Reflection of online teaching through peer observations
About the Author: Dr. Yaoqi Li is a plant ecologist and works in the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University since September 2021. She is a beginner in teaching and keeps learning how to teach through self-training and peer observations in the last two semesters. Here is a summary of tips obtained from senior teachers after peer observations and reflections.
Key Words: Breakout Room, Learning Outcomes, Online Education, Teacher-student Interactions

The outbreak and continuation effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated the growing need for online teaching modalities, especially under our national epidemic control. The rapid advances in technology and open science have accelerated this process. Compared with onsite teaching (face-to-face), online teaching presents greater challenges for both staff and learners in terms of obtaining high-quality teaching and learning results (Lu & Lemonde, 2013). Online teaching also requires the establishment of productive learning environments (Eshet et al., 2021), the promotion of equitable participation (Reinholz et al., 2020), an increase in learner engagement (Persell, 2004) and the realization of effective teacher-student interactions in aspects of enjoyment and motivation (Horrigan, 2021). Otherwise, learners might suffer from online learning fatigue. That is the overwhelming sense of burnout, anxiety, or weariness learners experienced, due to long-time staring at the screen in constant learning and relatively free of teacher supervision. Correspondingly, learners' state of extreme exhaustion may accordingly become an obstacle that negatively affects teaching quality and hinders the achievement of the desired learning outcomes.

Peer observations are essential to improve teaching quality. Observations from teaching fellows help enhance teachers' awareness of learners' learning experiences (Bell & Thomson, 2018), deepen teachers’ reflection on teaching contents and styles (Chen et al., 2009), anticipate further improvement in teaching practice by obtaining professional support and motivation (Bell & Thomson, 2018; Jenkins et al., 2021) and promote discussion with colleagues as well. High-quality observations by senior teachers work as one of the key factors that prompt high-level reflection (Chen et al., 2009); meanwhile, observing classes led by senior teachers is also of valuable help. In the last 2-semester teaching practice, I harvested a lot from the peer observations by several senior teachers both from the School of Language and our department. Here is a summary of tips and suggestions from four phases that I reflected on and learnt from my past online teaching experiences and from the feedback of previous peer observations, which I hope will give inspiration to my colleagues who implement online teaching.

Preparation for the classes
A. Always keep the teaching outcomes in mind

Teachers should first set the learning goals and objectives of the whole module and make them clear both in the handouts and at the beginning of each class (e.g. with a single document to state the aims of the lecture or lab). It is important to make sure that the teaching follows the assigned module syllabus, the assessment scheme of learning outcomes and that learners know clearly what they are going to learn.

B. Know the learners and surroundings

Before teaching, teachers need to know more about learners and their surroundings. To talk about learning methods, there are learners who learn by watching, listening or reading. Also, there are huge differences in teaching objectives and styles between undergraduate and graduate students (e.g. generalize vs. professional). We could communicate with learners about what they have already known, how they learn and what they aim to learn. For example, why they choose Ecology as their major, for curiosity about Nature or for career pursuits. What’s more, we should be aware that some information might be confidential. We need to have a safe and effective way to gather information. The voting or forum module on Learning Mall Core (LM) makes those easy to achieve. We could make full use of the available system and technologies, design the teaching content covering the diverse needs and fit the characteristics of an international school and of our research and learning area accordingly.

C. Well prepare the teaching activities

Designing teaching content can be difficult to balance in meeting the learning objectives and interests of all learners with different background knowledge and initiatives. Creating an inclusive curriculum would be of help and then cutting contents to maintain rigor (Reinholz et al., 2020). Please be aware that we cannot cover everything but the most important items and needs require different ways of learning. The principle of thumb is that learners can only concentrate in a limited time (i.e. 30-40 mins), hence please organize one central goal and no more than four key concepts in each class. Then design different learning and assessment activities (e.g. online discussion, quizzes, voting, and/or written assignments) to get learners' curiosities. We can also make it clear to learners why they do those. It is better to set a task every 20 mins to keep learners actively involved in the class. If time remains, we could provide advanced quizzes and puzzles to challenge those engaged learners.

Before class
A. Set up the teaching room and warm-up

The teaching room should be settled with bright light, a stable Internet connection, a high-resolution camera and microphone, and free of disruption. It is suggested that teachers come to the virtual classroom 30 mins earlier and talk with learners to make connections. Before teaching starts, the teacher can play 2-3 mins of music to active atmosphere, and then stop the music to start class.

B. Make the rules

Teachers need set rules for absence and lateness, such as creating a waiting room. If learners are late for 1/3 of the class, they are not allowed to enter the class. We should also establish norms for teaching, clearly convey explanations to learners and ask them to show respect. For example, no phone calls or personal chats are allowed. It is required that learners label their names, open cameras and unmute themselves. They are also required to respond to polls (e.g. thumbs up, clap and raise hands with questions).

During the class
A. Teach from simple to complex

We could try to start a lecture by telling stories with an attractive topic and propose related questions. Take botany lab as an example, teachers can first play videos for about 2-4 mins showing amazing anatomical structures under the microscope to attract learners and ask them to summarize the contents or highlight key points. Then we introduce the structure and usage of a microscope step by step (e.g. carrying, focusing, cleaning) and the key terms, including magnification, resolution and field of view. Next, we could move from the introduction to the application by calibration. We teach learners to apply what they have learnt and give ownership, like bringing their own fancy materials to observe. Teachers could also provide some further resources for those who are really interested in and want to be professors in this field.

B. Increase interactions with learners

For lectures, there are many ways to interact with learners, such as, well use body language (e.g. having eye contact, moving arms and hands to convert information) and use silence or a low-risk engagement approach (e.g. type ½ for Y/N questions or polling) to attract attention and avoid wandering. We are suggested to use a laser pointer to help learners follow the teaching process, vary the format of slides to fit both visualized and hearing learners, and vary the tone of voice. Teachers can always call learners by their names and ask more questions to inspire them. It is always encouraged to ask learners to communicate with peers and teachers can double-check and provide guidance. Later, we could ask learners to write down a moment of difficulty, which helps identify a knowledge gap and address potential lacunae in learning (Persell, 2004).

For seminars, learners will have a deeper impression if they have a chance to speak. It is useful to hold breakrooms for learners to work in groups to practice or discuss under the supervision of module leaders and teaching assistants (TA). It is suggested that we separate learners into smaller groups with about 3-4 learners randomly or volunteer, and try to avoid the “free rider” problem. We will assign clear tasks and set timers for those interaction activities. We could also use varied assessment methods, like online discussion, quizzes, and polling in online education.

After class
A. Adjust with feedback and reflection

After each online teaching, learners could be asked to submit a summary report with assigned specific tasks. Learners would write down what they have learned from the class and also give their reflections, like the difficulties or unsolved questions during the practice. Their suggestions or feedback based on the teaching experience are also welcomed. Moreover, teachers can assess the learning outcomes, adjust teaching methods based on what they have received from those reports and give comments and feedback to each learner. It is better for a teacher to have TA to regularly collect and follow up with difficulties faced by learners, especially with overseas students. We should also provide tutorials to learners at a common time rather than feedback via individual emails.

B. Learn from evaluation

It is extremely useful to be observed by senior teachers and observe the teaching of other modules. After-observation conversations can greatly contribute to teaching improvement. It is also important to keep meeting with other teaching staff to exchange information on learners’ feedback and share solutions to emerging teaching issues. This can also help avoid overlaps in teaching contents and make the whole training program comprehensive. Note that evaluations from learners mainly show their feeling of satisfaction, and the evaluation from peer observations can have more constructive suggestions. The suggestions can provide further valuable information on how to teach.

Suggestions for technical issues

There are several technical issues in online teaching. a) It is important to improve the stability of BBB on international access and screen sharing as some students complained about keeping being kicked out during class. b) It would be good if the functions of the chat box can be enriched, like transferring pictures and documents, which helps share teaching material with learners. Besides, the speaker cannot see the chat box when sharing the screen, which can interfere with audience interaction. c) The module of the breakout room can be developed to accelerate group discussion. For example, if breakout room discussions can be recorded, the information among groups would be easily shared and gone through peer observations. d) The module of peer assessment needs to be improved. Peer assessment helps avoid the “free rider” problem in group discussions. Currently, this module in LM is more like a black box and needs specific guidance on the grade calculation.

Acknowledge: I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for the feedback and suggestions from Markus Davis, Uromi Manage Goodale, Li Li and Charlie Reis for their kind peer observations, and motivation from Johannes Knops, Sujie Qin, Lingyun Xiao, Zheng Chen and Yi Zou after observing their classes.



[1] Bell, A., & Thomson, K. (2018). Supporting peer observation of teaching: Collegiality, conversations, and autonomy. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 55(3), 276-284.

[2] Chen, N. S., Wei, C. W., Wu, K. T., & Uden, L. (2009). Effects of high-level prompts and peer assessment on online learners’ reflection levels. Computers & Education, 52(2), 283-291.

[3] Eshet, Y., Steinberger, P., & Grinautsky, K. (2021). Relationship between Statistics Anxiety and Academic Dishonesty: A Comparison between Learning Environments in Social Sciences. Sustainability, 13(3), 1564. DOI: 10.3390/su13031564.

[4] Horrigan, L. A. (2021). Staff-student interactions in a physiology laboratory class: What do they involve and are they important? Advances In Physiology Education, 45(3), 607-619.

[5] Jenkins, E., D'Aoust, R., Elias, S., Han, H. R., Sharps, P., & Alvarez, C. (2021). Faculty peer review of teaching taskforce: A quantitative descriptive research study for the peer review process. Nurse Education Today, 106, 105055. DOI: j.nedt.2021.105055.

[6] Lu, F., & Lemonde, M. (2013). A comparison of online versus face-to-face teaching delivery in statistics instruction for undergraduate health science students. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 18(5), 963-973.

[7] Persell, C. H. (2004). Focused Online Discussions, Moments of Difficulty, and Student Understanding. Social Science Computer Review, 22(2), 197-209.

[8] Reinholz, D. L., Stone-Johnstone, A., White, I., Sianez, L. M. Jr., & Shah, N. (2020). A Pandemic Crash Course: Learning to Teach Equitably in Synchronous Online Classes. CBE Life Sci Educ, 19(4), ar60. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.20-06-0126.

Dr. Yaoqi LI,
Department of Health and Environmental Sciences

16 September 2022

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