American Association for Higher Education Encourages Peer Review of Teaching

AHA Staff, April 1995

In recent years campuses across the United States have been exploring ways to help teachers improve their skills. Some schools and faculty members have recommended that teaching, like research, be peer reviewed. In response to this interest in peer review, the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) launched a two-year national project in January 1994 entitled "From Idea to Prototype: The Peer Review of Teaching." The project emphasizes techniques that faculty can use to develop effective teaching skills.

Twelve universities selected pilot departments to participate in the AAHE project; each department designated "teams" of two faculty members. The pilot departments represent the fields of chemistry, mathematics, English, history, music, business, engineering, and nursing. Each faculty team works with the other campus teams in the same field. In June 1994 the faculty teams came together to attend a weeklong seminar, "Institute on the Peer Review of Teaching," at Stanford University to explore how peer review might be introduced to their campuses. And in fall 1994 the faculty teams began to initiate peer review procedures in their departments.

Lessons to Build On

Even though the project will continue through 1995, the faculty teams have already reported some important findings. For instance, the teams have discovered that faculty members are generally eager to talk to their colleagues about teaching. Even many scholars who identify themselves primarily as researchers want to discuss teaching methods that pertain specifically to their fields. The faculty teams have also found that classroom observation is not necessarily the best strategy for peer review; having additional techniques to choose from makes progress more likely. To augment traditional classroom observation, the AAHE project has pioneered new methods of peer review. One innovative strategy is called "mutual mentoring." The details of the strategy vary from department to department, but in general a group of four or five faculty members agree to work together over time. The group members visit one another's classrooms, interview students, and review each other's teaching materials to assess and improve their effectiveness as teachers.

AAHE project participants have also concluded that developing collections of departmental teaching materials can help faculty members improve their skills. These collections, called teaching libraries by the AAHE faculty teams, may include a department's own syllabi, exams, student projects, and similar items. The purpose of the teaching libraries—according to a faculty team at Northwestern University—is to "provide a resource for course development, especially for young faculty teaching their first courses, but also for the continuing improvement of courses given by experienced faculty." A special advantage of these local collections is that they deal with the issue of standards not by setting up a list of general criteria but by putting forward examples of good practice.

The "pedagogical colloquium" for job candidates is yet another technique devised by the AAHE project participants to improve the quality of teaching on their campuses. In a pedagogical colloquium job candidates present the design of a course that they might teach, describe the pedagogical and intellectual goals for the course, and explain how course assignments would contribute to achieving their goals.

The Final Phase

In the final phase of the project the faculty teams will issue formal reports about the results of the campus pilot projects, and provosts in each participating institution will sponsor public discussions of the project's recommendations. In addition, the AAHE, in partnership with disciplinary groups and education associations, will sponsor and help organize conference presentations, special gatherings, and newsletter reports about the peer review project and its findings.

Although the project began with a limited number of institutions, the AAHE hopes to involve more campuses in the effort to improve teaching effectiveness. Consequently, the AAHE invites faculty members and institutions that are interested in the peer review process to contact Erin Anderson, Project Assistant, Teaching Initiative, American Association for Higher Education, 1 Dupont Circle, Ste. 360, Washington, DC 20036-1110. (202) 293-6440, x42.