Learning Assistant Strategies
Determine how your Learning Assistants will enhance your courses. Incorporating Learning Assistants into a course is not a one-size-fits-all thing – they can serve a variety of different roles:
- Learning Assistants at Arkansas are each responsible for a lab-practicum section in the introductory physics course.
- Learning Assistants in Colorado physics classes help run Tutorials in some classes, and provide support for lecture demonstrations in others; in addition, each one spends at least one hour a week in the “physics help room,” where any physics student can drop in at any time for help on homework. In some applied math classes they run collaborative problem-solving sessions, and in certain astrophysics classes they actually lead “Learning Team” sessions that displace one lecture per week. In chemistry classes, Learning Assistants work with students during lecture on “clicker questions,” in recitations, and in a homework help room.
- Learning Assistants at Seattle Pacific assist faculty in making courses more interactive by leading small-group discussions and “facilitating learning through questioning.”
- Learning Assistants at the University of Missouri-Rolla work in learning forums to “guide students in the learning process within an atmosphere of cooperative engagement and teamwork.”
Develop or adapt a pedagogy course for Learning Assistants to take. Pedagogy courses expose Learning Assistants to physics education research, effective teaching methods, and use of technology in classrooms.
- Colorado has developed a successful pedagogy course called the Mathematics and Science Education Seminar, for Learning Assistants in all STEM fields. This course consists of weekly classes discussions in a seminar format; weekly meetings with the professor teaching the content course; readings, reflection papers, and journal entries; and a final project and poster presentation.
- Seattle Pacific adapted Colorado’s course for its own program, and this year will offer a five credit course which includes “a deep exploration of one particular subject area.” They are working towards allowing students to get credit towards teaching certification through this course.
- Arkansas offers Learning Assistants a course that can be tailored to be one to three credits – one for doing readings and participating in discussions, and three for participating in pre-semester pedagogy activities with graduate students as well as having responsibility for a lab-practicum session.
Provide strong support and mentoring for your Learning Assistants. Teaching for the first time can be intimidating, even if one is teaching one’s peers. Arkansas reports that “strong mentoring of possible future teachers through their early teaching experiences, such as a Learning Assistant or TA position, can enhance their desire to teach, as well as their comfort level and effectiveness.” Learning Assistants at Arkansas participate in a pedagogy workshop at the beginning of the semester alongside graduate teaching assistants, and receive mentoring throughout the semester from faculty members as well as the Teacher in Residence.
Decide how you will compensate your Learning Assistants. Learning Assistants can receive money or course credit, or both, for their efforts.
- Colorado offers a stipend as well as a one-credit pedagogy course.
- Arkansas offers credit only (one to three credits depending on the degree of student involvement), and also enables students to count 40 Learning Assistant hours towards the requirement of 60 hours of teaching experience for entry into the Masters of Arts in Teaching program.
- Seattle Pacific offers a choice of a stipend or credit.
Decide how you will fund your Learning Assistant program.
- At Colorado, funding for Learning Assistants in Physics and other departments comes from the departments chairs the dean of Arts and Sciences, and the provost. Faculty took a bottom-up approach to building this level of support, by using the chairs’ support to leverage dean funding, and dean support to leverage provost funding.
- The University of Texas at El Paso has recently been awarded a Peer Leader Teaching grant that will support Learning Assistants in physics, chemistry, and math.
Collect data to demonstrate the success of your program. In order to secure the buy-in of university administration and skeptical faculty members, you will need data that show the value of investing time and money into a Learning Assistant program. Colorado has gathered data that show that
- the presence of Learning Assistants in a course enhances student learning gains,
- Learning Assistants themselves improve their conceptual understanding through teaching, and
- Learning Assistants as a group have a greater sensitivity to students’ learning processes than do faculty and overall teaching candidates.
Visit a school that has a Learning Assistant program. Learning Assistant programs are complex, and seeing one in action is the best way to get a handle on the various aspects that need to be in place. The University of Colorado offered a workshop in Boulder in Fall of 2007 for faculty members from other universities interested in developing a program at their home institution.