Teaching Skills: Making The Most Of Teaching Observations

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Many academics are observed by colleagues from their own or other departments. Sometimes it is part of a formal process, such as a PG Certificate in HE or Professional Development Plan; sometimes it is more informal, perhaps you just want to check you’re on the right lines. Whatever the reason, being observed and receiving focussed and balanced feedback has the potential for transforming your teaching and boosting your confidence.

This article will enable you to get the most from your observation by encouraging you to take the lead, rather than just being a passive participant.


  • Timing - if you need to complete your observation for a formal assessment, ensure that you leave plenty of time to set up the observation, have a pre-meeting to brief your observer, a meeting for feedback and time to complete all the necessary paperwork. Observations can also give you really good material for job interviews.
  • Who will observe you? - you may not have a choice, so ensure that if it’s someone you don’t know, meet them beforehand and ensure you’re clear about the focus of the feedback. The more rapport you can build, the more comfortable you will feel.
  • What’s the focus? - you will probably be observed under general headings such as: planning, delivery, interaction with students, subject knowledge, tone and pace, but do be pro-active: which specific aspects of teaching do you want to concentrate on? Avoid the temptation to do something really risky; ensure the observer sees you teach as you would normally.
  • • What to tell students? - this depends on whether the students will notice an extra person. It’s not really an issue in a one-off lecture for 250; a different matter for a seminar of 12. It’s up to you, but saying that ‘X is looking at the range of teaching going on at the university; they are not assessing you’ works well.

The Teaching Session

  • How to deal with nerves? – preparation will settle most nerves. Get there early if possible. And generally, 5 minutes in, you will be oblivious of being watched.
  • What if the observer wants to get involved? – agree this ‘ground rule’ before you meet. They may want to interact with students to double-check they understand the material, your explanation and the aims of the session.

Receiving feedback 

As you know, there is a real skill in giving feedback; you give it to your own students all the time. The tendency for observers is to try and cover everything; sometimes there can be too much information without any sense of priorities. Be an active participant by:

  • Recapping on the original focus of the observation as previously discussed
  • Get clarification of anything which feels general or vague
  • Avoid the temptation to respond immediately, especially if you don’t agree.

What next?

A good observer will ask you to summarise what you’ve heard; an even better one will ask you to prioritise what you need to do next, and by when.

You will probably hear some really excellent feedback on aspects of your teaching you may have taken for granted. Attend to praise as much as you would to areas for development. You and your observer have invested a substantial amount of time, so make the most of your observation and the feedback you hear.

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