Observations and Feedback

In the current series, various aspects of fulfilling a managerial role in ELT will be looked at. This particular post will consider observations, including how to observe, what to look out for and how to give feedback.ELT image

Each school will have its own procedures to follow with regards to observations. There is probably no universally agreed procedure, as many approaches are very effective, despite being very different from each other. However, there are a number of approaches which can most certainly be recommended against, largely due to their ineffectiveness.

What happens if it all goes wrong?

If the teacher being observed demonstrates an holistic failure to deliver lessons which meet the bare minimum requirements of the CELTA syllabus, or alternatively the number of problematic issues is very high, highlighting all of these issues to the teacher will not produce any positive results.

The number of areas to work on cannot and should not exceed three, as teaching is not simply a list of boxes to tick during a lesson but rather a skill. As you probably know from your own productive and receptive skills lessons, a skill cannot be developed overnight: it requires focus, practice and reflection – be it a language or teaching.

For the observer, this means selecting three areas for the teacher to work. However, what do you do with the other areas? Are they simply ignored in favour of sticking to a maximum of three?

Ignoring them is clearly not the solution; nor is overwhelming the teacher with more than three focus areas. The key here for the observer is to identify areas which can have a ‘knock-on’ effect. For example, if the Teacher’s Talking Time is far too high, the lessons are not learner-centred and the instructions are poorly delivered, by getting the teacher to work on their instructions you are simultaneously helping them to reduce their Teacher Talk Time, improve their instructions and in some cases moving the focus away from the teacher and more on the learners. Simple changes in the language of instruction can really help with this last point; for example, instead of “I will show you…” you could advise to say “You will see…” – ‘you’ in this case being the learners.

Although it seems three areas are being focused on, effectively you are providing support in a much wider range of problematic areas – they are simply grouped together as three umbrella areas.

Going in with the right ideas

Many observers will go into an observation with the aim of getting an overall impression of the teaching and to establish which areas need to be worked on. However, this ‘overall’ approach sets the teacher up for failure even before the observer enters the room: no one can perform perfectly in all aspects of teaching in a single lesson. So, how could this be changed so that the observer is not there to look out for everything that is wrong?

One approach adopted by many schools is where the observer sits down with the observee in a pre-observation meeting. This meeting has two key aims:

(1) To go over the lesson plan: this gives the observer a good ‘overall’ impression of the lesson and it also provides an opportunity for any major problems to be identified and dealt with in advance.

(2) To discuss which teaching areas the observer should focus on: this gives the observee an opportunity to be more involved in their professional development, reflecting on their own teaching and looking back to previous observations to identify weaker areas, and it also gives the observation some clear purpose – very much like how teachers also provide a reason for listening or reading in a receptive skills lesson.

This way the observation becomes much less of a game of ‘let’s catch you out’ and more about focusing on Continued Professional Development.

Giving Feedback

Many would say that the style of delivery is key to providing good feedback. However, I feel the process of feeding back begins before the post-observation meeting: it begins with the observer’s notes.

The observer will take notes throughout and these notes will eventually be typed up alongside a description of what was happening at each stage of the lesson. If these notes are to be used for effective feedback, then the observer needs to use them to best effect.

In both the oral and written feedback, the role of the observer will vary from commenting, through critiquing, to advising. If the teacher has performed satisfactorily in a stage of the lesson but the observer feels there are a number of ways this could be improved, then they could write in the comments section thought-provoking questions: How could this have been delivered so that it was more learner-centred? 

In other cases, if the observer needs to be more direct, then the problem could be pointed out and an additional comment could explain what the teacher needs to do next time; for example: You did not ICQ your instructions. You must always ICQ instructions with new tasks and exercises. Why do you think this is necessary?

These comments and questions need to be provided to the teacher before the post-observation meeting, so that there is enough time for the teacher to consider the observer’s questions and possibly even find answers.

What about you?

What set-up do you find most useful when giving feedback or even being on the receiving end of it? Do you have any good or bad experiences with observations – what made them good or bad? How could they have been set up differently?]

Looking forward to your comments below.

6 thoughts on “Observations and Feedback

  1. Couple of thoughts. Strangely I personally find that British teachers feel more comfortable with the ‘indirect’ approach (“How did you feel the lesson went?”) and might find the ‘direct’ approach (“I thought the lesson was good in some areas and also had some areas that could be worked on”) a little aggressive, whereas North American teachers, for example, find the former too confusing and appreciate the latter. Of course tone of voice and generally being supportive when giving feedback can make or break the meeting! If you see a lesson with many issues I also find the best thing to do is sift through them all beforehand and identify the ‘biggies’ which are those that are usually directly related to achievement of overall aims, so anything from the lesson did not have clear/realistic aims at all to the teaching approach did not help students achieve the defined aims. Things fall into place then. Just my thoughts. Nice post!


    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thank you for your comment. I had forgotten about this post and it was nice to come back to it. I think at the time of writing, I would have agreed with your comment about achieving aims. Now, however, I think the best a teacher can do is provide opportunities for the learners to learn i.e. create the right learning conditions, but whether the learner walks away having ‘learnt’ the Target Language is very hard to not only ensure but also to judge. Each learner is at such a unique stage in their learning, that the teacher can only do their best to encourage learning.

      I think this means that the lesson needs to have at its core the right techniques, materials and approaches which help that particular group of learners to learn, or at leas give them a chance to. A very simple example of this would be ICQ’s: some learners find them confusing and/or patronizing. If the teacher doesn’t use them because of that, then they’re trying to make sure the learners Affective Filter doesn’t go up, thus encouraging the right learning conditions.

      I think I agree with you about the Norther American and British distinction between the teachers. The very fact I started the sentences with “I think” is so British, so I do actually agree with you, yet it would be so odd in British culture to go ahead and just outright agree.

      Thank you again for the comment. It’s much appreciated.


  2. I remember having to give feedback on a few particularly ‘weak’ observations. One tutor went into a class with a can of coke and that was it, the other was quite unaware of students in the class and focused on only a few. Giving feedback was quite challenging as neither tutor could see what was going on or where the could improve (I tried to elicit it from them first to encourage reflection, but I went round in circles. In the end I had to be quite blunt – not something I enjoy).


    1. Hi Sarah! Thank you for commenting 🙂 Sometimes it is absolutely necessary for senior staff to tell a teacher what they have done wrong and that they cannot do that again. However, I think quite a few people who observe take this ‘directive’ approach and over apply it to observation feedback. Most often what the teacher has done in the lesson can be resolved with a more ‘collaborative’ or ‘alternative’ approach. This leads to senior staff often trying to ‘guide’ teachers towards discovering the right answer. More often than not, they do this during the oral feedback, which leaves the teacher little time and chance to reflect and ‘discover’ the desired response – that is why I encourage anyone observing to get their thought-provoking questions down on paper and give it to the observee a good 24 hours in advance, so they can have time to ponder over any questions and suggestions 🙂


  3. Thank you for this post. No time to comment now, but I’ll try to get back…simply wanted to share my gratitude for the chance to read such smart thoughts on these things. 🙂


    1. You’re welcome – it joys me to hear someone as experienced and knowledgeable as you has found the post useful 🙂 Looking forward to your future comment 🙂


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