Empowering Economics tutors through peer observation

When students transition from learners to tutors, they face a significant identity shift. This transition can be challenging and junior tutors may feel apprehensive, particularly in their initial teaching weeks. Introductory Faculty or School orientation programs, constrained by time, are often not able to provide the learning opportunity that comes from observing seasoned tutors in action, leaving a gap in the tutoring preparatory process.

Piloting peer observation in Economics tutorials

In 2023, the School of Economics (SoE) initiated a pilot of Peer Observation of Teaching (POT) within its tutorial program. This initiative, designed as a supportive and low-stakes process, involved 18 junior tutors who observed ten senior tutors across seven core units. The primary goal was to determine whether observing senior tutors in action could enhance junior tutors’ confidence and enable them to adopt effective teaching practices for their own classes. To underline the program’s value and encourage participation, tutors were paid for their involvement. The pilot was offered to tutors in core units of varying sizes, typically with 200-800 students, each resourced by teams of 5-10 tutors.

SoE’s tutorial program is substantial, with an average of 60-70 tutors each semester and primarily comprised of PhD candidates or students in their final year of Honours or Masters programs. A notable proportion of these are new tutors, recruited every semester. At the beginning of each semester SoE conducts a tutor information and welcome session for new tutors. A regularly highlighted standout feature of these sessions is a segment where experienced tutors share their insights and experiences with junior colleagues. The consistent popularity and positive reception of this segment over several years served as a key motivation for trialing POT, particularly aimed at supporting the experience of newly recruited tutors.

Peer review vs. observation of teaching

Scholarly literature recognises both peer review and peer observation of teaching as effective strategies for disseminating best practices in education. These two methods, integral to educator development, fulfil distinct roles. Peer review typically involves a more experienced educator evaluating and providing feedback on a colleague’s teaching. This process assists in improving teaching practice, recognising teaching achievements, and advancing academic careers. In contrast, peer observation focuses on reflective learning. Here, an educator observes a colleague’s teaching to enhance their own teaching skills. This method fosters self-reflection, peer learning, community building, and professional growth. Despite its benefits, peer observation is underutilised in tutor development programs. Given that high-quality tutoring is crucial to the university teaching-learning process and student success, peer observation becomes a valuable tool for improving the quality of tutoring.

While the university already has a well-established Peer Review of Teaching (PRT) program, the SoE tutorial program has specifically focused on peer observation. This choice aims to create a supportive, low-stakes environment for tutor development. SoE’s approach is developmental, aimed at enhancing teaching skills for junior tutors in a non-judgemental setting. This philosophy emphasises using peer observation for personal and professional growth, rather than as a performance assessment tool. By prioritising peer observation SoE seeks to complement the broader PRT program, addressing the unique needs of tutors and fostering a collaborative learning environment.

Implementing the program

Design and planning

Two key developments at the university laid the groundwork for the POT program’s successful launch. First, the implementation of the university-wide Peer Review of Teaching (PRT) program provided a structured and university-endorsed model. Second, Dr. Alix Thoeming’s successful execution of a peer observation initiative for tutors in FASS1000 offered valuable insights for designing the SoE’s program.

How the POT program works

During Welcome Week new tutors were invited to express their interest in participating. Senior tutors were also approached for their consent to have their tutorials observed. Eighteen junior tutors from seven core units signed up as observers and ten senior tutors as observees. The matches were organised based on units tutored. Participants observed two tutorials, each lasting two hours, conducted by their senior counterparts in weeks 3 and 4.

In the implementation of the POT program two key resources were provided to participating tutors: the POT program outline and a peer observation form. This form, adapted from the university-wide PRT program, provided a structured approach to facilitate the observation process. It featured a detailed checklist covering seven dimensions of classroom teaching, such as effective use of learning resources and feedback strategies. This scaffolded approach helped tutors in identifying and reflecting on effective teaching practices to adopt, as well as approaches they might prefer to avoid in their own teaching.

The PRT proforma details lots of examples of practice appropriate for all types of teaching. An arrow points from it to the Peer Observation Form, containing a cut-down number of examples most appropriate for Economics tutorial teaching.
An example of one dimension (feedback strategies) from the Peer Observation Form (right), adapted from the university-wide PRT program’s proforma (left) – click to enlarge

Upon completing their observations, tutors participating in the POT program submitted reflections and feedback on their experience. This submission was strategically set for the end of the semester, providing tutors time to apply and reflect on the practices they observed and their overall experiences in the program. Recognition of participation was formalised through certificates, acknowledging junior tutors’ commitment to the learning process and senior tutors’ leadership and mentorship.

The process of the program, from Week 0 EOIs to end of semester award of certificates.
An overview of the peer observation process – click to enlarge

What did the participants say?

The POT program was well received by its participants, who rated their experiences at 4.8 out of 5. Junior tutors shared positive feedback and valuable insights, and many began implementing the practices they observed right away or planned to do so:

“…The observation experience has been incredibly relevant to my teaching practice as a new tutor in a university setting…I plan to change my practices by incorporating more formative assessments to regularly gauge student understanding and adjust my teaching accordingly.”

“From the peer observation, I learned that the real ability of a tutor does not only lie in whether [they] can teach knowledge, but also in whether [they] can stimulate students’ learning motivation, arouse students’ desire for knowledge, and let them participate in the teaching process with interest.”

(POT participant feedback, 2023-S1)

Participants also provided suggestions for future enhancements to the program. These included the opportunity to observe a variety of senior tutors, the introduction of pre-observation meetings, and the desire to experience peer review by senior peers.

Second iteration: expanding and refining the POT program

For the second iteration in semester 2 2023, we broadened the program’s scope to include new tutors from all units within SoE, expanding beyond just the core units. Taking into account suggestions from the first round, several adjustments were made. Some participants were given the opportunity to observe two different tutors during the two-week observation period. Additionally, pre-observation meetings were introduced to provide a chance for tutors to meet and discuss the context of the class being observed.

Feedback from the second iteration continues to be positive and we are excited to carry this momentum forward into 2024.

“I would highly recommend the continuation of the POT in the future. It serves as a vital tool for self-reflection and improvement, encouraging tutors to learn from each other’s strengths and experiences… enhances the sense of community… fostering a … collaborative environment.”

“…the observation revealed the effectiveness of incorporating diverse teaching strategies to accommodate different learning styles. This reinforced my belief that a one-size-fits-all approach is not conducive to optimal learning.

(POT participant feedback, 2023-S2)

Impact and future directions

Peer Observation of Teaching (POT) is effective not only in building junior tutors’ confidence but also in fostering a sense of community. This community building can be particularly helpful in alleviating some of the isolation often felt in teaching, especially for first-time educators. The mentorship role played by senior tutors emerged as a critical element in the program’s success, alongside the active engagement and enthusiasm of junior tutors who were eager to maximise the program’s benefits.

Looking ahead, an important next step will involve developing methods to assess the broader impact of the POT program on T&L outcomes, such as teaching evaluation of tutors or students’ learning outcomes. This will include evaluating tutor performance and student learning achievements. Such evidence will strengthen the claim that POT is an important tool to enhance students’ learning experience.

Additionally, plans are underway to further support senior tutors by involving them in the University’s Peer Review of Teaching (PRT) program. This initiative aims not only to recognise their effective teaching practice but also to promote their continuous professional development and participation in the wider conversation on teaching excellence.

Want to know more?

To learn more about the university-wide Peer Review of Teaching (PRT) program, including how to sign up, please visit the following links:

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