PhysTEC Logo

Learning Assistant Programs

often enhance both physics and physics teacher education programs by improving course instruction and introducing students to teaching practices

Learning Assistants (LAs) are undergraduate students who, through the guidance of course instructors and a special pedagogy course, facilitate discussions among groups of students in a variety of classroom settings that encourage student engagement and responsibility for learning.

The specific roles that LAs take on can vary between courses, but all programs share certain features that distinguish them from more conventional teaching assistantships:

  • LAs for a particular course are recruited from among the top students who recently completed that course.
  • Concurrent to teaching, LAs participate in a low/no-credit pedagogy course that develops their pedagogical content knowledge.
  • LAs are encouraged to enter a teacher certification program and are sometimes required to do so if they wish to continue working as LAs in subsequent semesters.

Visit the Learning Assistant Alliance homepage to get support in starting your LA program

Common Benefits and Costs to Supporting a Learning Assistant Program

Benefits:

  • Significantly greater conceptual understanding and content knowledge for students in courses supported by an LA program
  • Decreases in failure rates, particularly among students from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM
  • More support for faculty instructors of large introductory courses and useful feedback from LAs about student learning
  • Greater student success in and satisfaction with pre-requisite courses
  • Improved retention and degree attainment

Costs:

  • Faculty time for leading a pedagogy course for the LAs
  • Faculty and/or LA coordinators must host weekly meetings with LAs to prepare for upcoming classes
  • Stipends for LAs, who are usually paid about $1,000 per semester

Strategies to Implement a Successful Learning Assistant Program

Decide how your Learning Assistants will enhance your courses and how your courses will change to take advantage of them.

Learning Assistants can serve in a variety of different roles, facilitating small-group learning in recitations, lectures, and help sessions, using Socratic dialogue, and guiding work in lab sections.

Decide how you will fund and compensate your Learning Assistants.

Undergraduate assistants can be less expensive to fund than graduate TAs, which builds a good case for Learning Assistants. Grants can help launch a program while permanent funding is sought. Learning Assistants can receive course credit and should receive payment for their efforts.

Develop or adapt a course where Learning Assistants gain pedagogical content knowledge. Invite graduate TAs.

A well-designed course makes the difference between a Learning Assistant program and a traditional teaching assistantship. Many programs adapt the University of Colorado's pedagogy course for LAs to their context. Inviting graduate TAs to take this course, and thus aligning their teaching methods with those of the Learning Assistants, creates a stronger learning community within the department.

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. Support from faculty and Teachers in Residence is critical in making the Learning Assistant program effective for enhancing student learning and recruiting future teachers.

Develop a pathway to enable Learning Assistants to advance that is coupled with participation in a teacher preparation program.

Advancement gives Learning Assistants status within the program and among their peers. This both encourages experienced LAs to move toward teacher certification and provides them with mentoring opportunities. To make advancement in the LA program a recruiting tool for future physics teachers, require returning Learning Assistants to take courses that lead to teacher certification.

Collect data to demonstrate the success of your program.

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. Collect data on the learning gains of students in courses with Learning Assistants, learning gains of the Learning Assistants themselves, and grades of students who had Learning Assistants in future semesters.

Visit an institution that has a Learning Assistant program.

Learning Assistant programs are complex, and seeing one in action is the best way to get a sense of the various aspects that need to be in place. Visit Learning Assistant Alliance to find an institution with an LA program that you can connect with.

Sign Up to Stay Informed

You’ll get PhysTalk, our monthly newsletter, and other occasional updates from PhysTEC and from the Get the Facts Out project.

Sign Up