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Using Learning Assistants in Recitation Tutorials

Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado. Based on material from Steven Pollock and Noah Finkelstein (Physics, University of Colorado) and Laurie Langdon (Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Coloradi).
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

Undergraduate Learning Assistants can be used to supplement the instructor and/or Teaching Assistant during recitations. They may help facilitate productive group work on tutorial activities designed to help students develop conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. In this example, we describe the use of Learning Assistants to support tutorials within recitation in two introductory science courses – physics and chemistry.

Learning Goals

Students in tutorials
Students work on a tutorial in introductory physics at the University of Colorado. A Learning Assistant (middle) helps them discuss the material. Details

To increase student learning

Tutorials in physics and chemistry have been shown to increase student learning when compared to pure lecture (e.g., Pollock & Finkelstein, 2008). Undergraduate Learning Assistants can help facilitate this process as outlined below.

To foster active learning

In a tutorial activity, responsibility for learning is placed on the student.

To provide a focus on concepts

Many science courses focus on computational problem-solving in homework and exams. The addition of tutorials can give students a chance to develop and practice conceptual understanding as well as the more traditional computational aspects.

To increase student participation

By circulating the class during a tutorial, Learning Assistants can help the instructor:

To improve the student : teacher ratio

Tutorials are designed to be challenging enough so that a student won't find a path to the answer on their own. They are intended to be used with Socratic questioning techniques, which require the instructor to spend a significant amount of time listening to student conversation. The addition of Learning Assistants allows the instructor to reach more students during a recitation period (an ideal ratio for the Tutorials in Introductory Physics is 15:1; McDermott et al., 1998). Additionally, Learning Assistants are better trained to listen to student ideas than the graduate Teaching Assistants. (For more information see What are Learning Assistants?)

To answer student questions

In addition to fostering student participation during tutorials, Learning Assistants can clarify the meaning of a portion of the tutorial, allowing students to productively discuss a tutorial rather than being stuck on terminology or phrasing.

Model sensemaking and justification

Unlike most traditional laboratory recitations, in a tutorial it is expected that students will discuss and debate with each other. The Learning Assistant can be a crucial part in this transformation. Learning Assistants can model the expectations of the course by showing students how to engage in scientific discourse and expert learning by engaging students in conversation and emphasizing the articulation of reasoning in these discussions.

To provide an additional perspective to students beyond the instructor or Teaching Assistant. Since Learning Assistants have more recently been students in this course, they remember better where they struggled and what helped them to understand a concept. If students struggle to understand a Teaching Assistant or instructor's explanation or line of questioning, getting a different perspective from an Learning Assistant often helps.

In one CU-Boulder Chemistry courses, 13% of student comments about why the chemistry department should continue using Learning Assistants fall into the categories of "Learning Assistants are easier to relate to" and "Learning Assistants provide different perspectives / say things in different ways".

To provide feedback to the instructor

Learning Assistants can report back to the instructor during or after a tutorial regarding common student questions or confusions. This can direct the instructor to either provide clarification during the tutorial, or to address certain ideas during class.

To support future science and math teachers

Learning Assistants get valuable teaching experience and mentoring through assisting with the tutorials, as well as increasing their own content knowledge. The Learning Assistant program has improved recruitment of future teachers at the University of Colorado (see Why Teach with Learning Assistants? for more information.) Additionally, tutorials model interactive engagement strategies more completely than a traditional lecture, and one might imagine that Learning Assistants going through this experience gain a deeper sense of what it means to use research-based teaching methods.


Context for Use


Recitation tutorials may be used in any undergraduate course that has a dedicated recitation section. In this example, we describe two different approaches at the University of Colorado:

Both uses bear some similarity to the use of Learning Assistants to facilitate various group activities (see some examples at our various group activities example), except that (a) all students are required to attend the session, (b) the tutorials occur in a dedicated time and space outside of class. This allows for more focused interactions between students and between students and instructors (including Learning Assistants).

Description and Teaching Materials


Below we describe both the
  1. Tutorials in Introductory Physics
  2. General Chemistry Tutorials

1. Tutorials in Introductory Physics

Tutorials book cover
The book jacket for Tutorials in Introductory Physics. Details
The Tutorials in Introductory Physics (McDermott et al., 1998) may be the most extensively researched course reform in introductory physics. The University of Washington research group has extensively investigated common student difficulties and designed group activities to address common misconceptions.

The tutorials use an "elicit-confront-resolve" model (McDermott, 1991), by first presenting situations that elicit student misconceptions, then forces them to confront those misconceptions by leading them to recognize that they are incompatible with observations or other conceptions, and then brings them to resolve those misconceptions. This is done through a worksheet containing thought experiments, questions, and hypothetical dialogues between students. Learning Assistants, instructors and TAs circulate the classroom asking leading questions in a semi-Socratic dialogue to help students work through the tutorial and understand the concepts. For more detail about the Tutorials, see Redish (2003) or the FAQ page from CU-Boulder physics.

Each tutorial consists of:

  1. A 10-minute ungraded pre-test (in homework or lecture) to prepare students for tutorial. (note: Answers to pre-tests not typically given (see Redish, 2003). Some instructors reduce the homework load due to the additional time taken for the pre-test.)
  2. A weekly 50-minute group session facilitated by Learning Assistants with an accompanying worksheet. This worksheet is typically not collected.
  3. Homework problems related to Tutorials incorporated into the weekly homework (note: The Tutorials in Introductory Physics includes related homework problem]
  4. Midterm examination questions testing student understanding of material from Tutorials. (Note: Samples are included in the Instructor's Manual for the Tutorials).

Material required for Tutorials include:

Of course, an instructor must decide how much credit to assign to different portions of the tutorials, in order to encourage students to participate.

Following is an example from one course at CU-Boulder. Participation credit counted for 7% of students' grades (including tutorial pre-tests + attendance). Tutorial homework counted for an additional 15%. Thus, combined, tutorials count for 22% of the final grade.

Learning Assistants are essential to the success of the Tutorials. Their skill in listening and questioning typically exceeds that of the Teaching Assistants, and they allow the instructor to meet the 15:1 student:teacher ratio recommended for the Tutorials.

2. Recitations in General Chemistry


Students in chemistry tutorial
Students work together in a General Chemistry recitation tutorial at the University of Colorado Details
Recitations in general chemistry occur directly before a 3-hour lab period. The recitation materials help students:

Recitation materials were developed in-house by postdoctoral fellows, instructors and Learning Assistants, based on course learning goals developed by faculty (Smith and Perkins, 2010) and research on student difficulties. Following this research-based model of course transformation (Chasteen et al., in press), materials were developed to support students' progress towards those course learning goals. The development of these tutorials and the accompanying recitation sections were strongly modeled on the tutorials in physics, above.

Here is an example of a Thermodynamics tutorial (Acrobat (PDF) 855kB Jul27 10), including:

See also the Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant Checklist for first recitation (Acrobat (PDF) 101kB Jul27 10), which provides some useful guidelines for Teaching Assistants and Learning Assistants in the beginning of the semester.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The teaching strategies and tips for both the chemistry and physics tutorials are similar, so they are combined here.

Meet weekly with Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants

You may view the Instructor Notes for First Learning Assistant/Teaching Assistant Meeting (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Jul27 10) to give you some ideas for initiating effective weekly meetings.

Explain the Learning Assistants role to students in the class

Learning Assistants are a source of authority and knowledge in the class, but they are not necessarily required to know the answer. If students think that the Learning Assistant's job is to give them the answer, they may be upset when he or she is unsure, creating an uncomfortable situation for all. Perhaps the best description of a Learning Assistant is that they are "junior instructors."

Help create a supportive tutorial environment.

In their undergraduate career, students are rarely asked to explain their reasoning or to work in groups. Thus, it's often necessarily to explain to students what will be expected of them in the activity, and to repeat that explanation often. This will both help the students to work productively, and make the Learning Assistant's job easier. A little bit of a sales pitch can go a long way towards promoting the tutorials as useful and enjoyable. Feel free to use the physics tutorial FAQ page for students or the Chemistry Recitation Introduction (Acrobat (PDF) 79kB Jul27 10) with your students.

Recitations/tutorials:This is a chance to work in a smaller setting with fellow students and trained teaching/learning assistants. Tutorials are designed to enhance your understanding of key principles dealt with in the class. You will hand in "tutorial homeworks," and work through worksheets in small groups at your own pace. It's more important for you to understand the material than to "cover" all the questions. You must take responsibility for your own learning! If you find yourself ahead of your partners, try to explain some physics to them. Explainers learn even more than listeners. Attendance at tutorials is mandatory. Remember to bring your workbook to tutorial every week!)

Challenges

Assessment


Exams

To assess your students' performance, it is critical that you use exam questions that test student understanding of the tutorials. Otherwise, they will not see the tutorials as a valuable part of the course (Redish, 2003). The Instructor's Guide for the Tutorials in Introductory Physics contains some sample exam questions.

Conceptual Inventories

Even though classroom response systems (“clickers”) were used in both cases, students in classes using tutorials outperform those not using tutorials on a conceptual test. (The FMCE nationally has a normalized gain (defined as (post-pre)/(100-pre) of 25% with traditional lecture and 45% with interactive lecture (Hake, 1998). Similarly, CU-Boulder students scored 42% with interactive lecture, but improved to 64% with tutorials. The most common FMCE post-test score in the tutorial classes was 100%) Details
The Tutorials in Introductory Physics have been shown to be effective at improving conceptual learning (Redish, Saul and Steinberg, 1997; Pollock and Finkelstein, 2008; and Finkelstein and Pollock, 2005 and references within) without negatively affecting problem-solving ability (Redish, 2003). For example, in physics at CU-Boulder student learning gain on the Force and Motion Conceptual Exam (FMCE) improved from the expected 25% with traditional lecture (Hake, 1998) to 42% with the addition of peer instruction with clickers (link to module with clickers). When Tutorials were added, that gain increased to 64% (see figure).

Transformed courses using Learning Assistants result in higher student learning than a transformed course without Learning Assistants. Teaching Assistants received the same training in all courses, instructors were identical in Fall 2007 and Fall 2008, and course instructional materials were almost identical across semesters. Differences between Fall 2007 and other semesters are statistically different. Details
Research in general chemistry has demonstrated that students' learning improves due to use of Learning Assistants in tutorial-based recitations (Langdon et al., in preparation). By Fall 2007, course transformations had produced the current set of recitation tutorial materials and new graduate Teaching Assistants were receiving enhanced TA-training focused on both pedagogy and chemistry content. However, Learning Assistants were not yet implemented in this course. In Fall 2008, everything about the course was essentially the same as the previous year (same instructors, TA training, use of clicker questions, recitation tutorial materials, similar homework and exams). The only real difference was the integration of LAs into the recitation setting. Learning gains in Fall 2008 were higher than in Fall 2007, when LAs were not part of the course. These results were replicated in Fall 2009, as LAs were again used in the course. See figure for results.

Teacher recruitment

The incorporation of learning Assistants into course transformations has increased the number of certified teachers graduating from the University of Colorado. See Why Teach with Learning Assistants for more data on teacher recruitment.

Research in your course

In order to assess the impact of group activities in your own courses, you may compare sections or semesters of the course that use the activities with those that did not, on appropriate conceptual inventories developed for your discipline (e.g., physics or geology), other tests of scientific skills, knowledge surveys or formal research.

You may also solicit feedback from students (via personal conversations, interviews, and/or surveys), as well as field notes and observations from Learning Assistants.


References and Resources


Chasteen, S.V., Perkins, K., Beale, P., Pollock, S.J. Wieman, C.E. (in press). "A Thoughtful Approach to Instruction: Course Transformation for the Rest of Us." J. Coll. Sci. Teach.

Finkelstein, N.D. and Pollock, S.J. (2005). "Replicating and understanding successful innovations: Implementing tutorials in introductory physics." Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 1, 010101.

Hake, R.R. (1998). "Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses ". Am. J. Phys., 66, 64-74.

Heller, P. and Hollabaugh, M. (1992). "Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing

problems and structuring groups", Am. J. Phys, 60, 637-644. A good reference on structuring and managing cooperative groups.

Koenig, K.M., Endorf, R.J., and Baun, G.A. (2007). "Effectiveness of different tutorial recitation teaching methods and its implications for TA training". Phys. Rev. ST – PER, 3, 010104.
A comparative study of student understanding for students who attended recitation classes that used different teaching methods.

Langdon, L. et al., (in preparation). "Recruiting future teachers while improving student learning: Colorado Learning Assistant model in General Chemistry". J. Coll. Sci. Teach.

McDermott, L.C. (1991). "Millikan Lecture 1990: What we teach and what is learned – Closing the gap," Am. J. Phys.,59, 301-315 (1991)

McDermott, L.C, Schaffer, P.S., and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington (1998). Tutorials in Introductory Physics,Prentice Hall.

Pollock, S.J. and Finkelstein, N.D., (2008). "Sustaining Educational Reforms in Introductory Physics" PhysRev: ST Phys Ed. Rsrch, 4, 010110.

Redish, E.F., (2003). Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, Hoboken, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Redish, E.F., Saul, J.M., and Steinberg, R.N. (1997). "On the effectiveness of active-engagement microcomputer-based laboratories," Am. J. Phys., 65, 45-54.

Smith, M.K. and Perkins, K.K. (2010). "At the end of my course, students should be able to ...": The benefits of creating and using effective learning goals." Microbiology Australia 31(1), 32-34.

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