Professor addressing a classroom

Designing a teaching observation process: Lessons from a collaboration with NYU Tandon

As this past year has demonstrated, our understanding of teaching and learning is constantly evolving. In an effort to continue providing quality learning experiences for all students in varied settings, faculty from NYU Tandon School of Engineering collaborated with the Learning Experience Design (LED) team at NYU to develop a customized teaching observation process.

Below are some of the steps that we, the LED team, followed in developing an observation process at Tandon, along with commentary from our faculty partner, Jean Gallagher, Director of Faculty Development and Professor of English, Department of Technology, Culture, and Society. They can be applied to any school or discipline.

1. Define the objectives

Before designing your observation process, decide on the purpose of your program:

  • Formative — Observations provide constructive feedback that can be readily applied to improve the observed instructor’s teaching. This kind of observation is not evaluative, and is widely recommended for use in most contexts.
  • Summative — Observations evaluate teaching effectiveness. Summative feedback may be included as one part of a performance review, promotion, and/or tenure process for faculty.

Professor Gallagher: “We were interested in using teaching observations both in a formative way, to help our faculty develop new approaches in the classroom, and in a summative way for processes like re-appointment and promotion: we wanted to find a better way to recognize and reward not only great teaching but improvement or development in teaching.”

2. Develop the process

Teaching observations in higher education often include three or four steps:

  • Pre-observation meeting — An initial conversation between the observer and the instructor to be observed. During this open discussion, the instructor can share areas where they would like feedback.
  • Observation — The observer observes a live or recorded teaching session and takes notes. Depending on the scope of the observation process, the observer may also review the syllabus and/or course site for further context.
  • Post-observation meeting — In this meeting the observer shares their observations and the two parties discuss and collaborate on identifying next steps.
  • Self-reflection (optional) — Recent research has shown that self-reflection activities can strengthen one’s teaching. This fourth step prompts the observed instructor to identify how they will apply what they have learned from the observation process.

3. Decide who will observe

Observers can be senior faculty members, peer instructors, or external consultants, depending on your department’s objectives. If your observation process will be more peer-led, consider developing a small cohort to oversee and support observers.

4. Utilize observation rubrics when appropriate

Many universities use rubrics, question prompts for pre- and post-observation meetings, and/or observation summary forms. Rubrics can be tailored to the learning goals and priorities at your school or department.

Professor Gallagher: “The LED team was instrumental in helping us clarify our learning goals and the criteria we use to assess how faculty are meeting those goals. We were particularly interested in how instructors create an inclusive and engaging learning environment, clarfify the class session’s objectives, and offer multiple opportunities for different kinds of assessment.”

5. Pilot your observation program

Once you have developed the above, it is time to pilot your observation program. We recommend beginning with a small cohort of faculty to test and refine your process before scaling up.

Professor Gallagher: “It was such a great experience to work with the LED team—they brought deep knowledge of the pedagogical issues and great energy to the work of creating the observation rubric and a clear process for using it.”

To learn more about teaching observations, or to collaborate with us on developing an observation process, email inquiries to teaching@nyu.edu.


Jennifer Lauren is an Educational Designer in NYU’s Center for Faculty Advancement.