How to Teach with Learning Assistants

Initial Publication Date: September 3, 2010

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

  • Support student cooperative learning. The best use of Learning Assistants is to facilitate effective group work among students. They are trained listeners, and can relate to the students' ways of thinking (more so than a graduate TA), and can help students determine both the valuable aspects of their thinking and intuitions as well as where they are stuck so that they may move forward.
  • Support development of the Learning Assistant as a teacher. Use of Learning Assistants to facilitate homework help sessions (in which they circulate among students working on assignments) can be a useful task for them, as it gives Learning Assistants an opportunity to be presented with questions for which they are unprepared, and to thus model the process of figuring out a problem on the fly. Some Learning Assistants may choose to run exam review sessions or create recitations or tutorial activities. These higher-level activities support the Learning Assistant's development as a teacher, but are beyond the scope of our expectations of most Learning Assistants.
  • Decrease student : teacher ratio. Learning Assistants also provide another point of contact for students in the course, which can be extremely valuable in a large lecture course where the student : teacher ratio is very unfavorable. Thus, Learning Assistants may be used to help the instructor facilitate clicker questions, group work, homework help sessions, or other activities in which more knowledgeable bodies in the room will improve student learning.
  • Provide an additional perspective to students beyond the instructor or 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. If students struggle to understand a TA or instructor's explanation or line of questioning, getting a different perspective from a Learning Assistant often helps.
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:
  • Does the activity use the Learning Assistants' skills? The Learning Assistant is skilled at identifying student difficulties as well as the valuable aspects of their ideas. They are also skilled at facilitating student discussions. Activities that are student-centered, challenging, and discussion based, as described below, work well. Activities that do not work well are those that do not allow Learning Assistants to use their skills (e.g., a worksheet activity where students are working individually, a recitation where the Learning Assistant is presenting an extended lecture, or fact-based questions that don't require discussion). Other ineffective activities might require the Learning Assistant to use skills that he/she may or may not have acquired (such as facilitating a student debate, requiring sophisticated interpersonal skills on the part of the Learning Assistant).
  • Is the activity student-centered? To make the best use of the Learning Assistants in the classroom, the best activities are those where the students are active participants in working through challenging ideas, with the Learning Assistant as a "Guide on the Side." Activities that require "teaching by telling" are not the best choice. In fact, the setting should be one in which students are collaborating with one another and Learning Assistants are simply facilitating that collaboration.
  • Is the activity group-work-based? Due to the student-centered nature of Learning Assistant-facilitated activities, many are based in group work. The main purpose of the Learning Assistant is to facilitate group interaction rather than to work directly with one student. Learning Assistants are intended to help students challenge the ideas of others and defend their own ideas to one another.
  • Is the activity challenging? If the activity is not challenging enough, it is likely that the students won't need the Learning Assistant in order to work effectively. The best activities seem to be those that a student could not quite do on his/her own and needs to work with his or her peers. The Learning Assistant is not there to move a single student further but to assist the group in working together toward a useful answer.
  • Is the activity discussion-based? If the activity is a solitary one, requiring no discussion, there will be no clear role for the Learning Assistant. Thus, most Learning Assistant-facilitated activities are discussion-based. This is based on the idea that students must articulate and defend their ideas as a means for developing them.
  • Optional: Equipment-based activities. Some departments have found Learning Assistants to be instrumental in equipment-based activities, as the Learning Assistant can ask provocative questions about a physical apparatus. Since the Learning Assistant often works in a laboratory setting, many activities require laboratory equipment and computer simulations.

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.

  • Meet weekly with course Learning Assistants.It is important for faculty in a course supported by Learning Assistants to meet weekly with Learning Assistants (together with any Learning Assistants that are involved with the course) in order to reflect on the previous week, prepare for the upcoming week, and to listen and get feedback from Learning Assistants about how students are interacting with the course material. These meetings are also useful for creating a sense of community and to support Learning Assistants in the challenges of working with students in group environments. You may find it useful to look at the the instructor notes for the first joint Learning Assistants/Teaching Assistant meeting in chemistry (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Jul27 10)
  • Discuss common student ideas. Look through students' answers to prior semesters' assessments in order to get a sense of how the students might approach the various content of the course.
  • Run through the activity. With most activities, it is a very good idea to run through the activity with the Learning Assistants in its entirety, with the Learning Assistants in the role of the students and the faculty modeling how the Learning Assistants should interact with students during the activity (such as proper Socratic questioning). This is very useful for helping students become familiar with the activity and to check in on their own understanding of the material.
  • Discuss the process involved in facilitating the activity. It is difficult for Learning Assistants to both play the part of students as they work through the activity AND notice important (and often subtle) aspects of the implementation. Thus you may need to explicitly discuss decisions you made when playing the part of the Learning Assistant, or you might want to assign one or two Learning Assistants each week to observe and report on the process to the group. (How did the instructor get all the Learning Assistants/students to participate in a group? What kinds of questions did the instructor ask to guide student thinking? How long did the instructor listen in on a group discussion before interjecting?)
  • Make sure Learning Assistants understand the content. Before they go into the activity, Learning Assistants need a chance to brush-up or deepen their understanding of the content by going through the activity and asking questions of the instructor and/or TAs.
  • Review in advance. Some instructors require Learning Assistants to review materials in advance of the weekly meetings, when available. One instructor required the Learning Assistants to prepare a short presentation on the material to each other, to ensure that they take responsibility for the content and the weekly meeting isn't used solely to review the content.
  • Prepare for understanding, not for the answers. Learning Assistants and TAs alike tend to view activity preparation as "getting the answers" rather than to understand the activity and common student ideas and approaches to solving various types of problems. Depending on the nature of the activity, it may be important to curb their desire to get the answer to each piece of the activity and then move on – as they would then encourage students in the class to take this less effective approach. For ideas on how to encourage Learning Assistants to probe student learning within activities, see the tips and strategies sheet for Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Jul27 10).

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.
  • Make it fun. The Learning Assistants' morale and attitudes will strongly affect that of your students. So, frame the preparation and activities as fun and engaging, especially in the beginning of the semester. Especially early on, use ice-breaker activities so the group gets to know each other a little better and get comfortable asking questions that can help them grow.
  • Solicit feedback from Learning Assistants. Learning Assistants will often have significant observations from their experiences working with students. Soliciting this feedback can be informative to you as a teacher, and can foster a collaborative teaching atmosphere between faculty and Learning Assistants.
  • Solicit reflections from Learning Assistants. Learning Assistants are sometimes sophomores, working with freshmen. They may not be confident in a classroom of their peers, not giving the answer. Ask them about their experiences and acknowledge their difficulties. Reassure them that we all make mistakes, even professors. If they don't mention difficulties, here are some possible prompting questions:
    • What was good / bad in your session?
    • Did anyone give you a hard time?
    • Were there times you weren't sure what the answer was?
    • Did you realize, after the fact, that you explained something wrong?
    For ideas on how Learning Assistants might deal with such challenges, see the tips and strategies sheet for Learning Assistants and TAs (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Jul27 10). Learning Assistants also reflect on their experience as part of the pedagogy course, and faculty can view those reflections. You may find some of the prompting questions used in these reflections helpful.
  • Keep Learning Assistants from getting "railroaded" by TAs. Without sufficient faculty oversight in these weekly meetings, it's easy for the older, more experienced graduate TAs to pressure the Learning Assistants into "teaching by telling" and to skim through activity preparation without fully exploring their questions. It is also tempting for TAs to think that Learning Assistants are their assistants. This is not a useful organization, it is more useful for both TA and Learning Assistants to serve the role of facilitating group interaction. See 'Challenges' for more ideas on promoting effective Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant collaboration.
  • Explicitly discuss the rationale for course / activity structure, and goals for student learning. Instructors have reasons for the pedagogical choices they make (which activity to use, how to use Learning Assistants, how to structure class time, requiring students to work in groups). These reasons need to be made explicit to students, Learning Assistants, and TAs for successful buy-in. Learning Assistants and TAs especially need to understand the rationale for why the course is structured a certain way in order to answer student questions about "Why do we have to do this?" or "Can I work by myself today?" Having these discussions also ensures that everyone is working towards common goals related to student learning. This point cannot be over emphasized and this type of discussion should take place periodically throughout the semester and not just once in the beginning.
  • Provide mentorship. Support Learning Assistants in their evolution as teachers and as learners. Learning Assistants who go on to become teachers and those who go on to graduate school often credit faculty as a major source of their inspiration and success.

4. How Do I Choose My Learning Assistants?

Sample powerpoint file distributed to faculty in astronomy to advertise Learning Assistant program. Details
  • Recruit Learning Assistants early. Recruit Learning Assistants for a course in the prior semester. Schedule an introductory meeting with candidates partway through that term to explain the job. Then provide online applications and interview potential candidates.
  • Where to find Learning Assistants. Common strategies for finding good candidates are:
    • Announcements in that class the semester prior (see the example powerpoint slide distributed to astronomy faculty for use in their classes (Acrobat (PDF) 69kB Aug30 10))
    • Email students doing well in their courses
    • Email upper-division majors – although if you are trying to recruit Learning Assistants to become K-12 teachers, it is harder to recruit the upper division students than the freshmen and sophomores
  • Attributes to look for. Find students who are skilled in the subject, have an interest in teaching at any level, and have a personality that suits them well to working with students in a productive way. Keep in mind you are building a team: Value the unique contributions that Learning Assistants bring with them.

5. Challenges

  • Creating a Learning Assistant community. It can be intimidating to work with one's peers in this loosely structured way, so it's important that Learning Assistants feel part of a community – both within the department, and within the university as a whole – so that they know that their struggles are not unique.
  • Balancing professionalism with community. The Learning Assistants program at the University of Arkansas reports that they've found it challenging to both create a learning environment that is "informal, relaxed and collaborative" but to also hold their Learning Assistants to a "high degree of responsibility and professionalism."
  • Promoting effective Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant collaboration. Graduate TAs have generally not been trained in effective pedagogy, and their teaching style may not be consistent with how the undergraduate Learning Assistants have been trained. There is also a power imbalance between TAs and Learning Assistants that may cause some friction. Experienced Learning Assistants are often more assertive regarding their role, whereas newer Learning Assistants will tend to "go with the flow," following the TA's lead. Some strategies for creating effective Teaching Assistant/Learning Assistant working relationships are:
    • Explicitly discuss your expectations at the beginning of the semester
    • Include experienced Learning Assistants in new TA training, to help practice leading student-centered activities
    • Pair Learning Assistants with different TAs during the semester (if they work in pairs).
    • For more ideas see instructor notes for first joint Learning Assistant/Teaching Assistant meeting (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Jul27 10) from Chemistry.
  • Getting the word out to faculty. It may take some time for faculty to become aware that Learning Assistants are available for their use. Holding informational meetings, and making faculty aware of which students are currently serving as Learning Assistants, can be helpful strategies (see the example powerpoint slide distributed to astronomy faculty for use in their classes (Acrobat (PDF) 69kB Aug30 10))
  • Faculty time. Many faculty members aren't willing or able to take on the responsibility of weekly meetings with the LAs, which is necessary to fully support their development as effective teachers.
  • Improving Learning Assistant-led activities. Many activities used with Learning Assistants are home-grown; developed by faculty and under development. Learning Assistant observations, and sometimes student feedback, can be used to improve your materials.
  • Student buy-in. Enrolled students are often not used to this type of interactive activity, and may resist. It's useful to tell students what to expect from the activity and from interaction with the Learning Assistant and the TA. Emphasize that these were designed to help them learn, and provide them some evidence if you have it. You may find it useful to take a look at the Recitation introduction for the Chemistry Student (Acrobat (PDF) 79kB Jul27 10) which is given to students at the beginning of term.

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:

  • Focused on education as applied to math and science
  • Taught by faculty from school of education and a K-12 teacher
  • Includes readings from the educational literature
  • Includes reflections on their current teaching practice
  • Includes discussion of teaching and learning
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:
  • Provided a single powerpoint slide that faculty could use to inform their students about open Learning Assistant positions (see the example powerpoint distributed to astronomy faculty for use in their classes (Acrobat (PDF) 69kB Aug30 10))
  • Offered to come to class at the beginning of a lecture to inform students about open Learning Assistant positions
  • Encouraged faculty to use Learning Assistants in faculty meetings
  • Dealt with payroll and other administrative details
  • Organized information session with faculty who plan to use Learning Assistants
  • Organized information session for potential Learning Assistants

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.