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


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 reach a sizeable portion of the class during the tutorial session
  • Provide students the opportunity for individual attention frequently during the tutorial session
  • Encourage every student to speak, keeping an eye out for quiet students or groups where one student dominates the conversation

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.

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:

  • Introductory Physics Tutorials. Traditional lab-based recitation for both semesters of introductory calculus-based physics was replaced by carefully-designed worksheets based on research on student difficulties. The recitation period is 50 minutes. The Tutorials in Introductory Physics (McDermott et al., 1998) have been the subject of extensive research and development – at the University of Washington (where they were developed) as well as at other institutions – suggesting that it is a highly transferrable curriculum (e.g., Pollock and Finkelstein, 2008).
  • General Chemistry Tutorials. The pre-laboratory portion (50 minutes) of traditional lab-based recitations (4 hours total, including pre-lab) was replaced with conceptual tutorials. These tutorials were developed in-house with the assistance of LAs and assessment is underway.

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:

  • The University of Washington Tutorials in Introductory Physics book
  • Pen and paper or group whiteboards for sharing of ideas
  • A separate space to run tutorials (best if this allows students to work around tables rather than at desks)
  • A few simple materials (such as circuits and motors) are required for the second semester course

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

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:

  • Integrate and understand key chemistry concepts
  • Develop quantitative problem-solving skills
  • Connect quantitative problems with concepts
  • Develop the ability to think and visualize at the molecular level
  • Relate chemistry to everyday phenomena

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:

  • The tutorial itself (2 pages)
  • Cover page for Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant guide for this tutorial
  • Excerpt of the Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant guide for this tutorial
  • Agenda for Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant meeting for this tutorial

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

  • Go through the tutorial. In the weekly meetings, Learning Assistants act like students and go through the tutorials with the faculty acting as a learning coach. The faculty member can then model the type of questions and interaction expected within the tutorial. Begin with the pre-test, if one exists. If Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants try to "wing" a tutorial, it often doesn't work – especially in the physics tutorials, they are often trickier than they look.
  • Provide information on student thinking. This can include looking at assessments or example tutorials from previous semesters, as well as education literature. At the University of Washington (which developed the Tutorials) each preparation session ends with looking at student responses to pre-tests and discussing student ideas.
  • Build a bridge between student difficulties and tutorial materials. Discuss where students might have difficulties. In Chemistry, Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants are provided with a guide with specific comments on student thinking, after they have worked through the materials for themselves. In Physics, Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants are guided to come up with their own ideas about common student difficulties by looking at real student pre-tests.
  • Model productive discussion. Encourage Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants not to tell students the answer, but to lead them to understanding through listening and questioning. See also the Tips & Strategies sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Jul27 10) for a document on probing student learning.
  • Discuss experiences from the previous week. Give Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants a chance to describe and discuss challenges they've faced, to provide them guidance in their teaching. This is also a time for you to collect their observations to get feedback on what is happening in class.

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.


  • Teaching tutorials takes time: To run the tutorial, to properly prepare Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants to facilitate them, to write assessments aligned with tutorial, and to implement pre-tests.
  • Tutorials take some space and resources, such as a room to do them in.
  • Identifying candidate Learning Assistants takes some time and energy
  • It can be challenging to create a supportive and productive tutorial environment where Learning Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and students all buy in. Pro-actively ward off potential student hostility through careful introduction of the tutorials and integrating them well with the rest of the class (Redish, 2003).
  • Creating effective working relationship between Teaching Assistants and Learning Assistants. See How To Teach with Learning Assistants for tips.



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

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).

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.