Formative Judgment Innovates Classroom Observation

By its very nature a post is short (about 750 words in our case), and, as such, posts do not allow the depth of a research article and certainly not that of a book. Some of the subjects we touch upon are like grazing your fingernail on an elephant—there’s a lot more there that we didn’t touch. In the past three posts, we’ve been discussing a website on which we have placed a classroom observation instrument. In this post we’d like to widen out our scope to a few attendant considerations.

Related Reading: Innovating the Classroom Observation Process

Formative Classroom Observation or Summative Judgment?

When we perform a classroom observation as representatives of the University’s center for teaching & learning (CTL), our only goal is formative. Our purpose is constructive criticism in order to make the observed faculty member more effective. Rarely do we look at the entire teacher, but use the snapshot as a way of improving one or two aspects of that person’s instruction. We might be looking at the session’s organization, the instructor’s classroom management abilities, or even the instructor’s rapport with students, but by one quick look we can never hope to improve the total teacher. While departments could use classroom observation for formative purposes, their goal is usually summative—they are making a personnel decision pertaining to promotion, tenure, both, or even merit pay. As Chism (2007) points out, “The two approaches should dovetail, however, creating a comprehensive approach” (page 79).

Related Reading: Formative Judgment Innovates Classroom Observation

CTL’s Formative Focus

When clients come to a CTL, some have been told to by a chair, and others have decided on their own they would like help to improve an area of their teaching. In an ideal world, faculty should be overwhelming CTLs. All teaching needs improvement with different aspects at different times. Compare the college instructor to another pro in a different field—a major league player, who has a manager, several assistant coaches, a batting coach, a hitting coach, trainers, video consultants, sabermetricians, and even sports psychologists available to help achieve peak performance on a daily basis. Do we really believe that without support a college instructor performs at his/her peak on a daily basis over a 30-year career?

Some Guidelines for Formative Observation

  1. The classroom observer must be trained and experienced.
  2. The classroom observer must have a metacognitive sense of his/her biases in the process.
  3. The classroom observation itself should be part of at least a three-step process of pre-observation interview, the observation, and the post-observation dialogue.
  4. The two keys to the pre-observation are a) determining what the observed wishes the observer to focus upon and b) establishing a mutual trust.
  5. The classroom observer can be explained to the class or simply unmentioned, but our preference is to let the class know what is going on. Interestingly, we have observed that if a class likes the instructor, they will go out of their way to do things such as asking and answering questions so as to make the instructor look good. Conversely . . .
  6. The classroom observer needs to arrive early and stay late. We have found as observers that striking up conversations with students before and after the actual observation not only puts them at ease, but also makes them more willing to volunteer information about the class.
  7. The observer should alternate observing and taking notes. In our experience, an observer never has time to jot complete thoughts down in real time, so finishing a report immediately after the observation while things are still fresh in one’s mind is paramount.
  8. In the post-interview, which needs to be as immediate as possible, the observer should concentrate on the areas that were mutually pre-determined to be of interest. In reality, an experienced observer will always pick up on matters outside the focus.
  9. In the post-interview the observer should go beyond descriptions of observed behavior and offer practical and possible solutions to problematic areas.
  10. Since the goal of the entire observation process is improvement, establishing a time for a fourth meeting later in the semester is desirable. At meeting #4, the instructor can report about what happened when the practical solutions were tried. Inevitably, the observer will see ways to modify the suggestions.


While our entire project is aimed at helping departments and programs establish classroom observations, we believe staying out of summative judgment is necessary. We also see the advantage of a CTL observation over a peer observation so often preferred by departments; the CTL observer can concentrate on pedagogy rather than subject matter, and no bias exists either pro or con.


  • Chism, N. (2007). Peer review of teaching: A sourcebook. San Francisco, CA: Anker.



author Hal BlythePh.D Hal Blythe writes literary criticism to mystery stories. In addition to the eleven books he’s published with New Forums, Hal has collaborated on four books on a variety of subjects, over 1000 pieces of fiction/nonfiction, and a host of television scripts and interactive mysteries performed by their repertory company. He is currently co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center for Eastern Kentucky University. Meet Hal Blythe.