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Why Teach with Learning Assistants?

Learning Assistants are undergraduate students prepared to support student learning in interactive classroom environments. Learning Assistants learn about teaching math and science while they're learning the math and science content. Our research has shown that the Learning Assistant program has multiple impacts:

Goals of the Learning Assistant program


LA program goals
Otero, V., Pollock, S.J., Finkelstein, N. A physics department's role in preparing future teachers: The Colorado Learning Assistant Model. Am. J. Phys. (in press)
1. Teacher recruitment. In order to address the shortfall of qualified math and science teachers at the K-12 level, the Learning Assistant program helps to recruit undergraduates into K-12 science teaching. The program provides early teaching experiences and mentoring within the context of a science discipline. read more

2. Curriculum and course transformation. The Learning Assistant program provides the person-power to change the undergraduate teaching approach, using the principles of interactive engagement and student-centered instruction. This intervention has the potential to improve the quality of instruction, and increase student learning at the K-16 levels. read more

3. Institutional change. The use of Learning Assistants helps establish research-based teaching as a valued enterprise at the University and to increase use of research-based practices at the K-12 level through the involvement of faculty and departments. read more

4. Discipline-Based Education Research. The Learning Assistant program provides faculty with an opportunity to engage in education research and reflections on their teaching practices by assessing the impacts of course transformations. read more

5. Increase the Number of Majors. A goal of some institutions is to increase the number of undergraduates choosing to major in a particular discipline. This has been shown to be an effect of the Learning Assistant program at at least one institution. read more

This module from the University of Colorado describes their Learning Assistant Program

Teacher recruitment


Science and math faculty members provide valuable mentorship to the next generation of teachers. A major obstacle to the quality of science education in the U.S. is the lack of qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers (AAEE, 2003). Talented Learning Assistants who are recruited to become teachers report that one of the major factors in making a decision to become a teacher was encouragement and support from their STEM faculty mentor. The other reason Learning Assistants report is that they recognized teaching as a complex and challenging endeavor.

Since the inception of the Colorado Learning Assistant program, six times more chemistry/biochemistry and physics/astrophysics majors have enrolled in teacher certification programs, and the number of graduates from math and science teacher certification programs has more than doubled at the University of Colorado (see below). A total of 53 students have been recruited to teaching during the time period from 2002-2010 (of which 42 are Noyce Fellows) – a large number nationally. Most Learning Assistants report in interviews that they hadn't considered teaching as a career until they entered the Learning Assistant program. They most frequently indicate that they now see teaching as a complex endeavor, and cite faculty support and encouragement as being important factors in their decisions.
The Learning Assistant program has increased the rate of undergraduate (UG) teacher certification at CU. Click to enlarge.
Graduation rates from undergraduate math and science teacher certification programs (UG) have more than doubled since the inception of the Learning Assistant program. Rates from other certification routes not affected by the Learning Assistant program – the Master's Plus (MA+) and Post-Baccalaureate (PBA) – are unchanged. Credit: Valerie Otero, University of Colorado.

The Learning Assistant program at the University of Colorado hires about 170 Learning Assistants per year, of which ~12% enter a career track as K-12 teachers. The structure of the Learning Assistant program embodies this emphasis on a career teaching track:
  1. First semester: Take pedagogy course
  2. Second semester: Must enroll in education course or early K-12 field experience
  3. Third semester: Must be accepted to teacher certification program. Eligible for NSF-funded Noyce Teaching Fellowship up to $15,000/year. Mentor new Learning Assistants.
Not only has the Learning Assistant program increased the number of certified teachers, but evidence suggests that the program increases the quality of those teachers. Preliminary work from the University of Colorado indicates that the Learning Assistants do indeed practice student-centered instruction instruction focused on the needs of the students, where students are expected to have an active voice in the classroom (Talbot & Briggs, 2008; Gray and Otero, 2009). These conclusions are based on interviews, observations, and their responses measuring pedagogical sophistication. Their instruction tends to be more interactive and focused on student difficulties, and uses formative assessment to help guide their teaching. Results of this ongoing work can be found on the reports section of the Colorado Learning Assistant website .


Curriculum and Course Transformation


Juniors score better on a conceptual test when they took an introductory course transformed with Learning Assistants, and so do the Learning Assistants themselves. Click to enlarge.
Conceptual test is the Basic Electricity and Magnetism Assessment (BEMA; Ding et al., 2006). These are BEMA scores for students who have completed a junior-level electricity and magnetism course. Plotted are students who were not enrolled as freshmen in an LA-supported course, students who were enrolled in an Learning Assistant-supported course as freshmen, and the Learning Assistants themselves. Credit: Steve Pollock. "A Longitudinal study of student conceptual understanding in electricity and magnetism."
Steven J. Pollock, PhysRev: ST Phys Ed. Rsrch, 5, 020110 (2009) and "A Longitudinal Study of the Impact of Curriculum on Conceptual Understanding in E&M."
S. J. Pollock, PERC Proceedings 2007, AIP Press 951 (Greensboro, NC), p. 172
The Learning Assistant program can improve learning for students at many levels – the Learning Assistants, the students in the undergraduate courses that they assist, and the future K-12 students benefiting from the instruction of those former Learning Assistants who go on to become certified teachers. This approach allows you to increase the teacher : student ratio by leveraging your best undergraduate students. This can be beneficial for large introductory lectures, which would otherwise be largely lecture-based, as well as smaller upper-division courses, where undergraduate Learning Assistants can be valuable in continuing to engage students in the challenging material at this level.

Students in General Chemistry do better on a conceptual test after taking a course transformed with Learning Assistants than those who don't. The Learning Assistants' performance is also very high. Click to enlarge.
We have ample evidence that undergraduate Learning Assistant involvement in courses improves student learning. Introductory physics students who are enrolled in courses transformed with learning assistants have better scores on a conceptual diagnostic two years later (Pollock, 2007; see figure above right). For more information on how undergraduate Learning Assistants are used to facilitate tutorials in physics, see see examples of teaching with learning assistants).

Similar results have been seen in General Chemistry, in which students in Learning Assistant-supported courses outperform those in traditionally taught courses (Langdon et al., in preparation, see figure to left). For more information about how Learning Assistants are used in chemistry recitations, see examples of teaching with learning assistants).

Students in transformed General Chemistry courses do better on a conceptual survey when Learning Assistants are added to the course structure. Click to enlarge.
But, if transformed courses using Learning Assistants result in improved student scores than traditionally-taught courses, are those improvements the result of modified course structure, or do the Learning Assistants provide any additional benefit over the curriculum transformation? Comparing student learning in three semesters of General Chemistry (Langdon et. al., in preparation; see graph to right), we see that – even across transformed courses – the addition of Learning Assistants improves student learning.

The undergraduate Learning Assistants also learn from their experience, scoring higher on conceptual diagnostics in physics, chemistry, and astronomy after serving as Learning Assistants for courses in those departments. This is a testament to the impact of teaching on one's own understanding of the content material. In fact, by the end of the introductory sequence, Learning Assistants score as well or better on these assessments as incoming graduate students in those departments (see two graphs above – e.g., Langdon et al., in preparation; Otero, Pollock & Finkelstein, in press). More assessment data on Learning Assistant and student learning can be found on the reports and publications section of the Colorado Learning Assistant website .

Institutional Change


Working with Learning Assistants provides faculty the opportunity to become involved as agents of educational change. In order to use Learning Assistants in their course, they must commit to:
  1. Use those Learning Assistants to support interactive classroom environments
  2. Meet with the Learning Assistants weekly
  3. Evaluate the impact of their course transformations
One faculty response is typical:
"I've taught [this course] a million times. I could do it in my sleep without preparing a lesson. But (now) I'm spending a lot of time preparing lessons for (students), trying to think 'OK, first of all, what is the main concept that I'm trying to get across here? What is it I want them to go away knowing?' Which I have to admit, I haven't spent a lot of time in the past thinking about."
The impacts of the Learning Assistant experience reach to institutions beyond the university. There is evidence that Learning Assistants bring the skills and attitudes that they have gained in their experience in the Learning Assistant program to their jobs as K-12 teachers. Preliminary studies show significant differences between the teaching practices of K-12 teachers who were former Learning Assistants and those who were not in areas of lesson design, content, and classroom culture.
The Reformed Teacher Observation Protocol (RTOP; Sawada et al., 2002) provides a means to assess the degree to which K-20 STEM teaching is reformed to align with national science and mathematics standards. More information about RTOP at their website . Details about the studies at the University of Colorado can be found at the reports and publications portion of the Colorado Learning Assistant Program website

Discipline-Based Educational Research


Through assessment of the learning outcomes of their course transformations, faculty engage in education research as part of their involvement in the Learning Assistant program. Not only is this research an important part of fulfilling reporting requirements, but it also supports the scholarship of teaching and learning at the university more broadly. As faculty examine and publish the outcomes from their courses, they and the broader university community learn more about what constitutes effective teaching and learning. In addition, when multiple departments use Learning Assistants, and the School of Education is involved in teaching the pedagogy course, the Learning Assistant program serves to construct bridges between these departments and schools.


Increasing the Number of Majors


There is some data to suggest that the Learning Assistant program can recruit students to the major. At the University of Arkansas, the number of physics majors was increased significantly through the addition of Learning Assistants and course transformations. Their department moved from being in jeopardy of closure (one graduate in 1994) to 25 graduates in 2005. Course transformations, including Learning Assistants, were implemented in 2001. You can read more about the University of Arkansas' experiences in growing their physics department through their efforts in teacher recruitment, see the data on the growth of their department and read a general article about their Learning Assistant program. At the University of Colorado, our majors are already well-stocked, so recruitment was not a goal of the program. Anecdotally, however, students have changed their majors because they decided to become teachers due of the influence of the Learning Assistant program. One student, a political science major, wanted to become a Learning Assistant after enrollment in a course that was supported by Learning Assistants. Consequentially, she changed her major to chemistry, and then biochemistry, and is currently teaching in K-12 schools. This is a good reason to offer Learning Assistants in non-major courses, in order to recruit non-majors into teaching. However, in order to retain the prestige of the program, the majority of Learning Assistants are majors within the discipline that they are teaching.


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