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Teaching Observations, Portfolios, and Philosophies

This section offers strategies for refining and developing your pedagogy and preparing for the job market. We begin with information on teaching observations and student evaluations, with tips on how to handle formal and informal feedback on your teaching. We also explore how preparing for future course revisions, archiving your course, retaining sample student work, and keeping a reflective journal can help you improve as a teacher and ease the creation of a teaching portfolio.

Teaching Observations

Teaching Observations are intended to give you feedback on your teaching practice. Typically once a semester, a member of your department’s faculty will observe a class session. They may look at your teaching materials such as a syllabus or graded assignments (not the case at every institution), and then the observer will schedule a follow-up conversation to talk about your teaching practice. These conversations can be a great opportunity to ask questions about pedagogy and course materials. The observer will write up a report on the observation and conversation that will be submitted to the chair and then put in your file. You have the opportunity to respond in written form to the observation, if you find a response is necessary.

The full set of rules and guidelines for course observations are available in Article 18 of the PSC-CUNY contract: http://www.psc-cuny.org/contract/article-18-professional-evaluation/.

Rules and Guidelines for Course Observations:

  • You should be observed once per semester until you reach ten observations from one institution.
  • You should be given at least 24 hours notice prior to the observation.
  • The department is responsible for assigning someone to observe your course.
  • Within two weeks from the date of the course observation, you and the observer meet to discuss the class and the observation, sometimes with the department chair.
  • The observer prepares a document (often a form from the department) which includes his/her observations from your course as well as from the discussion that followed the observation.
  • You have the option of responding to the observation in written form and attaching the response to the document the observer signed.
  • Your signature is required on the course observation.
  • The observation report is reviewed by your chair and then put in your personnel file.

Please note that some schools have slight variations or additions to these rules, so it is best to check with your department ahead of time for more information about their expectations and your rights.

Tips on Being Observed

Let your students know.

It’s a good idea to give your students a heads-up that you’ll be observed. There’s going to be a stranger in your class, and students might be hesitant to participate if they don’t know what’s going on. Explain what the observation is, and make sure that you stress it’s about you and not them.

Plan a class session that highlights your strengths.

Often observers will give you a few dates to pick from when scheduling your observation. Think about where you are in the semester and what each class would demonstrate. Within the options, is there certain material you’re more comfortable with than others? Or do you have a lesson plan or activity that you think will work particularly well for the observation? Once you pick a day, think about what skills or pedagogical practices you want to demonstrate during the observation.

Contextualize your class for the observer.

It can be frustrating to get a comment like, “The class was great, but I wish the instructor covered x” when you plan on covering x in the next class. Make sure you contextualize your lesson plan in a larger context for your observer. If your syllabus is designed in units, let the observer know that the particular lesson he’ll observe is part of a larger unit; if you’re spending three days on a topic or text, tell your observer, and let him know on which day he’s joining you.

Prepare a copy of any readings or handouts for the observer.

It’s a nice gesture to prepare a copy of the lesson’s materials–any readings or worksheets, etc–for the observer.

Personalities and what people want to see.

Not each observer thinks the same qualities make a great class. Instructors frequently have strong feelings about what is and is not a good pedagogical practice, and this position might conflict with feedback you’ve received in the past or your own beliefs about best classroom practices. Don’t try to please your observer. Be yourself. Your best self, but yourself.

Don’t flip the script.

The day of your observation is probably not the best day to try out a totally new tactic, unless you’re extremely comfortable and confident following an assignment down an uncertain path. It could work and be amazing, but it also might confuse your students or disrupt the flow of your class.  

Incorporating observation feedback into your classroom.

The observation is a great opportunity to get feedback from someone who has been teaching–potentially even the same class you’re teaching–for many years. Look through the comments: pay attention both to what the observer said you did well and what she recommends for improvement. Think about how you can incorporate her suggestions into your teaching practice. Make notes about how you’ll use this feedback the next time you teach the course or what you might adjust this semester to fit the comments you’ve received.

Observations and professional development.

Many job applications ask that you include a course observation or two from a faculty member. You should photocopy the signed observation reports and keep them in a file or scan them for a digital teaching portfolio.

What to do if you disagree with an observation report.

Whether you disagree with a portion of the report, disagree in whole or want to offer more context or explanation, you have the option of responding to your observation in written form. You can write a letter addressing any of your concerns or any of the comments you’ve received. The letter will be attached to the observation report and be reviewed by the chair as part of the total report.

What if you get an unsatisfactory report?

Typically at the end of the observation report, the observer checks either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” (sometimes there are more detailed options, and sometimes these options are checked for each evaluated category). If you receive an unsatisfactory report, start by looking at the comments. Do you agree with them? If not, respond to them in written form and attach your letter to the observation report. You might consider meeting with the chair and/or requesting another formal observation. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, consult with your advisor or the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center about what steps you might take.

Student Evaluations

Formal Evaluations

Students are always asked to complete an Official Course Evaluation; this is administered at the end of the semester and covers questions ranging from the competence and preparedness of the instructor to the way in which the course met its objectives. Each school has its own set of evaluations. These evaluations go to the department first but are made available to instructors after the end of the semester.

While the evaluation results may give you valuable information, they have many limitations, such as not being discipline-specific or course-specific enough to help you assess the success of your course. However, taking a few moments to review the evaluations and allowing them to guide your future work can be useful. If the data on the observation reveals that students were unanimous or close to unanimous in their response to a particular question, be sure to consider it. For example, students indicating that they did not understand how the assigned reading related to the course does not necessarily mean that you need to toss all of your readings; rather, you might choose to do further contextualize the texts and how they relate to the course and its learning goals when you distribute the material next time.

In addition to the quantifiable answers, there is typically space for students to make a few notes or give more general qualitative feedback. Do not be surprised to find overly effusive or downright vicious student comments. Remember that these students are often rushing through the evaluation and may not think through the comments they choose to make, so be mindful to measure their feedback against your own good judgment.

The institutional student evaluations are something you should consider including in your teaching portfolio, so it is to your benefit to preserve them. Some systems allow you to export the evaluation to a PDF or digital file; for others, you may have to take screen shots. In any case, make sure to save the file with other teaching documents, and to label it with all relevant course information.

Informal Evaluations

Remember that the formal evaluation is just one tool you can use to measure the effectiveness of your course, and that it may not be the most useful one. You can ask your students to evaluate your course throughout the semester with evaluations that you create. While the questions in the official evaluations required by your campus are determined by the administration, in an unofficial evaluation you can ask questions you feel would be the most helpful to you. You might consider creating a form or simply bringing in some index cards and asking students to respond to questions or prompts. You might even consider going over responses in class to discuss any concerns or challenges students reported. These formative assessments can help you shift gears, affirm that you are on the right track, or provide necessary support and guidance in areas where students might need it. If you tried out something different this course, like a new technology, in-class activity, or discussion structure, this is a great opportunity to solicit feedback on the student experience. As with the formal evaluations, these informal evaluations have a place in your Teaching Portfolio, so keep a copy of useful ones for future use.

Questions that could help you assess the success of your readings and assignments could be:

  • What reading resonated the most and why? Or: if they had to recommend one reading to a friend, which would they recommend and why?
  • What reading did they care for the least and why? Or: if they could assign one reading to an enemy, which would they assign?
  • What assignment was most effective and why?
  • What assignment was least effective and why?
  • What additional support would have helped them to complete their assignments successfully?
  • What aspects of the course are most challenging?

Course Revision

It’s quite probable that you will teach the course you’ve just completed teaching again, or that you’ll teach one in which you’ll use similar activities or assignments. Even if you don’t think you’ll teach this course in the next semester it is important to think about what you want to keep, what you want to revise, and what you want to toss when you do teach the course (or one like it) in the future.

Devoting a small pocket of time to revision at the end of the semester can help you get ahead for the next semester. Think about what can you do now that will save you time the next time you teach the course, or keep you from forgetting great ideas later.

  • If your next course is already on CUNYFirst, add your textbooks.
  • Write out a draft calendar for your syllabus.
  •  If you’ll use the same assignments, begin to update the date information.
  • If you annotated your syllabus throughout the semester, then read through those notes and make a ‘to do’ list or a quick summary of them so that, when you return to planning, you have some guidelines for how to jump back in.
  • If you didn’t annotate your syllabus, take a few minutes to jot down notes about what readings, assignments, and so forth you absolutely want to keep, or what new ideas you have that you want to try next time.
  • Think about the feedback you received from students through both formal and informal evaluations. How can you incorporate this feedback into your next class?
  • Review any slides or visual materials and decide which you’d like to reuse

Archiving Your Course

If you used a course blog or another platform such as Blackboard, you might want to move some or all of your information to a new space. This will clear out the space for the new semester, but also ensure that you do not lose work from the previous semester. Note how long the information will be available on your previous platform, and make sure you migrate any resources, posts, or any other data you want to preserve before then.

If you used Blackboard you can ‘archive’ your course and move the material to a new semester. For more information, check out the tutorial at http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/it/blackboard/repository/files/blackboard-9.1-documents/exportingyourblackboardcourse.pdf

If you used a WordPress blog for your course and want to do so again, you have a couple of options. You can export your old course’s site by using the export and import tools in WordPress. You will be able to choose what content from your old site to export (posts, pages, media, etc.) You can also just reuse your original course blog, adding new students to the existing site. However, if you have had your students adding content to that site and don’t want your new students to see the previous semester’s work, you’ll need to hide that old student work by reverting their posts to “draft” in the Dashboard. This has the disadvantage of making it harder for former students to access their work in your class, so you might encourage them to migrate their work to a personal storage space before the semester’s end. One of the advantages of using a course blog instead of Blackboard is the relative permanence of student work. Unlike Blackboard, where students lose access to their coursework as soon as the semester ends, a blog allows your students to access their work after the course is over.

Sample Student Work

You might want to retain some of your students’ work as examples to share with a class or as models that you can work through, critique, or peer review with future students. Make sure you get each student’s permission and preference for name/no name on the assignment. You might consider sending out an announcement or including on your syllabus that all work that is submitted can be used anonymously for “future educational purposes,” and asking that students who wish to be excluded from this policy email you. Additionally, if there are standout examples that illustrate students’ progress in your course or your approach to providing feedback you might want to keep them for your teaching portfolio.

Building a Teaching Portfolio

As teachers, we know the value of being reflective practitioners, but the hectic pace of the semester can make it difficult to build in sufficient time for such reflection. Assembling a teaching portfolio provides a good opportunity to reflect on and improve your teaching, and can also help you begin to prepare for the job market in ways that will pay dividends down the line.

Even if you are not yet applying for jobs, selecting materials for a teaching portfolio is a worthwhile exercise that can prompt meaningful changes in your pedagogy. In particular, the process can help you clarify your own intentions and practices—the “how” and “why” of what you do in the classroom—and identify what changes you’d like to  integrate in subsequent semesters. It can also help you view your classroom holistically, which is often difficult to do during semester, when it can be hard to see forest for trees. Among the items you might want to include in a teaching portfolio: copies of syllabi and sample course assignments; a statement of teaching philosophy; evaluations from students and faculty observers; and examples of student work that reflect your students’ progress and/or your approach to providing feedback (as always, you should secure permission before using).

A teaching portfolio can also provide the first steps towards discovering and articulating your teaching philosophy, which will have a practical benefit as you approach the job market. Even if jobs in your field don’t typically ask for a portfolio, many will ask for a statement of teaching philosophy in some form or another. Waiting until you’re actually applying for jobs to begin work on this document can cause a lot of anxiety, and getting in the habit of documenting your teaching can make it easier to recognize and articulate your philosophy. You may begin inductively “extracting” a philosophy from your documented methods, which is likely preferable to to generating one on the fly, in response to a deadline. Identifying and then refining this philosophy as you develop more experience will help you even if you’re applying for non-teaching jobs. Embedded in a statement of teaching philosophy are one’s sense of the role of their discipline in higher education, and its epistemological value. Being comfortable stating, defending, and applying these ideas across contexts is an important part of the work of becoming a scholar.

The TLC offers workshops and office-hour support for students seeking to build a digital teaching portfolio. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for more information.

Finally: Be Satisfied

Teaching is hard work, and you’ll be exhausted at the end of the semester. Take some time after your class has ended to reflect on and take some joy from the impact you’ve had. Be proud, and look forward to the opportunities you’ll have to meet more incredible students and to improve as a teacher in subsequent semesters!!!

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