What are Learning Assistants?

Initial Publication Date: September 3, 2010

Gamow Tower - two students
Learning Assistants are undergraduate students, primarily in mathematics and the sciences, who are prepared to provide support for student learning in interactive classroom environments. One of three major goals of the Learning Assistant program is to foster the development of qualified teachers in the sciences, so Learning Assistants are often chosen for their interest in teaching as well as their understanding of the content. Learning Assistants largely assist with facilitating small group interaction (in group activities, tutorials, and clicker questions, for example), and other activities that capitalize on their skills in identifying and addressing student difficulties with conceptual content.

Here is an one-page introductory overview (Acrobat (PDF) 139kB Jul28 10) about the Learning Assistant program at the University of Colorado, and you can view a short video about the Learning Assistant program featuring the voices of students, Learning Assistants and faculty.

Preparing future teachers

One main goal of the Learning Assistant program is to assist with Learning Assistants' development as effective teachers. Thus, all new Learning Assistants enroll in a pedagogy course and receive weekly faculty mentorship. Their role is different from that of a Teaching Assistant (TA): Their primary role is to help students learn, through facilitation of student activities, rather than to help the teacher teach. Thus, they receive direct instruction in how to guide students towards an understanding of the content through questioning and how to identify and address common student ideas. They sometimes assist with the grading of homework and exams under the guidance of a faculty mentor.

Learning Assistants vs. Peer Led Team Learning

While sharing many characteristics, Learning Assistants are not peer leaders as in peer-led team learning (PLTL), although the two programs are complementary. Like peer-led team learning, Learning Assistants assist their peers, often in open-ended conceptual activities such as in the recitation tutorials described elsewhere in this module. However, Learning Assistants are explicitly chosen for their interest in teaching, and the program emphasizes the collection of student performance data to drive instruction and affect faculty practices. In addition, Learning Assistants are used more flexibly than in peer-led team learning, from weekly small-group sessions that resemble peer-led team learning workshops, to working with graduate TAs in recitation or tutorial sessions, and other ways that fit into required or optional course components.

Learning Assistants help students learn -- but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Students in classes supported by Learning Assistants learn more science than those in classes not supported by Learning Assistants. However, the Learning Assistant program has multiple goals, including the recruitment of additional teachers into K12 science and math teaching, research-based course transformation at the undergraduate level, and institutional change towards research-based teaching. See the section on Why Teach With Learning Assistants? for more information on program goals, plus research and data on its impacts.

Who are the Learning Assistants?

  • Top undergraduates
  • Recently completed the course they are being hired to support
  • Chosen both for performance in course and interest in teaching
  • Not necessarily majors in that discipline (i.e., a physics Learning Assistant can be a political science major)
  • Potential future teachers

What do the Learning Assistants do?

  • Work directly with students, helping make courses more student-centered using interactive techniques
  • Take 1-credit pedagogy course on interactive teaching techniques and education research
  • Meet weekly with the course instructor to discuss common student difficulties and upcoming activities
These activities form the Experiential Learning Model of the Learning Assistant program (see image, below), where Learning Assistants learn content and pedagogy and apply their learning through practice in a course.
Experiential learning model
The experiential learning model of the Colorado Learning Assistant Program Details

What do the Learning Assistants get?