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How to Teach with Learning Assistants

Otero with LA
Program director Valerie Otero works with a Learning Assistant on effective teaching Details

Undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) are used to promote student-centered instruction and collaboration. There are many ways that this can be accomplished, such as enlisting Learning Assistants to facilitate tutorials, group work, peer discussion of clicker questions, and other interactive teaching methods (see examples). While the main job of a graduate Teaching Assistant (TA) has traditionally been to assist the teacher (by grading papers, running recitations, etc.), the main job of a Learning Assistant is to help students learn and to help students learn how to learn. The pedagogical course that they take along with their teaching experiences makes them particularly well-suited to identify student difficulties and to help students reach their own understanding through directed questioning. Thus, it's important that you choose class activities that will make the best use of these Learning Assistant skills.

This page covers several different aspects of teaching with learning assistants:

  1. What Activities are Best Suited for Use with Learning Assistants?
  2. How Do I Prepare for the Activity?
  3. Creating Community and Boosting Morale
  4. How Do I Choose my Learning Assistants?
  5. Challenges
  6. Running a Learning Assistant Program

1. What Activities are Best Suited for Use with Learning Assistants?

Consider the goals for Learning Assistant participation in the activity

While Learning Assistants sometimes assist with grading of homework or exams, we don't recommend that such administrative tasks be the focus of their duties unless time is spent reflecting on the content of the students' thinking. If not done with a strong emphasis on the value for the Learning Assistants, we feel that this would undermine the value of their experience and their effectiveness with their students. We want Learning Assistants to be seen as student advocates, so we would prefer that they work more in a formative, helpful role rather than in an evaluative role. In physics, Learning Assistants have assisted with the grading of some exams, as a learning experience for the Learning Assistant. They were not given responsibility for grading all exams of any problem, but rather were mentored by the faculty member through the often slippery and subjective process of grading consistently and fairly.

Consider the nature of the classroom activity itself

When deciding on the activities that you wish to use, consider the following aspects of activities that may make them better suited to use with Learning Assistants:

2. How do I Prepare for the Activity?

Though there are possible exceptions, in general group activities don't work "out of the box" – they require some careful thought and preparation to ensure that they run as intended.

3. Creating Community and Boosting Morale

Helping one's peers learn can be a daunting task. Learning Assistants have a lot to learn as teachers, in terms of content, pedagogy, and confidence. The more you can create a supportive atmosphere, the better the experience will be for the Learning Assistants and your students.

4. How Do I Choose My Learning Assistants?

Sample powerpoint file distributed to faculty in astronomy to advertise Learning Assistant program. Details

5. Challenges

6. Running a Learning Assistant program

This module does not address the creation of a Learning Assistant program in detail. If you are considering creating a Learning Assistant program, here are some Questions to Consider (Acrobat (PDF) 179kB Jul28 10). You can find more information about creating a Learning Assistant program, including detailed information on the pedagogy course that forms the core of the Learning Assistant training experience, at the University of Colorado Learning Assistant website and at the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC) Learning Assistant Page. Here are the essential aspects of the Learning Assistant program at the University of Colorado.

Pedagogy course

The pedagogy course forms the core of the Learning Assistant training experience. Our seminar has the following attributes:

Listed by week, the pedagogy course covers the following topics:
  1. Open (divergent) versus Closed (convergent) Questions
  2. Classroom Discourse and Bloom's Taxonomy
  3. Learning Theory
  4. Student Conceptions and Formative Assessment
  5. More than Misconceptions – Resource Perspectives
  6. Cooperative Learning
  7. Information Session – Recruitment of LAs for next semester
  8. Argumentation and Metacognition
  9. LA Evaluations and Classroom Observations #1
  10. Multiple Intelligences and Differentiated Instruction
  11. Nature of Science
  12. The Development of Student Conceptions in K-12 Based on NSES, Project 2061, and NCTM Standards
  13. Qualities of an Effective Teacher
  14. Class Review and Experience Review
  15. Poster Session – Final Presentations

Administrative Details

In addition to either creating or identifying a suitable pedagogy course for Learning Assistants, there are several other administrative aspects to running the program, such as:
  1. Invite faculty to apply to use a Learning Assistant in their course, in the semester prior to their use of Learning Assistants
  2. Run a Learning Assistant information/recruitment session towards the end of the semester prior to using Learning Assistants
  3. Put applications online for new and returning Learning Assistants to apply to the program. We use separate applications for these two types of applicants.
  4. Interview Learning Assistant applicants and accept/reject applicants by the end of the semester prior to using Learning Assistants
  5. Determine spaces where the Learning Assistant-run activities, pedagogy course, and orientation can be held
  6. Run a Learning Assistant orientation in the week before classes begin
  7. Run faculty meetings for involved faculty throughout semester
A departmental Learning Assistant coordinator can be valuable. The Astronomy department at CU improved the number and quality of Learning Assistant applicants by creating this position. The Learning Assistant coordinator:

Program sustainability

Obviously, many of the benefits of the Learning Assistant program can be achieved much more easily with an initial boost from grant funding. At the University of Colorado, the Learning Assistant program was entirely grant funded for up to 25 Learning Assistants per semester. Currently, we support 90 Learning Assistants per semester, for a total of 180 Learning Assistants per year. In Fall 2010, the money to pay those Learning Assistants came entirely from department chairs and higher administration.

Administrative support for our program was initiated because the department chairs paid for one-quarter to one-half the cost of each Learning Assistant. The higher administration of the university saw this as a message that the Learning Assistants were valuable to undergraduate education. The Learning Assistant program directors have discussed the program with the dean's council, the department chairs, and the regents, so that the Learning Assistant program can be built in to the operational budget of the university. Currently, the provost is investigating a scaling plan to add the Learning Assistant program to all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) departments, humanities, and other colleges such as journalism, music and business.

Thus, once grant funding ends, it is possible to sustain a Learning Assistant program with internal funding.

What if I want use Learning Assistants, but we have no Learning Assistant program?

Individual faculty may wish to use Learning Assistants, but lack the departmental funds to provide the pedagogy course and other support mechanisms for the learning assistants. One of the hallmarks of the Learning Assistant program (which distinguishes them from peer-led team learners) is their pedagogical preparation. Without this preparation, it is unclear whether undergraduates will be able to implement the type of sophisticated interactive techniques described in this module. If you lack grant funding, you may find the financial support using course fees to do a pedagogical course for Learning Assistants, or offer it as an overload course.

If you are unable to create a new pedagogical course, you may choose to have Learning Assistants take an introductory education course already offered at your institution. Noyce Fellowships and Physics-specific educational grants are also available to support students interested in careers in education. The University of Arkansas runs a Learning Assistant program without external grant funding – instead of offering a stipend, they offer course credit to their Learning Assistants. Their program is described briefly in the American Physical Society Forum on Education newsletter.

Upper Division Students
There may be one exception to the rule that Learning Assistants must receive adequate pedagogical preparation. In using Learning Assistants in upper division courses, we have been unable to require that the few juniors or seniors available to serve as Learning Assistants in these courses (a) demonstrate an interest in teaching as a career or (b) add a pedagogical course to their full schedule. These students are not completely untrained:
  • They are more mature, high-achieving upper-division students
  • They have taken the course they are going to serve as a Learning Assistant for
  • They have experienced the active learning environment and had Learning Assistants guide them when they were students in the class
In these cases, one instructor has successfully created her own ad-hoc preparation for these students:
  1. Provide Learning Assistants with a few salient research articles about active teaching and learning, to provide a frame of reference regarding the research supporting these new teaching techniques. See, for example, Wood (2009) on the references page.
  2. Explain and remind them to practice two important features of working with students:
    • Answer questions with questions, or help the student to explore further
    • Be approachable, available, and ready to help at all times. Motivate conversations if students are not discussing.
  3. Give them practice in weekly meetings. As with all Learning Assistants, weekly meetings are crucial: Having them work through clicker questions, group activities, and problem sets prior to class, discussing possible difficulties and ways to address them, and reflecting on prior weeks' experiences are all important ways to further their teaching practice.

Other institutions using Learning Assistants

This module primarily focuses on the University of Colorado Learning Assistant Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder . The PhysTEC program has provided funding to other institutions to replicate the Colorado Learning Assistant Program in physics departments including Cornell University, Seattle Pacific University, University of Minnesota, and Florida International University. Other universities that are emulating the program (of which we are aware) include Boston University, University of Auburn, North Dakota State, Towson University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Arizona, Utah State University, Black Hills State University, University of Texas, El Paso and Western Kentucky University. Some information about these other efforts can be found at the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC) Learning Assistant Page.

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