Using COPUS as a research tool

If you are a faculty member interested in a second piece of evidence of excellent teaching for a merit review, or a graduate student interested in an education research project, it is worth learning about a simple classroom observation tool you can use with a colleague to quantify aspects of your teaching.

What is a classroom observation protocol?

An observation protocol is a tool that an observer can use during class time to quantify how much of the class is spent on different activities. It codes what the instructor is doing (lecturing, asking questions, interacting with small groups) and what the students are doing (listening/notetaking, discussing a posed problem, answering a clicker question).

Why should I use an observation protocol?

A significant body of education research indicates students learn more effectively if they practice the skills they need to do well on exams and written assignments. It is difficult, however, for the instructor to judge accurately how much time they are spending in active learning versus more traditional lecture. An observation protocol gives a reasonably objective measurement of the amount of class time spent on different activities. This allows the instructor to make informed decisions about how they might modify their future class work.

What’s a good observation protocol I can use without too much training?

COPUS is a Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM courses. Developed by education researchers at the University of Maine and the University of British Columbia, the COPUS tool is designed to be non-judgmental and easy to learn by scoring some videos of teaching and comparing your scoring with colleagues. It works outside of STEM for large lectures in general.

Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618-627. Link.

With this protocol an observer in the classroom makes a notation every two minutes on what the students are doing, and what the instructor is doing. There are a list of possibilities to choose from that have been tested using multiple observers until the inter-rater reliability is quite high. The observer indicates all the activities that occur during that two-minute window.

The resulting data can be scored so that the instructor can see how much time they tend to spend in lecture versus more student-centered activities.

The original COPUS scoring sheet is essentially a spreadsheet (shown is the first 12 minutes):

But recently UC Davis has developed a tool called General Observation and Reflection Platform (GORP) for evaluators to use with a touch-screen mobile device:

which produces an automatically scored bar chart or timeline of activities:

COPUS was developed based on the best practices of active learning for teaching STEM courses, which seeks to reduce lecture and increase student discussion and problem-solving.

A faculty member may wish to partner with a colleague to visit and score each other’s class, providing each other with useful feedback on the actual time spent on each teaching technique. These numbers can be part of a short reflection that a faculty member can use to describe their teaching philosophy for a second piece of evidence. Using this protocol may also increase the willingness of colleagues to evaluate each others’ teaching. Since the evaluation is not recording the “quality” of the teaching or the choice of the content covered, it feels more objective to give and receive.

If a graduate student is part of an education research project, they can utilize this tool as a measurement of how much active learning is present in the course, perhaps after the addition of learning assistants or after a course redesign.

Some additional resources are here:

GORP updates and instruction manual:

A short video on active learning and GORP: