Experience with Peer Support, Peer Review and Feedback on Teaching?  

We are all familiar with engagement in peer review of scholarship. Law faculty culture prioritizes peer input and review of scholarly ideas and articles. Sending drafts of articles to colleagues for feedback, “workshopping” preliminary ideas, and vetting scholarship is part and parcel of the work we do. We visit other schools, make presentations and attend conferences because we value peer discussion and  input. It is the basis by which we create and communicate knowledge.

I don’t believe, however, we have a similarly pervasive culture for formative peer review when it comes to teaching in law schools, although such culture exists at other higher education institutions. According to The University of Texas Faculty Innovation Center, an academic culture which prioritizes informed peer collaboration, review and input on teaching benefits everyone,

Good teachers continually learn and develop. Peer Review, which combines the examination of course materials with in-class observations and collegial discussion, helps prompt this learning among faculty. Ideally, these interactions and conversations can create opportunities for us as colleagues to reflect on and adapt our teaching practices in order to become better teachers and increase student learning.

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research recommends a four step process:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching includes the goal of “enabling more intentional and mutually supportive communities of scholar teachers.”

It is true that we have made some progress in elevating the role of teaching in law schools in the past decade. Legal Education certainly woke up to the need for a culture change around curriculum and teaching following the publication of Best Practices for Legal Education  and Educating Lawyers.  The economic downturn heavily affected the admission process and the need to focus on student learning. ABA requirements regarding student learning outcomes also redirected attention and resources towards what students actually learn while in law school. Moreover, organized efforts such as the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning  and the AALS Section on Teaching Methods  have converted many to the idea that teaching and learning are matters worthy of scholarship, innovation and peer discussion.  Places like this blog and others support exchange of ideas, methods and innovations.

It is also true that as far back as 2008, pioneering legal scholars Gerry Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied factors which encourage or assist the professional development of law teachers including peer observation. So there are many resources available to improve teaching in law schools. Yet, across the academy, are we truly immersed in a continual process of formative feedback for law teachers? If so, the web shows little evidence of it.

I think some of the culture gap is explained by the fact that historically peer review of teaching only happened during a promotion and tenure process that resulted in an up or out decision by the faculty — hardly a formative approach. A voluntary formative program of peer support and review – not used for personnel decisions – should allay those fears.  Appropriate concerns about interference with academic freedom in the classroom might explain some of the culture gap. Except that, even more concerns about academic freedom arise with respect to peer input into “controversial scholarship,” since draft writings can be more easily captured and reproduced than can observations of a single class session. What I think explains the gap, instead, is that we have not properly trained or equipped law faculty with the tools and methods for conducting and receiving helpful peer observations.

At Albany Law, we have promoted a culture of inquiry around teaching and learning for many years now — colleagues sit in each others classrooms from time to time, our Academic Dean prioritizes teaching support, our Center for Excellence in Law Teaching showcases teaching ideas and invites collegial discussion through teaching workshops, and our Director of Online Learning and Instructional Technology facilitates flipped classrooms and other innovations. What we haven’t done is formalize a voluntary peer support and review program. This year, we are planning to revisit our very loose approach and learn from the ever evolving resources and experimentation of others.

So readers, contributors and chance internet searchers, please post here what if any processes have you implemented to support peer observation of law teaching? Is it a voluntary program as we envision at Albany? How has it worked? Or, if you have an opinion about faculty peer review programs, let us know what you think!

I hope to compile the results and report back later in the year!

P.S. If you are more comfortable with e-mail than a blog comment, feel free to contact me at mlync@albanylaw.edu. 


6 Responses

  1. I really like the idea of creating a post-tenure collegial process to support innovations in teaching. At IU-McKinney we hold brown bag workshops on teaching innovations, but the attendance has been mixed. My colleague, Max Huffman, has organized a two day teaching workshop held in early August each year where different faculty members share their innovations in teaching. I have found attending that program to be very valuable to my own teaching. As far as other options, I introduced team-based-learning into my criminal law course last year. During the semester, I asked a consultant with our University Center for Teaching & Learning to conduct focus groups with the class. I am using that information to make a few small changes to the course.

  2. Thank you for the update on what’s happening at IU-McKinney school of law. We have been fortunate to have good turnouts at our teaching workshops – no more than 2-3 each semester now, especially since we serve lunch and have it interwoven with our scholarship lunches.
    But I like Professor Huffman’s two-day teaching workshop idea. Do you get good attendance? I am not sure how many folks would be back on campus then. Many of my colleagues are busy finishing up their scholarship for fall submissions and I don’t know if they would come. Good food for thought.

    • We actually get decent attendance at the two-day workshop because we open it up to adjuncts and our Dean and Vice-Dean attend at least part of the workshop. We are not there yet in terms of establishing a culture of improvement with respect to teaching, but we have a good number of professors who are not content to stand still with their teaching methods.

  3. Mary, this is a fascinating look at the use of peer review in law teaching. I suspect it is underutilized for reasons based on the structure of legal education’s promotion and tenure process historically. Now that we are in a “new normal” era and many schools are reevaluating their P&T methods, peer review might well take off. I’m fascinated by its similarities to the reflective learning process we teach our students in experiential legal ed courses like clinics and externships.
    As for our approaches here at Penn State Law (University Park), we’ve experimented with several ways to foster peer dialogue about teaching over the years, similar to the ones you and Prof. Boyne describe here. We have had several stand-alone teaching workshops, some led by Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. We also had a faculty recognition process for a few years whereby 2 faculty were selected by the Dean as exemplary teachers. Those 2 faculty led several workshops throughout the year on teaching methodology. I would love to see more peer observation and review inside the classroom, however. It’s influence not just on teaching but on curriculum design and overall faculty discourse could be wide and deep.

  4. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to comment on a post about teaching from Professor Mary Lynch as well as Professor Jill Englel–two strong nationally recognized voices advocating teaching in a field where too often new faculty are told some version of “anyone can teach anything” and warned not to let teaching overshadow scholarly production. I think that advice is meant to be encouraging and also that most people are doing the best they can in the classroom–but it’s hard to do something well that you’ve never seen. And it’s fair to say most of us did not have anything close to what would be considered “best practices” teaching when we were in law school.

    So, I agree with everything Profs Lynch and Engle say and would just add a few comments from my personal experience as a teacher and observations from my time at the Texas Tech University Teaching Academy–an elected body of professors from all colleges with a commitment to supporting and promoting teaching.

    First, in agreement with Profs Lynch and Engle, it’s unfortunate that “teaching observation” in law schools is almost entirely evaluative, if not on occasion punitive. I’ve had very few opportunities to see any of my peers teach other than in a tenure or promotion context–and every time I’ve learned things that helped my own teaching. It’s one thing to read a teaching “tip” about starting class by reviewing what where you’ve been and ending where you’re going and another seeing someone do it effectively.

    I had the privilege a few years ago of having Laurie Zimet, (http://www.uchastings.edu/faculty/lecturers-in-law/zimet/index.php) Director of of Academic Support at Hastings Law and a frequently sought expert on law teaching and learning, observe my torts class and found the de-brief exceptionally helpful. She pointed out things that were working-break out groups in a big class– and things that maybe weren’t (like a hand-out that tried to do too much on one page).

    Second, I’m going to throw out the idea that it would be helpful to do peer teaching observations with rubrics. What are you looking for? Engagement of the whole class? Responsiveness to student questions? Clear structure of class? My search for teaching evaluation in rubrics in higher education just drowned itself in links to rubrics teachers could use to evaluate students. But I know this literature exists and readers of this blog are probably far more familiar with this than I am. Here’s the concept that’s geared towards K-12 teachers–http://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/TeacherRubric.pdf

    Certainly this would be much fairer to start with a rubric if the observations are evaluative–and maybe less scary. Rubrics could be made collectively as a faculty or even negotiated individually in advance. When it is peer observation without evaluation then it can be very informal, like—“I’m trying something new and it’s hard to tell if the whole class is engaged, can you keep an eye from the back?”

    Third, one thing we tried at the TTU Teaching Academy that seemed to really work was a mentoring program developed by Dr. Audra Morse–(now at Michigan Tech–http://www.mtu.edu/cee/people/faculty-staff/faculty/morse/ ) who is an outstanding Engineer and Educator. Dr. Morse matched new teachers with experienced teachers from other colleges. Working together a group of mentors and mentees they would spend a year meeting together to develop a mutual understanding of good teaching and then would observe each-other and give feed-back. It seemed to take away some of the fear and sting of evaluation when the observers weren’t people you saw every day. The reviews were positive on all sides with mentors noting that they found the mentees’ observations regarding their own teaching very helpful.

    Finally, this should be something we can do in law schools given how committed we are, as Prof. Lynch notes, to the value of getting peer input in the scholarship process. The task may be somewhat easier because we have more of a shared idea of what an article is “supposed” to look like than we do of what a class is “supposed to look like.” But this shouldn’t be an academic freedom issue.

    We would have no trouble saying that an article that was purely descriptive and contained no analysis wasn’t “finished” without expressing any view on the topic. Similarly, it’s normal to give feed-back like “I don’t agree with your conclusion, but you do a good job supporting it except it would be stronger if you could address to how the result might be different in different states” (how’s that for generic feed-back?).

    If we could do something similar with teaching–start with some things we agree we are looking for–then we might all be more comfortable doing peer observation.

    I’d suggest starting with a focus on engagement(not entertainment)–it doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what you intend, if the students are tuned out (on their phones or just day dreaming) it’s probably not going well. And maybe a peer suggestion to take a “mini survey” of the class could really help.

    As other commentators note, most of us are lucky enough to have a center for teaching on our campus. They can be very helpful in leading a discussion of what your faculty values and then developing a rubric you can use for peer review.

  5. 1. Ironically, perhaps, the one consistent use of peer observation — complete with explicit rubric — in law school classes is during ABA site evaluations. In my experience, this is usually a purely evaluative process — and somewhat ritualistic. There is generally no space and time created (the observations are usually stacked back-to-back because the goal is to see as many different teachers as possible) for formative feedback or even discussion of objectives for the class, alternative teaching approaches considered, quality of handouts or other visual cues, etc. I suppose if improvement rather than evaluation of teaching were the primary agenda, or on the agenda at all, the site visit observations could be restructured and the rubric revised to at least focus somewhat on not just the individual class observed, but on the quality of the syllabus, the use of materials from practice or other scholarly sources rather than solely a casebook, the incorporation of visits to courts and other settings where law happens, the quality of feedback on written work and opportunities for students to write and rewrite assignments to achieve mastery, etc. etc. Experiential courses could be evaluated through observing supervision sessions and case rounds, not only seminars. But then, there is little enthusiasm I think for expanding and complexifying the ABA site visits; member schools are barely willing to pay for the abbreviated visits that occur now.

    2. And in the end, right, it’s always all about money. As long as conventional scholarship, even absent any indication of its having been actually read and/or influential, is lavishly compensated — not only with outright payments but with support for travel to fun conferences, guest lectures, sabbatical projects, etc. — which has always puzzled me since scholarship allegedly is part of the basic job description of full-time law school faculty — while teaching is recognized through a once-a-year award for one teacher (although that year ten teachers might have provided innovative, creative, effective, and time-consuming quality teaching — let us dream), usually a nice little plaque or perhaps a certificate — unsurprisingly, faculty will devote massively more time and effort to scholarship than to teaching. After all, law school faculty, whatever else we might be, are not stupid. Why USNWR or whomever still cannot be persuaded to generate a “Top Ten Law Schools for Conscious, Thoughtful, Mindful, Reflective, KickAss Quality Teaching,” I do not know — have always thought a consortium of the right combination of heavyweight Deans and managing partners of the “top law firms” (my own criteria for what constitutes a top law firm make me put that phrase in quotes) should be able to get that done.

    I’m happy to hear that the Center at Albany, which does terrific and valiant work on this, and is a literal beacon of hope for those of us who once thought, who have fantasized for lo these many many years, that legal education would move forward to a more responsible place, a not merely student-centered but a future-client-centered place, before we die. Happy to near that the Center is accomplishing real progress at Albany. But the day we will know that this effort truly matters is the day that automatic summer stipends are offered to all law faculty who undertake to participate in the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning summer program or some equivalent — and to implement at least some element of enhanced teaching in his or her next year’s syllabus. Of course, it is far harder to know whether a law professor has seriously engaged with teaching improvement than whether that professor has written and gotten published an article. Many issues of monitoring, academic freedom, etc. arise, I am aware. But as far as I can tell, the incentives and priorities have not changed very much. And in law school administration as in life, you get what you pay for.

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