Watching Other Teachers Teach? Here’s a Great Tool.

This semester, I am committing some time to sitting in on other peoples’ classes at the University of Oklahoma. The instructors I have chosen use a wide variety of teaching styles (from all lecture to all active learning) and come from many disciplines (from biology to calculus and physics to the social sciences). I knew some of the instructors already; others were recommended by students. My goal is simple: to learn from my colleagues across campus.

Once upon a time, a classroom visit meant that I would watch the instructor and take notes like a student. In the margins, I would jot down my observations about what was going well, what wasn’t, and whether the students seemed engaged. It was all very subjective.

Earlier this year, however, I stumbled upon a fantastic classroom observation tool developed by Michelle Smith and her colleagues at the University of Maine and the University of British Columbia. The tool is called the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS), and I am a huge fan. The heart of the tool is a spreadsheet in which each row represents a 2-minute “slice” of the class period. Most of the columns are headed by codes that summarize in-class behaviors for the students and the instructor. Every time a behavior occurs during a 2-minute block, the observer places an x in the spreadsheet.

The image below shows how my laptop looks while I’m preparing to observe a class. This arrangement might look overwhelming, and I confess that during my first classroom observation I ignored the students completely and only filled out columns for the instructor behaviors. But by my second class, I was confident enough to tackle students and instructors. Smith et al. provide training materials with their article, but I didn’t use them at all. I found that it only took a little practice to get used to the codes.

COPUS screenshot

Screenshot of my laptop while I’m observing a class. Clockwise from upper left: 2-minute timer (set to silent, of course!); classroom observation codes; COPUS spreadsheet.

When the class period is over, the pattern of x’s in the first two blocks of columns reveals the number and duration of opportunities for students to interact with each other, with the material, and with the instructor. Note that the COPUS spreadsheet also has three columns indicating whether student engagement is low, medium, or high. I haven’t used these columns. I simply don’t feel comfortable making such a subjective judgment, plus my goal is to create an objective record of what happened in the class.

For now, I will keep you in suspense about what I have learned. Later this semester, however, I plan to share some of what I have observed in my colleagues’ classrooms.


Smith, Michelle K., Francis H. M. Jones, Sarah L. Gilbert, and Carl E. Wieman. 2014. The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A New Instrument to Characterize STEM Classroom Practices. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2014 Summer; 13(2): 359. doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154

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One Response to Watching Other Teachers Teach? Here’s a Great Tool.

  1. Pingback: An Excellent Lecture? Yes, It Can Be Done! | Teaching nonmajors biology

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