Various Group Activities Using Learning Assistants

Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado at Boulder. Based on material from faculty at the University of Colorado: Douglas Duncan and Seth Hornstein (Astronomy and Astrophysics), Laurie Langdon and Amy Palmer (Chemistry and Biochemistry), Jennifer Knight and Michelle Smith (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology).

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Undergraduate Learning Assistants have been used to facilitate group work in a variety of ways, such as in-lecture tutorials and worksheets, group work in required recitations, and group work in optional co-seminars. This page describes some of these various ways that Learning Assistants can be used to help make a course more interactive.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

To increase student learning

People learn better when they are actively engaged with the course content than by more traditional formats (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000; Hake, 1998; Redish, 2003). Additionally, learning is supported by social interactions (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). Thus, group work can be an important part of improving students' understanding of challenging class material. It can also provide an additional chance to practice problem-solving or other course skills.

To provide a focus on concepts

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

To increase student participation

By circulating the class during group work, a Learning Assistant can:

  • Help the instructor to reach the entire class during an activity
  • Provide students the opportunity to interact one-on-one with an authority figure more frequently
  • Encourage every student to participate, keeping an eye out for quiet students or groups where one student dominates the conversation

To improve the student : teacher ratio

Group activities are designed to be challenging enough so that a student won't find a path to the answer on their own. They are often 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 group activity. 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 provide an additional perspective to students beyond the instructor or Teaching Assistant (TA). 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. Also, Learning Assistants are usually considered more approachable, since they are more like the undergraduate students and they have been selected not only for their content knowledge, but for their communication skills. If students struggle to understand a Teaching Assistant (TA) or instructor's explanation or line of questioning, getting a different perspective from an Learning Assistant often helps.

To answer student questions

In addition to fostering student participation, Learning Assistants can clarify the meaning of an activity or answer factual questions, allowing students to work productively on the activity rather than being stuck on terminology or phrasing.

To model sensemaking and justification

In group work, it is expected that students will discuss and debate with each other. The Learning Assistant can be a crucial part in this class transformation. Learning Assistants can model the expectations of the course by showing students how to engage in scientific discourse by engaging students in conversation and emphasizing the articulation of reasoning in these discussions.

Scientific reasoning skills. In group work, the focus often moves from emphasis on answers to an emphasis on reasoning. If students can't justify their work and answers, then they are not fully fluent in science, even if they have good problem-solving and conceptual understanding. Group work supports students' ability to engage in debate and articulate reasoning. Learning Assistants can help students achieve this goal.

To support an interactive learning environment

In addition to providing a model for interactive engagement, as above, Learning Assistants can also assist the instructor with creating new group materials and testing them for effectiveness.

To provide feedback to the instructor

Learning Assistants can report back to the instructor during or after a group activity regarding common student questions or confusions. This can direct the instructor to either provide clarification on the activity, and/or modify the activity for the next semester.

To support future science and math teachers

Learning Assistants get valuable teaching experience and mentoring through assisting with group activities, 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).

Context for Use

Medium to large lower- or upper-division undergraduate courses, in which the instructor cannot easily work with all groups during the activity time (i.e., more than 12 students).

In-class or out-of-class, optional or required group activities.

For use of Learning Assistants to facilitate tutorials in recitation, please see the example on recitation tutorials.

Description and Teaching Materials

This example covers several different uses of Learning Assistants in group activities, as outlined below:

1. Lower-Division Optional Co-Seminars in Biology

2. Lower-Division Problem-Solving Workshop in Applied Math

3. Upper-Division Optional Co-Seminars in Physics

4. Break-out Group Activities in Chemistry and Biology

5. Lecture Tutorials in Astronomy

6. Home-Grown Activities for Recitation in Astronomy

7. Conceptual, Hands-On Experiments in Astronomy

1. Lower-Division Optional Co-Seminars in Biology

In the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department at CU-Boulder, optional co-seminars were added to the introductory and genetics courses in order to give students an additional chance to practice problem solving and improve their conceptual understanding of the material. During the 50-minute weekly co-seminar, students work in groups of 4-5 to complete challenging problem-based worksheets. Worksheets were developed by faculty and postdocs involved in education research within the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department at CU-Boulder. Since the course and the major cannot require additional credits, the course is optional.

Two Learning Assistants have responsibility for running the co-seminar, with no Teaching Assistant support. As in the tutorials in physics, Learning Assistants facilitate group interaction, prompt students to make their reasoning explicit, and answer student questions. The instructor drops in, but does not typically assist with the whole co-seminar.

The co-seminar is typically attended by 50% of the class (75-175 students depending on the course). The course is pass/fail, and students must attend at least 10 out of 12 weekly sessions, and earn a minimum participation score to pass. At the end of each session, students take a quiz on the material to (a) allow instructors to record attendance and (b) give them practice using what they just learned. Answers to the quizzes are posted at the end of each week. Learning Assistants meet weekly with the instructor of the course to work through the co-seminar activities, discuss observations from the previous week, and discuss any content questions.

Provided are examples of activities from each course:

  1. From Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology: Signal Transduction activity (Acrobat (PDF) 42kB Jul26 10) and answer key (Acrobat (PDF) 43kB Jul26 10).
  2. From Introductory Genetics: Meiosis activity (Acrobat (PDF) 112kB Jul26 10) and answer key (Acrobat (PDF) 335kB Jul26 10).

2. Lower-Division Problem-Solving Workshops in Applied Math

In the Applied Mathematics department, Learning Assistants have been used to run a 1-credit pass/fail optional problem-solving workshop for Calculus I and Calculus II. This is similar to the optional co-seminar activity described above. Students work in small groups on problem-based worksheets, with Teaching Assistants and Learning Assistants circulating to provide assistance. Roughly 100 out of 600 enrolled students take the course.

3. Upper-Division Optional Co-Seminars in Physics

Students work together on an optional tutorial in junior level Electricity and Magnetism at the University of Colorado. Details

In the Physics department at CU-Boulder, optional co-seminars were added to junior-level Electricity and Magnetism and Quantum Mechanics courses as part of a larger course transformation effort (Chasteen and Pollock, 2008; Goldhaber et al., 2009). Tutorials for both courses were developed by physics education researchers to align with common student difficulties and to support students' development of sophisticated problem-solving and reasoning skills. During the 50-minute co-seminar, students work in groups of 4-5 to complete worksheets that emphasize the physical concepts, meaning behind the mathematics, or common problem-solving approaches. A large whiteboard on the table serves as a space for public sharing of ideas.

The co-seminar is typically attended by 50% of the class or about 15 students. While the instructor could, in theory, facilitate these 4-5 groups of students, in practice it is easier to have two people (the instructor and the Learning Assistant) co-facilitating due to the in-depth conversations generated by these tutorials. A single Learning Assistant is used to help support both the Electricity and Magnetism and Quantum Mechanics co-seminars, due to the small number of students. As in the tutorials in physics example, Learning Assistants facilitate group interaction, prompt students to make their reasoning explicit, and answer student questions. Learning Assistants are expected to complete the tutorials on their own before class, and meet weekly with the instructor to discuss observations from the previous week and to go over the upcoming tutorial.

The course is pass/fail, and students must attend at least 10 out of 12 weekly sessions to receive credit. Students may attend without taking the course for credit.

4. Break-out Group Activities in Chemistry and Biology

In two upper-division courses (Physical Chemistry and senior-level Developmental Biology). Learning Assistants have been used to facilitate in-class group activities. Facilitation is similar to the out-of-class co-seminars (above) except that (a) all students are present because the activity happens in class, and (b) the activity comprises just part of a 50- or 75-minute lecture period. Thus, the activity should be well-integrated with the lecture material for that day.

For example, Dr. Jenny Knight (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, CU-Boulder) uses these group activities to let students reason through the findings and results of seminal experiments in developmental biology, with lecture and clicker questions leading into and out of the group activity. Students work in groups of 4-5 to complete the activity worksheets, and are often asked to share their results back with the whole class (about 100 students). Learning Assistants circulate through the classroom as the students work, providing feedback, answering questions, and reporting observations to the instructor.

Students work together on an in-class breakout activity in Amy Palmer's Physical Chemistry class at the University of Colorado Details
Dr. Amy Palmer (Chemistry, CU-Boulder) uses one-page activities daily in her 60-student physical chemistry course, facilitated by a Learning Assistant and a Teaching Assistant. Students work in groups of 3-5 to complete the activities, which take about 15-20 minutes and occur at various times during the class period.

Dr. Palmer uses three main types of breakout activities:

  1. Problem solving
  2. Conceptual questions
  3. Sketching/graphing physical processes

She reports that the second two categories seem to work the best, since students seem to focus too much on the answer (rather than the process) in the problem-solving questions. She has provided four examples of her breakout activities (and answer keys) for you to see: work and pistons (Acrobat (PDF) 104kB Jul28 10), solutions (Acrobat (PDF) 37kB Jul28 10), Maxwell-Boltzmann Distribution (Acrobat (PDF) 40kB Jul28 10), and Colligative Properties (Acrobat (PDF) 38kB Jul28 10).

In both Dr. Palmer's and Dr. Knight's classes, all students receive a worksheet, and Learning Assistants circulate, along with the instructor, to answer student questions, and to prompt students to participate and to make their reasoning explicit.

Break-out activities bear some similarity to lecture tutorials. For more information on lecture tutorials in general, see the SERC module on lecture tutorials.

Below is a short (12 minute) video showing various types of group work in college classrooms, including Dr. Palmer and Dr. Knight's activities

5. Lecture Tutorials in Astronomy

Students can work on activities during lecture in small groups in order to facilitate a more active learning environment. Introductory astronomy courses can make use of the research-based and tested Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy (Prather et al., 2007). This book contains 38 short (15 minute) activities for a one-semester astronomy survey course. The activities are intended to be integrated with a traditional lecture course, and prompt students to wrestle with common difficulties and concepts from lecture. The tutorials follow the elicit-confront-resolve model that is also found in the University of Washington Tutorials in Introductory Physics (McDermott et al., 2002; also see the recitation tutorial examples in physics and chemistry in this module). Students answer a set of guided questions designed to elicit their misconceptions, and to lead students to recognize the incompatibility of those misconceptions with physical observations or theory. The tutorials often describe debates between fictional students, and the student reading the tutorial must decide between the two arguments.

During lecture tutorials, the instructor and Learning Assistants circulate the class, checking in with student groups, facilitating discussion, and answering questions. Use of Learning Assistants in lecture tutorials bears some resemblance to the use of Learning Assistants to facilitate tutorials in recitations (Using Learning Assistants in Recitation Tutorials) and clicker questions (Using Learning Assistants to Support Peer Instruction with Classroom Response Systems ("Clickers")) – please see those examples for additional detail on facilitation. For a good discussion on the implementation of the Lecture Tutorials in Astronomy, see Brogt, 2007. For more information on lecture tutorials in general, see the SERC module on lecture tutorials.

6. Home-Grown Activities for Recitation in Astronomy

The introductory astronomy sequence at CU-Boulder includes 1-credit courses to provide a forum for group work, but like the recitation tutorials in physics and chemistry, these sessions are a required recitation course. Unlike the physics/chemistry tutorials, however, these sessions are (a) run entirely by the Learning Assistant, without a Teaching Assistant or instructor present during the session and (b) the activities are developed by the Learning Assistant and instructor in that semester or borrowed from previous semesters. These activities may be worksheet-based or materials-based (see below), and may include some of the Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy (see above). Thus, the Learning Assistants have been instrumental both in providing instruction in these recitations, and in creating new instructional materials.

In order to ensure that Learning Assistants are adequately supported in this solo teaching endeavor, instructors and/or Teaching Assistants often attend the sessions early in the semester, perhaps as often as every other week, to check on their progress and provide support. The weekly meetings between Learning Assistants and faculty are also critical to providing the Learning Assistants with the guidance they need to feel comfortable and prepared in their sessions. During this time, instructors and Learning Assistants collectively plan the next week's activities. These planning sessions are important in developing uniformity of the material presented each week to the students as well as for the Learning Assistant to understand what is to be presented and to learn teaching techniques for that presentation. Since Learning Assistants are selected based on their interest in teaching, and receive instruction in teaching skills, it has been found that they provide high quality instruction in this setting.

7. Conceptual, Hands-On Experiments in Astronomy

Gamow Tower

Dr. Douglas Duncan (CU-Boulder, Astronomy) reports that one particularly effective use of Learning Assistants in recitations is for hands-on conceptual experiments. These types of activities are interspersed among the worksheet-type activities described above. Learning Assistants can be particularly adept guides in helping students work through a mini-experiment or understand a physical phenomenon. An experiment that includes detailed, outlined procedures and calculations is not likely to be the best use of a Learning Assistant's facilitation skills.

For example, one such developed activity is to measure the height of one of the tallest structures on the CU campus: Gamow Tower. Through this activity, students are asked to invent a way to measure something that they cannot touch, and how to estimate the accuracy of a measurement. This type of activity is different from most step-by-step laboratory exercises in that it requires creativity from the students, thus making use of the Learning Assistant's ability to facilitate productive group interaction. You can view the Measuring Gamow Tower activity (Acrobat (PDF) 158kB Jul28 10) and the LA/TA Guide (Acrobat (PDF) 1.8MB Jul28 10). Another of Dr. Duncan's activities involves the use of an Lego Orrery (a ball-and-stick model of a solar system); you may read his description of the Orrery activity. Another good place to find short qualitative experiments is the Exploratorium Snack Page.

Teaching Notes and Tips

These teaching notes and tips cover most or all of the above activities. For more information, see How to Teach with Learning Assistants.

Prepare your Learning Assistants for conceptual understanding

Work through the group activities with the Learning Assistant in advance. This helps ensure that the Learning Assistant doesn't feel uncomfortable in the face of student questions, guide them towards the wrong answer, or (worse) make up an answer to save face.

Prepare your Learning Assistants to facilitate discussion

The pedagogy course will prepare Learning Assistants to facilitate student interaction, but they will need some tips on the particular challenges of student discussion during your particular activities. For example, if one student in a group is dominating, ask them to explain the reason behind their answer. Then ask other members, "do you accept that reasoning?" or "what do you think?" or "have you all agreed?" Learning Assistant personality will determine, in some part, how comfortable they are with this role. See Heller and Hollabaugh (1992) for more information on managing productive groups, and see also the Tips & Strategies (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Jul27 10) sheet for a document with ideas on probing student thinking.

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."

Explain the students' role in the activity

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.

Decide how to create student groups

It's often best – both from personal experience and from the literature (e.g., Birmingham and McCord, 2002) for the instructor to choose the groups, mostly from a practical standpoint (i.e., students may hesitate to form their own groups) but also to allow you some freedom to create groups made of diverse sets of students.

Decide how to distribute Learning Assistants in the class or seminar

There are three main approaches to dividing Learning Assistants across a class, especially if you have more than one:

  1. Assign a Learning Assistant to work with specific groups
  2. Assign a Learning Assistant to cover a particular area of the class (e.g., the right half, or the first 5 rows)
  3. Tell the Learning Assistant to circulate where they are needed

Which approach you use depends on your course and your needs. The first two will help the LA develop relationships with individual students over the course of the semester.

Use challenging activities

Activities that are too simple, or focused on facts or calculations, don't spur discussion. The best group activities are designed so that students can't arrive at the answer on their own, but rather need the group in order to make progress (Birmingham and McCord, 2002).

Orrery image
An instructor (Dr. Doug Duncan, University of Colorado) looks on as students construct a mechanical solar system model. Details

Don't be afraid to fail

"Just try it," says Dr. Palmer in the video on group work in the college classroom. "The only way I have been able to develop 20+ breakout activities is to try things out." Some activities work very well and it's very satisfying to see students understanding concepts. Sometimes students are very focused on the worksheet and not discussing with each other. Over time you will find the best activities and improve on or discard the others.

Meet weekly with Learning Assistants to discuss the class

Weekly meetings also allow Learning Assistants a chance to describe challenges that they've faced so that you can give them tips and strategies, as well as a supportive environment, to provide guidance in their development as teachers. This is also a time for you to collect their observations – either verbally or through written field notes – and get feedback on what is happening in class that you might not be aware of.


  • Group activities take time to create and facilitate, as does the training of the Learning Assistants
  • Creating a supportive learning environment, where students buy in to the activity, can be a challenge.
  • If you are using group activities in-class, some material normally covered in class must be moved to outside of class (e.g., homework or pre-reading) to make time for the additional activities
  • Logistical challenges (e.g., classroom organization, materials preparation) increase


Student learning

Group work has been shown to be effective in student learning. For example, Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy have been shown to improve student understanding on basic astronomy concepts, compared to traditional lecture (more: Students score an average of 50% with traditional instruction versus 70% with the lecture tutorials, compared to a pre-test of 30%; Prather et al., 2003). In most courses, the measure of student achievement will be their exam scores, unless you have access to an appropriate conceptual inventory (see below). See also Wood (2009), Knight & Smith (2010), Heller and Hollabaugh (1992), Prince & Felder (2007), Birmingham and McCord (2002) for more information on groups and course transformations and why they are helpful in learning.

Student feedback

Student attitudes towards Learning Assistant involvement in activities are positive. In biology courses at CU-Boulder, for example, students are satisfied with the performance with the Learning Assistants and the level to which Learning Assistants help them learn the material. Students are especially positive about the addition of co-seminar courses in biology and physics. You may also collect student survey data on your group activities. Reading through student responses on worksheets (if they hand them in) will also give you ideas on what is working and what needs to be improved. Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants (TAs) are also very valuable sources on feedback on activities: both problems and successes.


To assess your students' performance, it is critical that you use exam questions that test student understanding of the tutorials or group activity. Otherwise, they will not see these activities as a valuable part of the course (Redish, 2003).

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

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (eds) (2000), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council, National Academy Press, 2000

Chasteen, S.V. and Pollock, S.J. (2008). "Transforming Upper-Division Electricity and Magnetism", PERC Proceedings 2008, AIP Press.

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

Heller, P. and Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups, American Journal of Physics,60, 637‐644. A good reference on structuring and managing cooperative groups.

Goldhaber, S., Pollock, S., Dubson, M., Beale P. and Perkins, K. (2009). "Transforming Upper-Division Quantum Mechanics: Learning Goals and Assessment" PERC Proceedings 2009, AIP Press.

Knight, J.K. and Smith, M.K. (2010). Different but equal? How non-majors and majors approach and learn genetics. CBE Life Sci Educ9, 34-44,

McDermott, L.C., Schaffer, P.S., and the Physics Education Group of the University of Washington (2002), Tutorials in Introductory Physics and Homework Package. Addison-Wesley.

McDermott, L.C. (2002). Instructor's Guide (For Tutorials in Introductory Physics), Addison-Wesley.

Birmingham, C., and McCord, M. (2002), Group Process Research: Implications for Using Learning Groups. In Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B., Fink, L.D.(eds), Team‐based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups, Stylus Publishing, Sterling VA.

Prather, E., Adams J., Loranz, D., Brissenden, G., Slater, T. and Watson, L. (2008). Instructor's Guide for Lecture Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy, 2nd Edition. Addison-Wesley.

Prather, E. Slater, T., Adams, J., and Brissenden, G. (2007), Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy, 2/E. Addison-Wesley.

Prince, M. and Felder, R. (2007). The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching and Learning, Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(5)(March/April 2007), 14‐20. A nice overview of various forms of inductive teaching that discusses both group and non‐group approaches, benefits, and ease (or difficulty) of implementation.

Redish, E.F., (2003). Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Wood, W.B. (2009) Innovations in teaching undergraduate biology, and why we need them. Ann. Rev. Cell & Devel. Biol. 25, 93-112.