SAGE Musings: Characterizing Geoscience Teaching in the US using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP)

Ellen Iverson, SERC, Carleton College
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published Nov 9, 2017 9:48am

The Classroom Observation Project aims to characterize the teaching practices of geoscience faculty across the U.S. by observing a sufficiently large number of geoscience courses using the Reformed Teacher Observation Protocol (RTOP). The research team started as part of On the Cutting Edge, a nationwide geoscience professional development program supported by NSF. Since the spring of 2011, the observer team has visited geoscience classes from institutions across the country, with over 240 observations to date. Observed classes ranged from large introductory courses such as Physical or Environmental Geology to smaller upper level courses such as Structural Geology or Geochemistry. Instructors who have participated in this research project come from all academic ranks and types of institutions.

These classroom observations make use of the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP). There are five categories (sub-scales) in the observation protocol; each category is scored on a 20-point scale. These categories reflect the activities of the specific class period that was observed. These five subscales are:

  • Subscale 1 - Lesson Design and Implementation: What the teacher intended to do. This subscale investigates the design of the classroom lesson and whether there is sufficient flexibility to accommodate student input and questions that may redirect the path of the lesson.
  • Subscale 2 - Propositional Pedagogic Knowledge: What the teacher knows, and how well they are able to organize and present material in a learner-oriented setting. This subscale examines the instructor's command of the material and the ways the instructor scaffolds the classroom experience to support students' development of conceptual knowledge.
  • Subscale 3 - Procedural Pedagogic Knowledge: What the students did. This subscale focuses on how students are engaged in scientific habits of mind.
  • Subscale 4 - Student-Student Interaction. This subscale examines the number and types of student to student interactions during the observed class period.
  • Subscale 5 - Student-Instructor Interaction. This subscale investigates how the instructor creates a community of learners and exemplifies the role of teacher as listener.


An RTOP score, and the observations on which it is based, captures many important elements of the learning environment. However, an RTOP score is not a measure of how 'good' the teaching is. Rather, it measures how closely the course design and implementation are aligned with the RTOP categories. In addition, there are some aspects of teaching that RTOP does not measure. For example, RTOP scores do not differentiate between good student collaboration and poor student collaboration. RTOP does not explicitly address inclusive teaching strategies. Components of a course that are performed outside of the class (e.g., labs, homework, or field trips) are not considered. In addition, RTOP scoring does not incorporate out-of-class student-student or student-instructor conversations nor does it reflect the quality of an instructor's assignments. While clearly not perfect, an RTOP score can be a very useful way to look at whether an instructor is engaged in creating a student-centered classroom. Studies of active learning teaching strategies that are integral in a student-centered classroom demonstrate greater student learning gains when compared to classrooms where traditional lecture is the norm (e.g. Hake, 1998; Handelsman et al., 2004; Ruiz-Primo and Li, 2004; Deslauriers et al., 2011; Freeman et al., 2014).


From the data collected so far (N > 240, as of the fall of 2017), geoscience faculty members' total RTOP scores generally range from 20 to 80 (with an average = 40), and can be loosely categorized as:

  • Teacher-centered classrooms: RTOP scores up to 30 indicate instructor-directed lecture with limited student interaction.
  • Transitional classrooms: RTOP scores in the 31-49 range indicate instructor-directed lecture with some activities involving student-student interactions.
  • Student-centered classrooms: RTOP scores 50 and higher indicate significant student-centered activities, especially in small groups, integrated with course content.
See Teasdale et al., 2017 for more information on the study.

As part of the project, the observer team has developed a website that provides more information about the research process and the features of the RTOP instrument and how to interpret RTOP scores. The Classroom Observation Project team understands that allowing an observer to come into your class may be both stressful and a distraction, and if you are one of the faculty observed, we deeply appreciate your willingness to help our efforts.


Classroom Observation Project: Understanding and Improving Our Teaching. Retrieved 8 November, 2017, from

Hake, Richard (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, v. 66, pp. 64-74.

Handelsman, Jo, Diane Ebert-May, Robert Beichner, Peter Bruns, Amy Chang, Robert DeHaan, Jim Gentile, Sarah Lauffer, James Stewart, Shirley M. Tilghman, and William B. Wood (2004). Scientific Teaching. Science, v. 304, n. 5670, pp. 521-522.

Ruiz-Primo, Maria Araceli and Min Li (2004). On the use of students' science notebooks as an assessment tool. Studies in Educational Evaluation, v. 30, n. 1, pp. 61-85.

Deslauriers, Louis, Ellen Schlep, and Carl Wieman (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science Magazine, v. 332, pp. 862-864.

Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 111, n. 23, pp. 8410–8415.

Teasdale, Rachel, Karen Viskupic, Julie K. Bartley, David McConnell, Cathryn Manduca, Monica Bruckner, Dori Farthing, and Ellen Iverson (2017). A multidimensional assessment of reformed teaching practice in geoscience classrooms. Geosphere, v. 13, n. 2, DOI: 10.1130/GES01479.1.

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