired
  • Methods for using technology to improve engagement
  • Encouraging students to learn for ‘life’ and not just for assessments
  • Developing increased student active engagement in one-to-one academic tutorials (for assignments, dissertations etc.)
  • Evaluating a distance learner student support session as part of our collaborative cross-faculty observation scheme
  • Evaluate the use of Blackboard Collaborate to increase student engagement

The other aspect to consider in this project is the value of collaborating across disciplines. This is a particular challenge within the culture of the institution, which naturally functions within subject areas and faculties. It will be useful to see how this obstacle is overcome.


COAD: Our first meeting!

In December the Subject Areas of Human Resource Management and Special Educational Needs and Inclusion had their first meeting together to discuss Collaborative Observation. Shirley Bennett led a workshop to enable colleagues from each area to discuss:

– the aspects of their teaching which they wanted to investigate;

– barriers to inclusion that their students might experience.

The session began with some discussion about the factors which contribute to a positive peer observation as well as potential barriers to ‘getting it done’ or factors which could lead to negative experiences. Several colleagues reflected on their experiences of ‘observation’ and how, if the observation was perceived as a judgement, it could lead to negative feelings and a reluctance towards being involved. Any sense of hierarchies needed to be removed in order for collaborative observation to be successful for the participants. If it was perceived as a ‘judgement’ about practice then it could damage relationships and trust. More positive experiences occurred when peers worked collaboratively as equals and used the opportunity of peer observation to invite multiple perspectives around a problem. Many participants commented that in order for peer observation to be effective it needed to focus on the process of solution-focused problem-solving. It was clarified that the focus could be on the preparation and design of teaching and learning activities just as much as it could be on the ‘event’.

There were a variety of ideas which colleagues identified as areas they might investigate through the collaborative observation process. These included:

– How can international students be prepared for work-based learning? Are there things which need to be done differently than they would be for ‘traditional’ students?

– How can Blackboard Collaborate be used to enable students to engage in sessions when they are unable to be ‘present’? (Leading to a further question of how engagement is defined!)

– How can sessions be designed to encourage a feeling of ‘community’ and for students to engage with a wide range of peers?

– In what ways can technology be an enhancement for access or an obstacle?

– Are there approaches which might be more successful than others with different ‘groups’ of students?

As the project develops it will become clearer which specific questions individuals have chosen to investigate. The training session served as the start of the conversation about areas of focus which will no doubt be refined as individuals work together.


COAD: Access, Participation and Belonging

The project has gathered pace over the past month. Many of the logistical aspects of the project have been completed, including gaining ethical consent for consultations with students, designing an interview schedule and arranging the first C@NDO training session.

Alongside the completion of these aspects of the project, I have had time to reflect on my own teaching and some of the challenges to inclusion I believe my own students experience.

Teaching across both undergraduate and postgraduate modules, including courses which have professional body requirements, provides me with the opportunity to collaborate with a broad range of students. Although there are some common characteristics in each group, one cannot assume that the needs of each student will be the same. Even when taking factors into account, such as gender, age, and other protected characteristics, I am struck by how important it is to know the students individually and personally. Their needs can be very unique and dependent on a number of factors, often these are related less to curriculum materials and more related to the context the student experiences. This context can include friendships, family commitments, accommodation, transport or the sense of belonging they may have to the course or the University community. For example, students may fail to attend a session because of the cost of parking or a problem with public transport.

I would encourage everyone to consider and examine these external factors and what we can do to create more inclusive environments for our students. I have chosen to reflect on three aspects of inclusion within my own collaborative observation: access, participation and belonging. Below are the questions I will be considering to help shape the focus for my collaborative observation:

Access – Can the students access the session/materials/content/methods or approaches? Are there any barriers or hindrances to their access? If so, how could these be overcome?

Participation – How do the students participate? How do I know if they are participating? Do some participate more than others? Why? Do certain approaches encourage greater participation than others?

Belonging – Do students feel they belong to the group/course/University community? Why or why not? Do students group themselves in particular ways? What is my role in this? Should I have a role in this?

By raising these questions I hope to turn the focus away from any personal characteristics of the students and more towards the environment I hope to shape through my teaching.



Collaborative Observations Across Disciplines – the Beginning

Can teaching be a self-improving profession?

How can colleagues working in Higher Education develop their approaches and skills through collaboration?

Do students have a role to play in peer observation?

Can these elements form the basis of a self-improving system and contribute towards self-evaluation by providing evidence for the TEF?

The University of Northampton has a Code of Practice which identifies a clear process for peer observation, which is, ‘a peer based, collaborative, non-judgmental scheme designed to provide opportunities for participants to enhance the learning experience of their students and to reflect on and develop aspects of their own professional practice. The scheme recognises that all participants, whether observing or being observed, benefit from the process.’

I have been involved in peer observation since I started at the University of Northampton in 2010. Admittedly, it requires self-motivation and openness about one’s practice to make improvements in teaching and learning. I have always thought this is what teachers do anyway (based on my experiences of working in education before coming to Northampton), but seldom have I looked beyond my own discipline or subject area to consider what challenges there may be for other colleagues or what perspectives students may have who are on other programmes. In my opinion, it is very easy to become solely focused on one’s own modules and students without realising there are a multitude of other challenges across the University. So, how could I find out more about this and how could I contribute to positive change across the University? It was this question, along with my involvement in developing more inclusive approaches to teaching and learning across the organisation,  which sparked my colleagues and I to investigate the use of peer observation across disciplines and develop the current Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Innovation project. The project has the following aims:

  • Trial cross-faculty peer observation (FEH and FBL) and evaluate outcomes from a cross-disciplinary perspective
  • Use peer observation the basis for applications towards Fellowship through C@N-DO
  • Evaluation of peer observation to provide evidence towards TEF action plan and as a means to enhance the C@N-DO framework
  • Involve UG and PhD students within the peer observation process
  • Understand some of the issues students have towards belonging and engagement
  • Identify pedagogical approaches which can help to address barriers to learning and create more inclusive practices, including in relation to BAME attainment

Colleagues from the subject areas of Special Educational Needs and Inclusion and Human Resource Management will be working together on the project which is coordinated by Linda Coles, Shirley Bennett and Dr. Cristina Devecchi. As project lead, I will provide regular updates of the project through the use of this blog and on Twitter @julianbrown134 . I can also be contacted by e-mail at Please do get in touch if you have any comments, questions or would like to get involved.