CET Synchronous Online Teaching Observation Checklist

Use of this specific tool is not required by USC administration; it is intended as an example of best practices. Schools and departments may choose to create their own tool, edit this tool in any way that makes it a better fit, or use this tool as it is.

Download editable print version

The CET Synchronous Online Teaching Observation Checklist provides performance descriptions for four tiers of online instructional practices. The first, second, and third tiers include a progression of recommended teaching practices. The substandard tier includes items that are contrary to best practices and/or USC policies. The checklist can be used for two purposes. It can be used as a developmental tool to provide faculty formative feedback to enhance their teaching, showing progression over multiple observations. It can also be used as an evaluative tool to document evidence of teaching performance for promotion, tenure, or continuing appointment.

This checklist was developed to include recommended practices that can be implemented within a wide variety of teaching models, both traditional and innovative; it is editable so that schools may add or delete items to customize it to their needs. Checklist items are observable actions and behaviors of the instructor (observable during a single visited class session), not the behaviors of students.

Schools could determine how many criteria in each tier should be met in order to qualify for the various levels of advancement in the school. For example, a school could decide that for promotion from assistant to associate professor a faculty member should have none of the items checked in the Substandard Tier and all of the items checked in Tier 1.

Not Included in the Synchronous Online Classroom Teaching Observation Checklist

Recommended Observer Characteristics

  • Has access to the synchronous session or a recording of the synchronous session.
  • Observes a minimum of one class session. Two observations are recommended.
  • Is familiar with the course learning objectives listed in the syllabus.
  • Understands the content of the course well enough to evaluate effectiveness of instruction in that topic.
  • Has been trained by CET or by a CET Faculty Fellow to use the checklist.

Instructions for Use

  • Mark as present all checklist items observed during the class.

Each dimension in the checklist measures one or more criteria in USC’s Definition of Excellence in Teaching, and those criteria are noted next to the dimension name. The practices in Tiers 1, 2, and 3 are supported through training provided by CET’s faculty institutes.


Substandard Tier

Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3

*USC Definition of Excellence in Teaching criteria measured by each dimension are noted. Performing Below Minimum USC Teaching Policy Standard Performing at Minimum USC Teaching Policy Standard Performing at Proficient Level of Teaching Standard at USC Performing at Excellence Level of Teaching Standard at USC
Class organization
Instructional plan 5a, 5b*
  • Instructor changes the established class session plan without prior notification to students.
  • The class session demonstrates clear signs of planning and organization, and follows a logical flow.
  • The class session includes student interaction with peers, content, and instructor.
  • The class session includes instruction, formative assessment and reflection components.
Communication of clear learning goals for the class session 6a*
  • Instructor communicates no learning goals for the class session and/or each lesson activity.
  • Instructor communicates inappropriate or unrealistic learning goals for the class session and/or each lesson activity.
  • Instructor clearly identifies realistic learning goals for the class session.
  • Instructor clearly connects the learning goals for the class session to the course learning objectives.
  • Instructor clearly identifies the learning goals for each instructional activity, and connects them to the course learning objectives.
Time Management

5c, 5d*

  • Instructor technology issues, including software, sound, camera, lighting, and background, occur during class that could have been addressed before the start of class.
  • The class session starts and ends on time.
  • Planned sections of the class session are well-timed.
  • Little or no time spent on non-instructional activities.
  • Instructor prepares relevant technology before the start of class.
  • Instructor utilizes and references educational technology for passive learning activities outside of class to support effective use of in-class time.
  • Instructor maximizes in-class time, using active learning or applications rather than passive learning.
  • Instructor clearly indicates time limits for all student activities.
Learning environment
Classroom climate 1b, 1c, 2e, 2f, 3a, 4e*
  • Instructor raises students’ stress or anxiety by using discriminatory, dismissive, or other abusive language.
  • Instructor minimizes students’ struggle with material.
  • Instructor discourages student input.
  • Instructor violates confidentiality by publicly revealing students with accommodations.
  • Instructor ignores disruptive student behaviors.
  • Instructor consistently uses verbal and body language that is responsive to students’ stress or anxiety.
  • Instructor encourages student participation.
  • Instructor treats all students equitably.
  • Instructor is responsive to students’ different educational backgrounds and learning needs.
  • Instructor has established course behavioral norms that foster a positive and inclusive environment.
  • Instructor encourages interaction between students.
  • Instructor uses practices that increase students’ motivation and foster a growth mindset.
Presentation Form 1a, 1b*
  • Instructor uses inappropriate or offensive gestures and/or speech.
  • Instructor displays a negative attitude in tone and/or content.
  • Instructor does not inform students when sessions are being recorded.
  • Instructor volume, pace, and diction allow observer to follow the class session.
  • Instructor utilizes webcam feature.
  • Instructor incorporates appropriate eye contact and effective non-verbal communication (e.g., hand gestures).
  • Instructor avoids distracting mannerisms or speech patterns, such as filler words and nervous habits.
  • Instructor is engaging, responsive, and constructive in both tone and content of their speech.
Presentation Substance 3e, 4a, 4d*
  • Instructor does not use, or uses inappropriate, visual support for presentation and/or examples/illustrations.
  • Instructor provides visual support for verbal presentation and uses concrete examples/illustrations to clarify content.
  • Instructor cites sources for content discussed.
  • Instructor follows accessibility best practices by verbally describing and/or captioning any images used in presentation.
Instructional content
Knowledge of subject 4a*
  • Instructor does not appear to understand course content.
  • Instructor’s factual statements are consistent with current knowledge in the field.
  • Instructor correctly answers questions about course-level content.
  • Instructor answers questions confidently, clearly, and simply.
  • Instructor ties current content to topics or knowledge from the profession and/or more advanced courses.
Discipline-specific language 1e*
  • Instructor does not use, or incorrectly uses, discipline-specific and/or academic language..
  • Instructor uses discipline-specific and academic language.
  • Instructor explains use of discipline-specific terms.
  • Instructor facilitates the use of discipline-specific language by students.
Contextual relevance and transferability 3c, 4c*
  • Instructor teaches content devoid of real-world scenarios and/or examples.
  • Instructor assumes unrealistic skill level of students in the class.
  • Instructor provides real-world applications of class session content.
  • Instructor explicitly builds on prior student knowledge.
  • Instructor has students provide real-world examples of class content or apply content to real-world scenarios.
  • Where appropriate, instructor uses examples where their discipline converges with other disciplines in addressing challenges.
  • Where appropriate, instructor addresses “wicked problems” identified by USC on a local, national, or global level.
Student engagement
Appropriate content or level 1c, 2a, 2b, 3a*
  • Class content is too easy or difficult for student knowledge level.
  • Instructor does not encourage higher-order thinking.
  • Class content appropriately challenges students.
  • Class content promotes mastery of course learning objectives.
  • Instructor engages students in higher-order thinking skills during class.
  • Instructor spends the majority of class time leading students in higher-order thinking activities.
Active learning 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d, 2e, 3d, 4b*
  • Instructor uses no active-learning exercises.
  • Instructor has unrealistic expectations for active-learning exercises.
  • Instructor uses inappropriate or offensive active-learning exercises. Instructor uses active-learning exercises that are not accessible to everyone in the class.
  • Class contains at least one active-learning exercise to apply course content.
  • Instructor monitors and manages active-learning exercises.
  • Instructor uses active-learning exercises after no more than 30 consecutive minutes of lecture.
  • Instructor is responsive to student engagement and adjusts strategy accordingly.
  • Instructor facilitates student-led explanations and/or discussions.
  • Instructor uses active-learning exercises after no more than 15 consecutive minutes of lecture.
  • Instructor requires students to submit or present in-class work by end of class.
  • Where appropriate, instructor leverages student use of electronic technology to facilitate active learning.
Formative assessment/feedback 1b, 2f, 6a, 6b, 6c, 6d*
  • Instructor violates FERPA by publicly sharing student grades.
  • Instructor provides non-constructive and/or discouraging feedback.
  • Instructor compares student work to an ambiguous or unrealistic standard.
  • Instructor provides students constructive and encouraging feedback on how to improve their comprehension or performance in class.
  • Instructor provides information to students about their performance on class activities compared to a pre-established standard.
  • Instructor leads students in structured reflection on class learning activities.
Record pertinent characteristics of the course, student population, and physical environment. Examples: enrollment, student demographics, course LMS, class meeting time, and general education status.