Why Teach with Learning Assistants?
- Students enrolled in the course and their Learning Assistants both learn the subject better.
- The Learning Assistants become better teachers and learners.
- Faculty become better teachers.
- The university is impacted as a whole.
Goals of the Learning Assistant program
2. Curriculum and course transformation. The Learning Assistant program provides the person-power to change the undergraduate teaching approach, using the principles of interactive engagement and student-centered instruction. This intervention has the potential to improve the quality of instruction, and increase student learning at the K-16 levels. read more
3. Institutional change. The use of Learning Assistants helps establish research-based teaching as a valued enterprise at the University and to increase use of research-based practices at the K-12 level through the involvement of faculty and departments. read more
4. Discipline-Based Education Research. The Learning Assistant program provides faculty with an opportunity to engage in education research and reflections on their teaching practices by assessing the impacts of course transformations. read more
5. Increase the Number of Majors. A goal of some institutions is to increase the number of undergraduates choosing to major in a particular discipline. This has been shown to be an effect of the Learning Assistant program at at least one institution. read more
This module from the University of Colorado describes their Learning Assistant Program
Science and math faculty members provide valuable mentorship to the next generation of teachers. A major obstacle to the quality of science education in the U.S. is the lack of qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers (AAEE, 2003). Talented Learning Assistants who are recruited to become teachers report that one of the major factors in making a decision to become a teacher was encouragement and support from their STEM faculty mentor. The other reason Learning Assistants report is that they recognized teaching as a complex and challenging endeavor.
Since the inception of the Colorado Learning Assistant program, six times more chemistry/biochemistry and physics/astrophysics majors have enrolled in teacher certification programs, and the number of graduates from math and science teacher certification programs has more than doubled at the University of Colorado (see below). A total of 53 students have been recruited to teaching during the time period from 2002-2010 (of which 42 are Noyce Fellows) – a large number nationally. Most Learning Assistants report in interviews that they hadn't considered teaching as a career until they entered the Learning Assistant program. They most frequently indicate that they now see teaching as a complex endeavor, and cite faculty support and encouragement as being important factors in their decisions.
The Learning Assistant program at the University of Colorado hires about 170 Learning Assistants per year, of which ~12% enter a career track as K-12 teachers. The structure of the Learning Assistant program embodies this emphasis on a career teaching track:
- First semester: Take pedagogy course
- Second semester: Must enroll in education course or early K-12 field experience
- Third semester: Must be accepted to teacher certification program. Eligible for NSF-funded Noyce Teaching Fellowship ( This site may be offline. ) up to $15,000/year. Mentor new Learning Assistants.
Curriculum and Course Transformation
Similar results have been seen in General Chemistry, in which students in Learning Assistant-supported courses outperform those in traditionally taught courses (Langdon et al., in preparation, see figure to left). For more information about how Learning Assistants are used in chemistry recitations, see examples of teaching with learning assistants).
The undergraduate Learning Assistants also learn from their experience, scoring higher on conceptual diagnostics in physics, chemistry, and astronomy after serving as Learning Assistants for courses in those departments. This is a testament to the impact of teaching on one's own understanding of the content material. In fact, by the end of the introductory sequence, Learning Assistants score as well or better on these assessments as incoming graduate students in those departments (see two graphs above -- e.g., Langdon et al., in preparation; Otero, Pollock & Finkelstein, in press). More assessment data on Learning Assistant and student learning can be found on the reports and publications section of the Colorado Learning Assistant website .
Working with Learning Assistants provides faculty the opportunity to become involved as agents of educational change. In order to use Learning Assistants in their course, they must commit to:
- Use those Learning Assistants to support interactive classroom environments
- Meet with the Learning Assistants weekly
- Evaluate the impact of their course transformations
"I've taught [this course] a million times. I could do it in my sleep without preparing a lesson. But (now) I'm spending a lot of time preparing lessons for (students), trying to think 'OK, first of all, what is the main concept that I'm trying to get across here? What is it I want them to go away knowing?' Which I have to admit, I haven't spent a lot of time in the past thinking about."The impacts of the Learning Assistant experience reach to institutions beyond the university. There is evidence that Learning Assistants bring the skills and attitudes that they have gained in their experience in the Learning Assistant program to their jobs as K-12 teachers. Preliminary studies show significant differences between the teaching practices of K-12 teachers who were former Learning Assistants and those who were not in areas of lesson design, content, and classroom culture.
Discipline-Based Educational Research
Through assessment of the learning outcomes of their course transformations, faculty engage in education research as part of their involvement in the Learning Assistant program. Not only is this research an important part of fulfilling reporting requirements, but it also supports the scholarship of teaching and learning at the university more broadly. As faculty examine and publish the outcomes from their courses, they and the broader university community learn more about what constitutes effective teaching and learning. In addition, when multiple departments use Learning Assistants, and the School of Education is involved in teaching the pedagogy course, the Learning Assistant program serves to construct bridges between these departments and schools.
Increasing the Number of Majors
There is some data to suggest that the Learning Assistant program can recruit students to the major. At the University of Arkansas, the number of physics majors was increased significantly through the addition of Learning Assistants and course transformations. Their department moved from being in jeopardy of closure (one graduate in 1994) to 25 graduates in 2005. Course transformations, including Learning Assistants, were implemented in 2001. You can read more about the University of Arkansas' experiences in growing their physics department through their efforts in teacher recruitment, see the data on the growth of their department and read a general article about their Learning Assistant program. At the University of Colorado, our majors are already well-stocked, so recruitment was not a goal of the program. Anecdotally, however, students have changed their majors because they decided to become teachers due of the influence of the Learning Assistant program. One student, a political science major, wanted to become a Learning Assistant after enrollment in a course that was supported by Learning Assistants. Consequentially, she changed her major to chemistry, and then biochemistry, and is currently teaching in K-12 schools. This is a good reason to offer Learning Assistants in non-major courses, in order to recruit non-majors into teaching. However, in order to retain the prestige of the program, the majority of Learning Assistants are majors within the discipline that they are teaching.