Matt O'Leary & Vanessa Cui

Learning about learning and teaching through collaborative observation

Matt O'Leary & Vanessa Cui Birmingham City University Friday 1 September 2017

Teaching excellence has been at the centre of debates about quality in English Higher Education (HE) in recent years. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework has ratcheted up this focus even further. Fuelled by critiques of teaching as ‘the weakest aspect’ of English HE (Gill,2015), the government has argued that universities need to adopt a more evidence-based approach to learning and teaching (L & T) akin to that associated with research.

Traditional approaches to capturing and promoting teaching excellence have largely been shaped by a managerialist agenda that conceptualises academic staff as accountable suppliers of a product and students as consumers of that product, with an overreliance on reductive metrics that fail to reflect either the authenticity or complexity of HE learning and teaching. This raises some important questions for the HE sector.

How can we develop a greater understanding and improvement of L & T among academic staff and students? How can we combine scholarly knowledge, practices and our education ideologies to satisfy the demands of policymakers while generating data about L & T that is legitimate and worthwhile? What can we do to create and nurture an approach that sustains and enhances authentic L & T experiences?     

A HEFCE-funded project at Birmingham City University seeks to use collaborative observation of L & T as a means of harnessing staff and student perspectives. Observation is a common method for staff development in HE, typically through a peer observation model. Some HE institutions have introduced teaching observation as a performance management tool in recent years. However, recent research (e.g. O’Leary & Wood, 2017; O’Leary, 2016) has revealed that assessment-based models of observation can often be a deterrent to developing L & T practice. Our project is built on 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.  It is our attempt to answer the questions raised above.

Underpinning this collaborative observation process is the principles of critical reflection (Brookfield, 1995), learning as collective consciousness (Bowden & Marton, 1998) and participatory inquiry. A key feature of our methodology is the reconceptualisation of observation as a method to enhance L & T practices through inquiry rather than as a method of assessment. Pairs of teaching staff and students come together in a collection of subject-specific case studies to co-investigate, co-observe and co-reflect on their own classroom L & T practices. Within our collaborative approach, student identity is reconceptualised from that of ‘consumers’ and ‘evaluators’ of teaching to co-researchers and co-producers of knowledge about L & T.

Education is about learning, whatever the sector. University education in particular requires a strong collaborative spirit. L & T at this level is not only about developing individual student’s knowledge and transforming their perspectives, but it also involves generating new knowledge for staff. Instead of focusing on the relationship between research and teaching at a macro level, we should be considering learning on the individual and collective level and explore the nature of the relationship between them (Bowden & Marton, 1998). This calls for academic staff and students working together to create and develop academic learning experiences that are worthwhile and potentially transformative to both.     


The collaborative observation project is funded by HEFCE and Birmingham City University and runs from November 2016 to April 2018. It is led by Matt O’Leary and Vanessa Cui from BCU. To find out more about the project and follow our progress, come along to our workshop at this year’s BERA conference or visit:    

Innovation session details: Improving learning and teaching in Higher Education through collaborative observation: Moving from the performative to the informative  
Wednesday 6th September 2017, 09.00 – 10.30  FUL-213  



  • Bowden, J. and Marton, F. (1998). The University of Learning: beyond quality and competence, London: Routledge.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gill, J. (2015). David Willetts interview: ‘What I did was in the interests of young people’. Times Higher Education, Article published online June 18, 2015. Retrieved from Accessed on August 28, 2017.
  • O’Leary, M. & Wood, P. (2017) ‘Performance over professional learning and the complexity puzzle: lesson observation in England’s further education sector’, Professional Development in Education, Vol. 43(4), pp. 573-591.
  • O’Leary, M. (Ed) (2016) Reclaiming lesson observation: supporting excellence in teacher learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Dr Matt O’Leary is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. He has worked as a teacher, teacher educator, head of department and educational researcher in colleges, schools and universities in England, Mexico and Spain for over twenty five years. His main research interests focus on the impact of education policy on practice, as well as teacher learning and teacher assessment. He is well known internationally for his work on classroom observation, which has been instrumental in challenging engrained orthodoxies and influencing policy makers and national debates. He is the author of Classroom observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning (2014), author and editor of the recent book Reclaiming lesson observation: supporting excellence in teacher learning (2016), both published by Routledge, and author and editor of the forthcoming book Teaching Excellence in Higher Education: Challenges, Changes and the Teaching Excellence Framework (2017, Emerald).

Dr. Vanessa Cui is an early career researcher and currently working as Research Assistant in Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education (C-SPACE) at Birmingham City University. With a multi-disciplinary background across education, research and management, Vanessa has been working in research and development of higher education (HE) learning and teaching since 2009 at Undergraduate and Postgraduate provisions in several English universities. Her academic research involves working with HE practitioners and students on the interface between learning and teaching and its policy and practical implications.