Improving learning and teaching through collaborative observation

Empowering students to play an active role in shaping their learning experience by creating a sustainable and colaborative model of classroom observation.

collaborative learning large
  • Matt O’Leary
  • Vanessa Cui
  • Zoe Lewis
  • Paola Pedrelli
  • Burhana Khanum (student researcher)
  • Roxana Anton (student researcher)
  • Zainab Altaf ((student researcher)
  • Lee Roberts
  • Stephanie Reynolds
  • Jabar Hussain (student researcher)
  • Oliver Suppiah (student researcher)
  • Ilana Pressick
  • Nathalie Turville
  • Amina Abdulkhadir (student researcher)
  • Stacy Rogers (student researcher)
  • Aneesa Bibi (student researcher)
  • Leanne Gould
  • Charlotte Ralph (student researcher)
  • Emily Gay (student researcher)
  • Philip McCahill (student researcher)
  • Mark Holland
  • Nick White
  • Katherine Winfield (student researcher)
  • Mohammed Juber Ahmed (student researcher)
  • Shaun James (student researcher)

Teaching excellence is high on the policy agenda in higher education (HE) in England. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the HE White Paper (BIS 2016) heralds an era of unprecedented scrutiny on the quality of teaching in universities, with the government seeking to link the quality of teaching to funding via the TEF. This practice-led project responds directly to this policy focus and the ongoing interest in improving learning and teaching (L & T) in HE.

This project was underpinned by the belief that improving student learning requires teachers and learners to develop an awareness and understanding about learning collaboratively in the context of their programme. Shaped and informed by current research and cutting edge practice in the field of observation, we proposed an innovative and collaborative model of observing L & T, involving students and teaching staff. Our model is driven by shared values around developing and promoting excellence amongst staff and students. A key feature of this innovative and experimental project was the way in which it aimed to reconceptualise and reconfigure the use of observation as a method to enhance L & T practices. The design of the project was informed by recent research on the use and impact of observation in post-compulsory education settings (e.g. O’Leary & Wood 2016; O’Leary 2016). These studies have revealed that assessment-based models of observation that seek to measure teaching performance can often be a deterrent to developing innovations in practice. In addition, most teaching observation models fail to provide meaningful opportunities to involve students.

Research Aims

The primary aim of this project was to create a sustainable and collaborative model of observations, which would empower students to play an active role in shaping their learning experience, and result in the development of a framework for continuous improvement in L & T practices across HE programmes.

Removing observation from the context of assessment created a safe, low stakes environment for reflection and dialogue between staff and students. In doing so, this opened up new opportunities for the way in which observation can be used as a lens for informing staff and student understanding of effective L & T. The involvement of students as co-observers, co-reflectors and co-researchers, as well as equal partners in shaping an enhanced teaching experience and in turn an enhanced SLE, was an illustration of the project’s innovative and experimental methodology.

In addition, the project set out to:

  • Develop awareness of and share ideas/theories of authentic learning and teaching
  • Support staff and students with the time and resources to encourage reciprocal reflection
Method of Research

The project was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and took place in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences at BCU between November 2016 and April 2018. Students and staff from five undergraduate programmes, BA(Hons) Early Childhood Studies, BA(Hons) Primary Education with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), BA(Hons) Nursing – Adult, BA(Hons) Nursing – Child and BSc(Hons) Radiotherapy, took part in this project as co-researchers.

In contrast to conventional models of observation that focus on the performance of the individual lecturer, this project adopted a holistic, case study approach, drawing on different sources of evidence and methods to create a richer, more triangulated understanding of practice.

In each of the case study, students and staff worked through two cycles of observations to co-investigate on areas of practice pertinent to their respective programmes. During the two cycles of collaborative observations, a range of qualitative data was generated and gathered. This included: student focus groups to explore their understanding on learning and teaching, staff interviews on their views on learning and teaching and their practices, staff and student individual learning biographies, pre- and post- observation discussion notes and audio recordings, observation notes and post observation individual reflection from staff and students.


Some of the emerging findings and implications:

  • Learning as a social and collaborative act: during the two cycles of observation, students and lecturers looked learning and teaching through a social lens and made sense of their own learning/teaching in connection with their peers’ and their teachers’/learners’ understandings and practices. (In)congruence of the inter-relationship between learning and teaching was illuminated during the discussions. Subsequently, actions were taken by students and staff to improve their practices based on their situated understandings of the reciprocal exchanges between learning and teaching
  • Understanding and improving learning and teaching collaboratively is a process: during the two cycles of observation, students and staff went through a process of building relationships to create a safe professional environment for openly sharing their experiences and views. During this process, authentic views on learning and teaching were developed and shared between students and staff which prompt critical reflections on learning/teaching practices. Students’ confidence in critically evaluating their learning grew with their understandings on learning and teaching. This played an important part in their developing increasingly active role in the collaboration with their teachers
  • As an unintended consequence of the collaboration, students and staff developed deeper empathy for their peers and their teachers/learners. This is an overlooked aspect in current policy thinking and discourse yet plays an important part in learners and teachers making sense of each other’s thinking and practices. It allowed students and staff to consider learning and teaching through other’s lenses when evaluating their experiences and taking a reflexive view when approaching learning and teaching
Application of Research

As a counter narrative to the instrumentalist model of teaching and learning with academic staff perceived as the deliverers of knowledge and students as the consumers, this project re-conceptualised learning and teaching as reciprocal social practices which take both students and teachers to build a shared contextualised understanding in order to make meaningful improvement. Teaching excellence is important to learners and teachers, but before we can interrogate it in a meaningful sense, we need to develop a better understanding of the relationship between learning and teaching with learners and teachers. In this project, collaboration was considered as a catalyst for driving improvement in L & T in HE.   The design and implementation of the project successfully turned observation from being a performance management tool to a lens for collaborative inquiry. The Cycle of Collaborative Observation (CoCO) is an example of education research methodologies that builds on existing theoretical work (e.g. Brookfield) and cutting-edge research (e.g. O’Leary, 2016) and brings research and pedogogy together.