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Oh No! Not Another Test! Peer Observation to Improve Performance

“Pay attention: there’ll be a test later!”

“Did you study for your biology exam?”

“I can’t believe I failed the driver’s test … again!”

Educators have tried to soften the blow by re-naming them — evaluations, assessments, portfolio reviews — but, a test by any other name is still a stomach-turning, heart-stomping event for most of us. Maybe we were frightened by a pop quiz when we were children, but many of us share the test nightmare — we enter the classroom to find there are only 5 minutes left for us to complete a three-hour exam for which we haven’t studied. In fact, we don’t even know the name of the course! Is it any wonder that docent evaluation strikes fear in the hearts of both docents and education directors throughout the museum community? Take heart! Classroom techniques exist that can help docents achieve the real goal of evaluation — improved performance — without trauma.

One such technique is peer observation. No, not peer evaluation! The docent being observed does the evaluating of his or her own performance based on a carefully prearranged observation. Of course, this type of evaluation is predicated on the assumption that most people aren’t completely satisfied with their own performance and want to do better. Those who don’t want to improve have already lost their “edge.” Perhaps this explains why receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature seemed to stop the creative juices in such authors as Hemingway and Steinbeck. When you start believing that you’ve produced your best novel — or painting, or performance, or lesson…or chocolate cake — it’s hard to produce another good one.

GUIDELINES The following guidelines will help you decide if you’re ready for peer observation, and, if you are, will help you set up the observation. They are adapted from GESA (Gender/Ethnic Expectations and Student Achievement) techniques.

  1. Schedule the observation. Pick a time, a tour/lesson, and an observer with whom you are comfortable. Observations should take a minimum of 30 minutes, and you should be observed a minimum of three times to compile enough accurate information to help you evaluate your performance.
  1. Select the event you wish to have observed. Observers will only record one event per observation. The types of events to be observed will be discussed later.
  1. Instruct your observers in peer observation techniques. They are to record only one event. They are to record only when that event occurs. They are to be inconspicuous. They should not interact with your audience or class. And, most important of all, they are only to observe. They are not to evaluate, give advice, or make suggestions. When they have finished their observation, they are to give the observation form to you.
  1. Offer to observe your peers, being careful to follow the guidelines. Observing the tours or lessons of other docents may help you identify areas on which you need improvement.


What types of things should you evaluate within your tour or lesson? What will you ask your observer to observe? This, of course, is a very subjective area. Only you know areas of your teaching that you are concerned about. Some possibilities follow.

  1. Response opportunities. Your observer in this event is watching for the times you give your audience an opportunity to perform. Lest your presentation become a monologue, students should be more than listeners to the lesson. The observer should record instances when you provide visitors with opportunities to answer a question, contribute to the discussion, give an opinion, etc. Accepting the answer of a student who calls out a response or asking a student to perform in some other way, such as reading aloud, demonstrating an action, and so forth, should also be recorded.
  1. Disparity in sex and ethnic feedback. Ask your observer to record each time you provide feedback to males versus females and/or to members of different ethnic groups within your audience. Feedback consists of responses from you which affirm, praise, correct, criticize, or reject a response from your audience members. Research indicates that feedback is one of the most important ways we learn. Getting no feedback seems to teach students that their responses are unimportant. Surprisingly, many lessons both in classrooms and in museums lack significant feedback or are weighted with feedback directed to one sex or group more than another. The most a student will get is often a simple nod. Your observer should record only that feedback that is directed to one or several students, not to the entire group.
  1. Physical position. In this observation, you are gathering data to help evaluate your physical interaction with your audience. Physical closeness is one of the ways students are included and excluded from learning. Ask your observer to record the times you are within arm’s length of three or four selected students, or that you stand with your group rather than in between them and the object you are discussing. (In a classroom situation, of course, the observer can record a teacher’s physical closeness to each individual within an entire class, but as your tour group will be moving through the museum, this type of observation is very difficult.)


  1. Body language/vocalizations. Another area to be self-evaluated concerns certain body positions and/or vocalizations that may be detrimental to presenting the best lesson performance. Folding one’s arms while listening to a response, avoiding eye contact, overusing phrases such as “okay” or “you know” are among the negatives you may suspect diminish your presentation. Observers should only be asked to record one or two different body positions and/ or vocalizations within one observation period.


Observation, of course, is only part of the evaluation process. Once armed with the observation record, a docent should examine the results with an open mind. If the performance (tour/lesson) seems to have room for improvement, a plan for change should be undertaken. Sometimes this involves a simple change in position (within the group, rather than in front). Often, however, suggestions from other docents or the education director may help change the behavior. Further observations are necessary to assess progress. At all times, however, the impetus for change comes from the docent; the request for peer observation must begin with the person most heavily “invested” in the process. After all, wouldn’t you have preferred to take that algebra test when you knew you were ready?

Jackie Littleton Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Oh No! Not Another Test! Peer Observation to Improve Performance,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 18-19.


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