By Sarah Thomson |

Getting the chance to teach undergraduates has been simultaneously the most exciting and nerve-wracking part of my PhD so far. This semester I was a tutor on a large undergraduate course. Students went to lectures several times a week, then attended a tutorial in groups of 10-12, facilitated by a tutor (me!). After a few weeks, once I’d settled into teaching, I received an email from my course organiser to say that it was time to arrange my first ‘teaching observation’. It’s standard practice in my department that at least once a year tutors and lecturers attend each other’s classes and offer their colleagues feedback.

Though my course organiser stressed that it was nothing to worry about, I was still quite nervous to hear what someone else thought about my teaching for the first time (classic imposter syndrome!) So, I thought I would write a post about how the observation process works in my department, in the hope that it will provide a useful insight for soon-to-be tutors.

Who completes the observation?

At my university the process is officially called ‘Peer Observation of Teaching.’ Though the observations are generally carried out by a lecturer rather than a fellow PhD student, I appreciated that they describe tutors and lecturers as ‘peers’ rather than enforcing a hierarchy of experienced vs. less experienced teachers. It’s also possible (at least in theory) to choose who observes your lesson, which some people might find reassuring. Since I taught the same class with three tutorial groups, I was also given a say in which group my observation took place with, which I appreciated.

Before the observation

There was a three-part form to complete as part of the process, and I had to complete the first section before the lesson. That gave me a chance to explain the lesson I’d planned to the academic who would be attending the class, and gave me a chance to specify anything that I particularly wanted to get feedback on. My tutorials are quite structured, as I find it reassuring to have a series of primary sources/discussion questions/small group work so that I know we won’t run out of things to talk about! But, I’d been concerned they were a little too structured, so this was something I flagged up.

I also went to one of my observer’s lessons earlier in the same week as my own observation. This was really reassuring and I’d definitely recommend it, as it made the whole process feel much more like a mutually beneficial experience rather than someone coming to assess the quality of my teaching. It was also really interesting to see how another person had approached planning a tutorial on the same topic.


During the lesson

Since my observation took place at the end of the semester I knew my tutorial group reasonably well, and knew I could trust them to have prepared for the class. Of course, I had the irrational fear that none of them would have done any reading and my carefully planned tutorial would fall apart, but thankfully that didn’t happen. Everyone had read the primary sources I’d asked them to, and since we were covering a topic I’m very familiar with I had no qualms about being able to answer their questions. I enjoyed the tutorial, and very quickly forgot that my observer was there (sorry, Megan!). As always, the class flew by, but before the students left I asked them to fill out an ‘end of semester feedback form’ (an idea I stole from one of my former tutors). This gave me a chance to find out from the students how they felt the tutorials had run, and I found their comments really useful.

asking students for feedback can also result in an unexpected ego boost…


After the tutorial I had a chat with my observer about how she felt the class had gone, and I was reassured that we agreed on what had gone well and what could have gone more smoothly (the group definitely took a little while to “warm up”, but once we got into the primary sources they were much chattier). She then typed up her comments so that I have a written copy of my observation feedback, which will be useful to have in the future.

Though my observer’s comments were helpful and important, there was also a real focus placed on self-reflection, and I had to fill out a final form identifying what I felt had gone well in the class and where I felt there was room for improvement. On the whole, it was a very positive experience to have at the end of my first semester of teaching!


Sarah is a first year PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Contributions Editor for Pubs and Pubs. As an Americanist, her favourite part of teaching was inflicting useless trivia about American presidents upon her poor, unsuspecting undergraduates.  


All images: author’s own