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Using Learning Assistants in Homework Help Sessions

Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado at Boulder. Based on materials from faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder: Jennifer Knight (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology) and Steven Pollock (Physics).
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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 provide one-on-one instruction in homework help sessions, assisting students with specific questions on weekly homework. These tutoring sessions act as office hours for the Learning Assistant, supplementing instructor office hours and provide students additional support on homework sets than is usually available through a Teaching Assistant.

Learning Goals

Homework help session
Tutoring in a homework help session Details

To support future teachers

Learning Assistants gain valuable teaching experience in all activities described in the Learning Assistant module. However, homework help sessions offer the particularly valuable experience of attempting to help answer questions on homework that they have not themselves completed. Learning to work through problems on the fly is a valuable experience for new teachers. Additionally, homework help sessions give Learning Assistants an additional window on student thinking.

To improve the student : teacher ratio

Learning Assistants provide the opportunity for one-on-one instruction between the Learning Assistant and students, which can improve morale (and reduce panic) for students struggling with a homework set, especially in large lecture courses staffed by a single graduate Teaching Assistant.

Context for Use


Any undergraduate science or math course needing any of the following:

Description and Teaching Materials


Undergraduate learning assistants have been used at the University of Colorado to assist students with homework and exam preparation in a few ways:

Homework help sessions are generally an explicit part of the course structure and occur at scheduled times. Learning Assistants are required to staff those help sessions for a certain number of hours per week. These take the place of what would generally be considered office hours for that Learning Assistant. Students typically work on homework problems in small groups, with the Learning Assistants (and/or Teaching Assistant) circulating the room to answer questions. Alternatively, student groups may be asked to solve problems on the board.

The Learning Assistant's role is particularly supportive in homework sessions because he/she does not have responsibility for grading of that homework – unlike the Teaching Assistant or instructor. Thus, the Learning Assistant is seen as an assistant, on the side of the students.

In applied mathematics, Learning Assistants have developed tutorial-like materials for use in homework help sessions in a senior-level course. Development of these materials was a volunteer activity on the part of the two Learning Assistants, who developed worksheets and questions to facilitate group work.

Some Learning Assistant have prepared exam review sessions for the students, creating jeopardy-type questions or other activities. This is an optional activity for a motivated Learning Assistant, but can be a useful and fun activity for both the Learning Assistant and the students.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Prepare the Learning Assistant
for the sessions

Weekly meetings between Learning Assistants and faculty are critical to providing the Learning Assistants with the guidance they need to feel comfortable and prepared in their sessions. (See How to Teach with Learning Assistants for more information.) These planning sessions are important in developing uniformity of the material presented to the students each week as well as for the Learning Assistant to understand what is to be presented and to learn teaching techniques for that presentation. It's best to give the Learning Assistant the homework questions and solutions in advance if possible. Providing these in hard copy will ensure that electronic solutions do not get passed among students. Show the Learning Assistant which questions you anticipate will be difficult for the students. Some instructors also require Learning Assistants to work through the homework questions in meetings with faculty, similar to the recitation tutorials in physics and chemistry. Learning Assistant preparation for homework help sessions varies widely -- some do not receive the solutions -- only the homework itself -- in advance. Regardless of their preparation, Learning Assistants need to be clearly advised that their role is not that of an "answer giver," and that they should admit when they are stuck or cannot help the student.

Check in on the help sessions

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. This can help you model good coaching, as well as allow the Learning Assistant to ask you questions as he/she begins to gain confidence in their teaching. Some instructors continue to remain available (via email or text) so that Learning Assistants can ask for help on-the-fly if there is a problem. Since Learning Assistants are selected based on their interest in teaching, and receive instruction in teaching skills, it's been found that they provide high quality instruction in this setting.

Explain the Learning Assistants' role to students in the class

Because student attendance at help sessions is voluntary, there is less of a problem with students becoming upset when an Learning Assistant doesn't know the answer (compared to, say, tutorials and clicker questions). Learning Assistants are a source of authority and knowledge in the class, but they are not necessarily required to know the answer. Perhaps the best description of a Learning Assistant is that they are "junior instructors."

Assessment


Since the Learning Assistant's role in homework help sessions is to support the students as they work on homework sets, perhaps the best assessment is whether the students appreciate the presence of the Learning Assistant in this environment. Data gathered from surveys (especially in Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology at CU-Boulder) suggests that students do have positive experiences with the use of Learning Assistants in homework help session.

References and Resources

Lepper, M. and Woolverton, M. (2002). The Wisdom of Practice: Lessons Learned from the Study of Highly Effective Tutors. In Improving academic achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education, edited by J. Aronson, Academic Press, pp. 135-158.

This is a summary of studies on what factors make individual tutoring such a successful educational method. Many of the practices identified can be implemented in the classroom.

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