Learning Assistants

Selected Learning Assistant Resources

Valerie Otero, Steven Pollock, and Noah Finkelstein. "A physics department's role in preparing physics teachers: The Colorado learning assistant model, in Teacher Education in Physics," edited by D.E. Meltzer and P.S. Shaffer.

Learning assistant program at the University of Colorado Boulder

Gay Stewart, "Undergraduate Learning Assistants at the University of Arkansas". APS Forum on Education Newsletter, Summer 2006.

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Learning Assistants are talented undergraduates who enhance student learning in large enrollment courses by making them more collaborative, student-centered, and interactive. In the process, Learning Assistants are given an early teaching experience.

The specific roles that Learning Assistants take on can vary between courses, but all programs share certain features that distinguish them from more conventional teaching assistantships:

  • Learning Assistants for a particular course are recruited from among the top students who recently completed that course.
  • Concurrent to teaching, Learning Assistants participate in a low/no-credit pedagogy course that develops their pedagogical content knowledge.
  • Learning Assistants are encouraged to enter a teacher certification program, and generally must do so if they wish to continue working as Learning Assistants in subsequent semesters.

Learning Assistant Strategies

Decide how your Learning Assistants will enhance your courses. Learning Assistants can serve in a variety of different roles, including:

  • Facilitating small-group learning in recitations and help sessions, using Socratic dialogue.
  • Guiding work in lab sections
  • Facilitating small-group interactions during lectures, e.g. in conjunction with clicker questions.

Develop or adapt a course where Learning Assistants gain pedagogical content knowledge. A well-designed course makes the difference between a Learning Assistant program and a traditional teaching assistantship. Many programs adapt the University of Colorado's course, which covers effective teaching methods, findings from physics education research, and use of technology in classrooms. See http://laprogram.colorado.edu for more information.

Develop a pathway to enable Learning Assistants to advance. Advancement gives Learning Assistants status within the program and among their peers, and encourages them along the path toward teacher certification. Experienced Learning Assistants can mentor and supervise novices.

Couple advancement with participation in a teacher preparation program. Require returning Learning Assistants to take courses that lead to teacher certification.

Invite graduate TAs to join the pedagogy course. This will align graduate TAs' teaching methods with those of the Learning Assistants, while also creating a stronger learning community within the department. It will likely also improve student learning. Note: Forcing graduate students to take this course may lead to resentment.

Provide strong support and mentoring for your Learning Assistants. Teaching for the first time can be intimidating, even if one is teaching one's peers. Support from faculty and Teachers-in-Residence is critical in making the Learning Assistant program an effective teacher recruiting tool, and helps them be more effective in enhancing student learning.

Decide how you will compensate your Learning Assistants. Learning Assistants can receive money or course credit, or both, for their efforts.

Decide how you will fund your Learning Assistant program. Undergraduates are much cheaper than graduate TAs, so it is often not difficult to make the case for Learning Assistants. Grants can help get a program off the ground while permanent funding is sought.

Collect data to demonstrate the success of your program. In order to secure the buy-in of university administration and skeptical faculty members, you will need data that show the value of investing time and money into a Learning Assistant program. Valuable data include learning gains of students in courses with Learning Assistants, learning gains of the Learning Assistantsthemselves, and grades of students who had Learning Assistants in future semesters (showing that Learning Assistants "do no harm" to those who go on in physics.)

Visit an institution that has a Learning Assistant program. Learning Assistant programs are complex, and seeing one in action is the best way to get a sense of the various aspects that need to be in place. PhysTEC has organized workshops at the University of Colorado for faculty members from other universities interested in developing a program at their home institution.

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Learning Assistant Workshops

More information on past LA workshops: Past Learning Assistant Workshops

More information on LA programs, including upcoming LA workshops: Learning Assistant Alliance