Evidence Supporting Learning Assistants

The Learning Assistant Program was first developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, and has been regularly studied there and elsewhere. This organized program of peer facilitation has been found to increase student learning in physics, particularly for women and minorities. Programs like these also increase the content knowledge of the tutors.

Most Learning Assistant programs are associated with STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math). At UCI, we are increasing their use in non-STEM courses and are studying their effectiveness. We have preliminary data that students in classes with LAs average a 1/3 increase in course grade compared with courses without LAs or with only peer tutors (no pedagogical training). Learning Assistants are also associated with increased interest in and understanding of course content.

Participation in the LA Program

Faculty who interested in using learning assistants need to teach a course with regular opportunities for small-group work in class and/or in discussion. Priority is given to classes that are large and difficult.

  1. Contact Adrienne Williams at the TLRC (adriw@uci.edu) to discuss your course design and determine whether learning assistants are a good fit.
  2. Work with your school or department to support the undergraduate LAs by either units (such as a 198 course) or by paying them as tutors under UAW guidelines.
  3. Work with LARC to coordinate the recruitment of LAs
  4. Meet weekly with your TAs and LAs. Danny Mann from DTEI (dmann@uci.edu) will be happy to attend an early TA meeting to help TAs work effectively with LAs.
  5. Give points for having your students complete an end-of-term online evaluation of learning assistants.
  6. Work with LARC staff to make sure there is room for new LAs in the LARC training course Uni Stu 175: Methods and Applications in Small Group Instruction.
Learning Assistants 2
Figure modified from Am. J. Phys. 78, 1218 (2010)

Responsibility of Academic Units

Academic units determine the method used to employ the LAs, including, but not limited to: (a) hiring and compensating LAs as tutors under UAW guidelines or (b) developing a course and providing academic credit where appropriate, such as in teacher prep programs. LAs are not graders and are likewise not a substitute for TAs, as their success depends on the presence of the TAs in the class. However, they can offset the student-instructor ratio in situations where an instructor or TA is present.

Course Design Support

Faculty interested in using LAs will receive support from DTEI, including instructor and TA training in active learning course design and participation in an LA-focused Faculty Learning Community. A Faculty Guide of best practices is available here as a starting resource, including several suggested models of implementation. Contact DTEI at dtei@uci.edu for more information about course design support.

 

Dealing with tight, fixed seating in large lecture halls

Many faculty would like to add small group activities to their lectures but feel constrained by the tight seating and long rows found in large lecture halls. Learning assistants can’t change the physical space, but they can make facilitating group work less daunting. Here are examples of how UCI instructors have managed to add active learning to our lecture halls:

  • Keep groups casual (“turn to your neighbor”).
  • Communicate that you will regularly have problem-solving activities in class, and students should raise their hand if they are stuck.
  • Tell students to keep bags tucked under their seats so it is easier to get in and out.
  • Tell students their group needs to be three or less. Three people in a row can talk to each other, larger groups can’t interact well.
  • Have students bring paper and a thick pen to class. Have activities that require a list, or drawing, or equation. While they are working, you and LAs can walk up and down aisles and see what students are working on in the middle of the row. Have students hold up their papers as answers.
  • If students are working on a complex activity, encourage them to send a representative out to the aisle to ask you the question. You give the representative the answer, and they climb back into the middle of their row and explain to their group.
  • Use clickers as an accountability tool. A problem-solving activity should require some sort of decision or commitment at the end. A good clicker question is difficult to complete alone and easier to complete with a small group helping each other.
  • Have students bring a supply of blank index cards for class activities. Groups of 2-3 can write their names in the corner and use the space on the card to write out their answer. These can be “graded” for effort only by TAs or graders after class.

References

History of Learning Assistant model at Univ Colorado Boulder

Otero, V., Pollock, S., & Finkelstein, N. (2010). A physics department’s role in preparing physics teachers: The Colorado learning assistant model. American Journal of Physics, 78(11), 1218-1224. Link.

Theory paper on why tutors learn

Roscoe, R. D., & Chi, M. T. (2007). Understanding tutor learning: Knowledge-building and knowledge-telling in peer tutors’ explanations and questions.Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 534-574. Link.

Learning assistants benefit Hispanics and women in physics labs

Goertzen, R. M., Brewe, E., Kramer, L. H., Wells, L., & Jones, D. (2011). Moving toward change: Institutionalizing reform through implementation of the Learning Assistant model and Open Source Tutorials. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 7(2), 020105. Link.

Learning assistants tend to be more ethnically similar to undergraduates than TAs or faculty

Talbot, R. M., Hartley, L. M., Marzetta, K., & Wee, B. S. (2015). Transforming Undergraduate Science Education With Learning Assistants: Student Satisfaction in Large-Enrollment Courses. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(5), 24. Link.

Review article on benefits for URM tutors (generally K12)

Robinson, D. R., Schofield, J. W., & Steers-Wentzell, K. L. (2005). Peer and cross-age tutoring in math: Outcomes and their design implications.Educational Psychology Review, 17(4), 327-362. Link.