The centrality of peer review in higher education


One of the things that sets higher education apart from other educational sectors is the way in which academics relate to each other, particularly within their disciplines. Academics love to collaborate, network and join groups that will offer titles such as ‘Fellow’. International links are particularly favoured. One of the reasons cited for this apparent unity is that this allows academics from related subject areas to ‘peer review’ the work of others. This review process, it is often argued, confers rigor and robustness to the body of research. More voices are evidently far more powerful than a single voice.

And yet this collegiality doesn’t always seem to extend to classroom activities. There has been a tendency in the past for teaching to be viewed as a private matter that is conducted behind closed doors. When it has been proposed that actually there would be benefit in extending the arguments for peer review to the peer review of teaching, this has been viewed with suspicion and anxiety.

Such anxiety has been described by Atwood et al. (2000) as a major hurdle to overcome when implementing peer review:

“… it appears that fear is one of the most compelling reasons to forestall the implementation of peer review. How ironic that disciplines that pride themselves on the peer review of their research … can let peer review of teaching be so immobilizing!”                                                            

This fear combined with the strong traditions of teaching as a private activity, have provided considerable resistance to the universal acceptance by university staff of peer observation as a means of developing teaching skills and initiating dialogue.


Figure:  Centrality of peer review [1] PDF

Peer review needs to be viewed as a central process within the daily activities of the university academic (Figure) – related equally to research and to teaching. It is seen to contribute to the enhancement of the student experience on four levels:

  1. Students will see their teachers as having greater credibility. If they are ‘recognised’ by their peers, they must be good.
  2. Departments are likely to benefit from increased collegiality as lecturers gain a better understanding of the practice of their peers. This enables better curriculum coherence.
  3. Institutions can benefit from the dissemination of exemplary practice that can contribute to the raising of teaching quality.
  4. The profession will benefit from a greater appreciation of the scholarly nature of teaching and its relationship with research. In this way teaching and research are not seen to be in tension, but as complementary elements of academia.

One of the worries that is created by peer review process is that somehow it will ‘get in the way’. This really depends on what your conception of teaching is. Whether you subscribe to the ‘student-as-consumer’ school of thought, or if you have considered the ‘student-as-producer’ view. In some ways, any disruption caused to the normal state of affairs may been seen as a positive outcome, with some colleagues considering that one of the great benefits of peer review, is to some extent, that it actually interferes with the normal process and it makes you think. Thinking about teaching? Well, why not?


Further reading:

Atwood, C.H., Taylor, J.W. and Hutchings, P.A. (2000) Why are chemists and other scientists afraid of the peer review of teaching? Journal of Chemical Education, 77, 239 – 243.

Kinchin, I. M. (2005, September). Evolving diversity within a model of peer observation at a UK university. In British Educational Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, Wales (pp. 14-17). Available at:




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