Graph displaying data

By Ashlie Wrenne, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Chemistry and UI Office of Assessment

As the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology supports evidence-based teaching practice, it has increasingly become involved in researching teaching and learning at Iowa. This new focus has launched new research partnerships with faculty and staff members across campus, as well as helped to secure outside funding for multifaceted, long-term projects.

One of those projects is a $600,000 National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education NSF IUSE) grant. Led by principle investigator and Associate Professor of Chemistry Renee Cole and co-PIs Professor of Biology Bernd Fritzsch, UI Director of Assessment Wayne Jacobson, and Center for Teaching Director Jean Florman—the three-year grant is designed to identify Iowa STEM faculty members’ perceptions and use of evidence-based teaching strategies. In particular, the team is gathering data about instructors’ teaching practices as well as their beliefs and attitudes toward teaching and teaching resources. These data will inform discussions with the Provost, Deans, DEOs, and faculty members regarding what strategies can most effectively broaden institution-wide use of evidence-based teaching practices.

OTLT staff members Samuel Van Horne and Jane Russell also are centrally involved in the NSF-IUSE effort. Van Horne is the OTLT Director of Assessment; Russell is the Instructional and Research Specialist in the Center for Teaching. Other collaborators include Associate Professor of Biology Bryant McAllister, and Postdoctoral Researcher Ashlie Wrenne.

In addition to gathering instructor-reported perceptions, the team has completed 90 classroom observations to determine the range and variety of teaching methods employed in STEM courses. Classroom interaction data are gathered through the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS), a tool that enables an efficient and consistent approach to the collection of data about the complex student and instructor interactions that occur during a class period.

Using the customizable COPUS template on a tablet PC or iPad, an observer records the occurrence of instructor and student actions such as questioning, clicker use, independent work, and listening. Reports of instructor and student action codes are displayed graphically and presented to the instructor. These observation reports provide instructors with an additional vantage point from which to view their classroom practices, and will also help inform the NSF-IUSE team about students’ activity as it relates to teaching methods during a particular class meeting. COPUS observation reports can also be aggregated across a department or college to determine which teaching strategies are favored.

The COPUS protocol was originally designed for STEM classroom observation. However, the tool includes activity codes that apply to classroom instruction in any discipline, and can be further customized to include other kinds of class activities as needed.  The easy-to-visualize summary produced by COPUS makes it a useful tool to observe instructional practices across many disciplines, course types, and classroom settings.

Citing objective data on actual practices in STEM classes, the NSF-IUSE grant team has begun meaningful conversations about teaching at Iowa to improve an array of teaching experiences and to enhance the professional development of UI instructors and administrators.



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 Education12(4), 618-627.