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The Observation

When some explicit criteria are in place, the next issue concerns the actual conduct of the observation, i.e. how it should be undertaken.

Pre-Observation Meeting

Clearly, in order for observation to be effective, it is necessary to have consultations prior to the observation so that the observer has some background on the class and that the person observed has some input into the observation process. For these reasons then, it is a good idea to hold a pre-observation meeting to discuss:

  • the time and place of the observation - obviously this should be arranged so as to minimise any potential impact on student learning
  • the status and history of the learning group - year/degree mix and any significant events
  • the location of the class to be held within the course/module/programme as a whole (how it fits within the structure)
  • the aims and objectives of the specific session
  • learning outcomes (what students are intended to learn)
  • potential difficulties or areas of concern (an opportunity for the person observed to flag up any specific areas to be observed)
  • any specific focus, such as session management or questioning technique
  • assessment instruments to be used
  • any particular concerns the observer might have
  • ground rules for confidentiality and feedback
Preparing the Students

It can be disconcerting for students, particularly tutorial or seminar groups, if someone else attends the class without warning, and it is sensible to explain:

  • that a colleague will be attending the class
  • that he or she will be there to help you with your teaching
  • that he or she will play no part in the class proceedings
Observing the Class

The observer should

  • be unobtrusive, i.e. not in the direct line of vision of the teacher or the group, but able to see both
  • be discreet and diplomatic, e.g. not leap in to correct what is viewed as error of fact or interpretation
  • focus upon teaching and learning processes, rather than content
  • continuously check the interaction between teachers and students
  • be mainly concerned with gathering evidence for later interpretation
The Recording Process

There are many pre-prepared tick-box and rating-scale questionnaires, examples of which may be obtained from the sources mentioned earlier. However, observers often feel constrained by these. They often want to comment on something else, to put the activity in context, and so on. Some observers prefer a long-hand account of what they see. This allows a free flow between a description of activity and evaluative comment. This can be a demanding writing task, particularly in a fast-moving session, and it restricts the opportunity to observe. It is possible to have the best of both worlds, having rating scales to hand to cover specific aspects, such as use of audio-visual aids, whilst writing a prose account to give the overall sense of the session.

It can be helpful to devise a simple form which makes it easier to record basic details, including timing, and separating out description from evaluative comment. If a substantial number of observations is to take place, and the data will be used at another time, it can be helpful to systematise such aspects as:

  • size of group
  • gender balance
  • age mix
  • seating arrangements
  • heat, light and ventilation
  • availability of audio-visual aids

Form design will reduce laborious writing at the outset of the observed session.An example prepared for Warwick Teaching Certificate observation is included (Appendix 3).

Checking with Students

At the end of the class, it can be useful to check with students. In a small group, this can take the form of a structured session after the teacher has left, asking their opinions of the process and checking on their understanding of the material, i.e. learning outcomes. In a larger group, e.g. a lecture, a few minutes of conversation with two or three students can at least give a flavour of how the session has gone for them.

Reflecting on the Teaching

The final part of the observation process is to reflect upon the evidence gathered during the session and to try to identify strengths and areas in which colleagues might be encouraged to consider improvements. Here the checklists discussed earlier can be of considerable assistance.