Peer review – painful or practical?

Posted by: Dr Karen Cullen Dr Karen Cullen is part of the L+T team in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT, Melbourne. A new arrival in Melbourne, she was previously a research active historian teaching in Scottish universities primarily utilising online and blended learning techniques.

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowksy.

A few years ago I took part in an exercise which involved a peer review of my teaching. Upon learning of this requirement, indignation immediately set in. Peer review? Me? It was one thing to undergo peer reivew as a teaching assistant when I was a PhD student, but now I was a fully fledged faculty member!

As a postgraduate student I had felt reasonably comfortable undergoing this level of scrutiny, but I always connected it with my position as a junior member of staff. I didn’t feel awkward about this, but tended to view it as a ‘check-box’ exercise. The review was undertaken to ensure that my teaching was satisfactory, then everything carried on as before. I never experienced a bad review, so didn’t even have to consider what I would do to remedy such an outcome. I neither placed any great importance on the event, nor particularly valued its outcomes.

So why was I so bothered about it now that I was more experienced? As a research active academic peer review is part and parcel of writing articles for journals, giving papers at conferences etc. But that is research I thought, the same doesn’t apply to teaching ………………or does it? Don’t students evaluate our teaching effectiveness on a regular basis through surveys, through staff/student committees and informal feedback?

Having talked myself round to thinking that perhaps peer review of my teaching wasn’t such an alien concept after all, I decided to ‘get it over with’. Split into pairs we had to attend three of each other’s classes and discuss our thoughts and ideas afterwards. This observation experience opened up a new meaning of peer review. It was much more balanced – we each played both the role of the reviewer and the reviewed. Rather than receiving feedback from a senior member of staff, the process provided me with an avenue to critique my own teaching, by comparing my skills and methods with those of another tutor. I considered the way in which my partner taught, why he chose a particular approach and what examples of best practice I thought that I could absorb from him. I no longer felt like the junior member of staff whose teaching was being scrutinised by a senior academic for ‘approval’.

Peer review of publications is not something that disappears once an academic is considered an established expert in their field. Why should peer review of teaching be confined largely to observation of junior staff? Review of written work often involves discussion and debate – that is what I concluded I wanted from peer and student review of my teaching.

I have to say that the observation exercise threw up as many questions as answers, challenging me to reflect on my practice by looking at it through the eyes of someone who understand what I am trying to achieve. This experience has not only provoked me to think differently about my teaching but also to consider peer review in more positive light.

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