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Part Two: Interdisciplinary Peer Observation as a Tool for Reflection & Growth

Editor’s note: Thank you to Laura and Felice for Part II of their timely blog. ( See Part I, published 9/12). These entries set the stage for two upcoming related faculty development opportunities across campus, (I  C   TEACHING : THREE DAYS OF TEACHING VISITS and the TEACHING CONVERSATION SERIES). On October 1st, 2nd, 3rd, The Center for Faculty Excellence offers I  C   TEACHING: THREE DAYS OF TEACHING VISITS. Nine generous faculty will open their doors to peer observers. Too often in higher education, instructors do not have the opportunity to watch and discuss each other’s teaching, and therefore we struggle in what Lee Shulman has called, “pedagogical solitude.” The Center for Faculty Excellence has worked hard to change this isolation by creating occasions for pedagogical community. These classroom observations provide an opportunity for real-world observations and to self-reflect about the pedagogical choices we make as instructors. Observers can ask themselves, “What did I realize about my own teaching by watching someone else? How did the observation affirm what I do or open a new door to something I want to change?” The TEACHING CONVERSATION SERIES kick off is September 27, featuring the Power of Observation, (why, what, and how to observe?). Watch for notices and follow the EVENTS at the Center for Faculty website to see when your seven faculty colleagues will host an informal hour of discussion regarding their ideas about teaching throughout the semester. But for now, let Laura and Felice continue their thoughts about peer observations….

By Laura Amoriello and Felice Russell

 As a result of our experience in our year-long faculty development community, the Early Career Excellence Institute (ECEI) we were able to use our shared understanding of significant learning as a framework. Once we had the chance to observe one another, we were able to come back together and debrief what we had each seen and learned as a result of our non-evaluative observations.

Supporting the Expectation of Active Learning in the College Classroom

We found that active learning in both of our courses manifested itself primarily through class discussion. Discussion is, “…the jewel in the crown of the engaged classroom” (Brookfield, 2015, p. 115). It has the potential to equalize student-teacher power relationships, validate students’ opinions, challenge students to grapple with diverse perspectives, and encourage students to take responsibility for their own reasoning. Getting students to participate in class discussion is, of course, a challenge. Brookfield and Preskill (2016) describe the instructor “plod[ding] to class knowing that your efforts to get students to discuss the assigned reading will be met by awkward silence, averted eyes, and a reluctance to talk that swirls in the classroom like a thick, Victorian London fog” (p. 1).

Our familiarity with that challenge led us to strategies for motivating participation, and we were inspired by each other’s choices.

Amoriello had utilized a “Popcorn” discussion activity in her Ithaca Seminar. Replying to a specific prompt, students would then select the next participant, until everyone had shared their thoughts. The structure of the activity (student-led participation, each student gets a chance to speak) seemed a good fit for first-year students, and the overall success of the exercise prompted Russell to use this strategy — that had laid dormant in her teaching tool-kit — again in her teaching. After offering a specific discussion prompt, Russell shared short videos with her students. Students had a chance to think about their replies while watching the videos, which were only several minutes in length, allowing students to remain at full attention throughout. Discussion flowed, inspiring Amoriello to more effectively utilize videos in her seminar.

Through our reciprocal observations we learned that getting students to become more active participants in class discussion centered on the art of asking good questions: What prompts would get them talking?

We also observed that a variety of techniques helped to accommodate various learners and personalities, as well as keep things interesting, creating a “pleasurable uncertainty” in the classroom (Brookfield & Preskill, 2016).

Supporting Student Resilience and Well-Being

Our reciprocal observations helped us to both think about supporting student resilience and well-being in the classroom. From observing Amoriello’s teaching, Russell learned that opportunities for mindfulness were, indeed, having an impact on students’ resiliency. While Russell had used meditation a bit in her teaching, she was not always sure it was having a desirable impact and was less inclined to stick with the activity.

After listening to Amoriello’s students reflect on meditation exercises required for the class, it provided a new way to think about engaging in mindfulness and meditation in her own teaching. Students were observed saying the following:

It’s weird to spend this much time consciously in my body…weird to have to sit here and
experience myself. (First-year Seminar Student)

This was taken as a good thing; to have to experience oneself. Other students stated that they were enjoying the mindfulness activities and were using them outside of class. Observing this student reflection helped Russell to reflect on how she might, once again, incorporate mindfulness into her classes in new and innovative ways.

Reflection on Russell’s quotes from her students re-confirmed for Amoriello the potential of mindfulness practice to positively impact student well-being. She had previously considered incorporating resilience as a topic in her seminar and was now convinced.

  • Today’s college students bear a heavy burden: academic pressure, the fear of long-term financial debt, concerns for their physical safety, deciding what to do after college, and challenges particular, but not limited to, the first semester: potential social isolation and an increase in both academic and personal responsibility.
  • Some research has shown that resilience can help students cope with these stressors (Hartley, 2012) and even decrease dropout rates (Hartley, 2010).
  • Mindfulness has the potential to enhance resilience (Davidson et al. 2003), and their combination has been shown to “significantly predict psychological well-being” (Pidgeon & Keye, 2014).
  • Knowing her students had expressed to Russell the benefits of meditative practice, Amoriello was inspired to embrace resilience as a complementary, and critical, topic.

Moving Forward: Reciprocal Observations and the Impact on Our Teaching

We came to realize that opportunities to engage in these types of conversations about our teaching are not necessarily built into the tenure and promotion process.

Having the chance to observe one another’s teaching, often a private and unexamined act, as well as the luxury of time to reflect in a non-judgemental setting, proved valuable for both of us.

Moving forward, we are interested in how we might continue this type of dialogue about our teaching – specifically, in cross disciplinary contexts to support our students’ learning and resilience.


Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the

classroom, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: 50 great ways to get people talking.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D… Sheridan, J. F.

(2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation.

Psychosomatic Medicine, 65: 564-570. doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3

Early Career Excellent Institute (2017). ECEI reciprocal seminar observations protocol. Handout
from Center for Faculty Excellence: Ithaca, NY.

Hartley, M.T. (2010). Increasing resilience: Strategies for reducing dropout rates for college

students with psychiatric disabilities. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 13

(4), 295-315. doi: 10.1080/15487768.2010.523372

Hartley, M. T. (2012). Assessing and promoting resilience: An additional tool to address

the increasing number of college students with psychological problems. Journal of College Counseling, 15: 37–51. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1882.2012.00004.x

Mangin, M. M., & Stoelinga, S. R. (2010). The future of instructional teacher leader roles. The
Educational Forum
, 74, 49-62.

Pidgeon, A., & Keye, M. (2014). Relationship between resilience, mindfulness, and

pyschological well-being in university students. International Journal of Liberal Arts and

Social Science, 2(5), 27-32.

Russell, F. A. (2012). A culture of collaboration: Meeting the instructional needs of adolescent
English language learners. TESOL Journal, 3(3), 445-468. doi:10.1002/tesj.24


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