Peer Evaluation: A Valuable Teaching Tool

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This week I had the privilege of being peer evaluated. Although I’m a tenured professor my college requires faculty to continue to follow an evaluation schedule after promotion. Every three years I complete a formal self-evaluation in addition to having a written evaluation by my department chair, and a classroom visit by a colleague. Students evaluate my courses nearly every semester.


While some faculty bristle at the idea of peer evaluation, our department has embraced it as a practice over the last ten years. We voted to include peer evaluation as part of our process because we initially saw it as valuable to new faculty as they adjusted to our institution. It’s not uncommon for faculty to join our department fresh from graduate school. Having a colleague review a new teacher’s syllabi and observe their classroom practices can be illuminating to both parties. The same has proven to be true for our long-serving faculty. 


In my case the colleague evaluating me has been at the college for only three years and teaches in a different discipline (political science). Prior to her visit I shared with her the syllabus and discussed the experiences I’ve had with the students in this course. In this course I’ve struggled with enrollment being low – a widespread challenge at our college as we have returned from the all-remote delivery of the pandemic. This particular course was not offered on campus prior to COVID and likely will return to being an online-only offering in the future. As a result, this semester’s delivery has often been experimental.


I spent a few minutes in the class meeting prior to my colleague’s visit preparing the students for us to have an observer. I decided to include them in the planning process for the observation and asked the students for feedback about what form of content delivery had been most successful so far in the course. Together we settled on a plan for how the class would proceed that day and decided that we should ask my evaluator to come prepared to be part of class discussion. While I did not want to burden my colleague with extra work, I provided her with copies of the assigned readings.


After more than twenty years of college-level teaching I nonetheless found myself nervous when my colleague arrived to observe. Rather than have her sit in the back like a stranger, I introduced her to my students and asked them to introduce themselves and their research topics – the class being small allowed for this to happen quickly. Since peer evaluation in our department is viewed as collegial and intentionally not intimidating, the nervous tension quickly evaporated. My colleague blended easily into our class discussion as a participant-observer.


Peer evaluation offers even seasoned faculty the opportunity to evaluate what happens in their classroom day to day. Engaging the students in planning for the visit provided me with the chance to learn what they think is working (or not) long before formal student evaluations are available at semester’s end. 


What are your experiences with peer evaluation? Tips for making it less stressful and more rewarding? Please share. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.