The power of digital peer observation: Balancing professional development and performance review

Peer observation can be highly beneficial as a developmental framework to improve and increase confidence in teaching practices. Further benefits of peer observation include evaluating expectations and beliefs, increasing collegiality, and improving pedagogy. Limitations include the risk of self-deception and a lack of action following reflection, time commitment and the potential impact of having an observer in the consultation room.

The Navitas Student Learning Support (SLS) team acknowledged these benefits and limitations of the traditional peer observation process and as a result, revised existing models to create a digital process, which takes advantage of technology yet maintains the primary benefits of previous models. A pilot project was implemented to develop the Digital Peer Observation process.

Recently, Rachel Maissan and Fiona Perry published a paper in the Journal of Academic Language & Learning on their Digital Peer Observation Process, which you can read in full here. Keep reading below for a summary of the key ideas.

What do the Student Learning Support (SLS) team do?

Rachel and Fiona are both members of SLS which works with students one-on-one or in small groups to support their assessment writing, study skills and time management. They also run in-class workshops and orientation workshops, create learning materials and collaborate with educators to develop students’ academic literacy. Various education providers have different terms for SLS. ALL, meaning Academic Language and Learning, is a common umbrella term.

The power of peer observation and self-reflection

It is important to critically reflect as an individual, with peers and as a team to enable continual, accountable professional growth. Self-reflection and peer observation are particularly powerful when engaged in as a team and when rooted in shared values and understandings of best practice. Researchers have found that professional development is most effective when it is driven by participants’ prior knowledge and real-life experiences, and when it addresses their self-selected needs (Brockbank & McGill, 2006; Girvan, Conneely & Tangney, 2016; Hampton, Rhodes & Stokes, 2004; Luneta, 2012).

There is also much research about the benefits of peer observation as reflection-based professional development for teachers (Brookfield, 1995; Chester, 2012). Self-reflection can “contribute to our ongoing professional development and strengthen discussion of our work with other academic colleagues” (Malthus, 2013, p. 67).

The new model

The Digital Peer Observation Process was developed to overcome many of the traditional limitations of peer observation. Building on research and current models from similar learning support teams, the new digital process has three main benefits: team collegiality, clarity of the team’s vision and identity, and a new performance evaluation measure.

The Digital Peer Observation Process includes five steps: pre-observation discussion, observation of a student consultation, post-observation discussion, critical self-reflection and showcase of learning.

Benefits of the new model

Connecting people with technology

Using technology helped to bring together a geographically diverse team, fostering a culture of collaboration and strengthening individuals’ identities as ALL advisors and as a team. The Navitas SLS team is spread across three states, and face-to-face peer observations are not an option. It can be difficult for team members to have an idea of how other SLS advisors approach consultations and what tools and techniques they use. Using recordings of consultations allowed advisors to have an insight into their colleagues’ methods. It allowed team members to get to know each other better and fostered conversations about effective tools, approaches and general tips as well as advice related to the role. It also set a precedent for reaching out to other SLS team members for ideas and support.

Recognition of shared values

Working through the stages of the new model led to the development of a concrete framework of the goals, values and mission of the SLS team, strengthening the team’s collective identity. In order to develop the reflection guidelines for observation sessions, the team had to review the consultation guidelines and flesh out the aims and goals of consultations as well as the team’s values. This led the team to discuss what these big picture ideas would look like in practice. The result was the creation of the macro-skills wheel (below), which was then used to create a list of observable behaviours to clarify what these skills look like in practice.

Not only was this exercise valuable for the Peer Observation, but it also provided an effective training package for new staff and sparked the process of reflection. The team rigorously evaluated the theories and evidence that informed the team’s practice. Much discussion was had with the team about how values were interpreted and how people felt these values could be observed in a consultation.

Balancing professional development and performance review

The new model allowed for the Peer Observation to service the needs of performance review, while protecting the openness and vulnerability needed for authentic professional development. It enabled individuals to use critical self-reflection to identify areas for development and highlight strengths for performance evaluation. Giving participants control over information shared in observations enabled candid and open exchanges, free from the pressure of managerial reporting. This encouraged participants to share tough examples and focus on skill development as opposed to sharing a session they felt went well.

In a survey of the pilot project, participants reported that the model provided the opportunity to: enhance professional relationships, workshop challenging situations, and reach out to colleagues for advice and feedback – all of which were grouped under the theme of collegiality. The Digital Peer Observation model developed from the pilot project has resulted in a more unified SLS team that engages in synchronous and asynchronous professional development and performance review. More generally, it provides a strong starting point for teams in other Navitas contexts to create shared values and reflection guidelines for their own professional development and annual performance review.

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