Karma Rose Zavita, School of Social Ecology
Big universities are the most likely to have large lecture-style classes and as a result of the labor involved in managing these courses, there has been an increase reliance on the use of Teaching Assistants (TA’s). One alternative to TAs, is the use of undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) or University Learning Assistants (ULAs). The use of LAs has become more popular over the years, but LAs have largely been underutilized (Trammell & Kourtidis, 2018). Nonetheless, they could be incorporated in any classroom—large, small, virtual, in-person—to support faculty and other teaching staff Martin & Arik, 2021).
Some examples of the type of assistance that LAs can provide are as follows: lead in-class breakout groups, monitor classroom discussion boards and/or field questions from students, track attendance, find teaching materials or other resources, pass out or collect assignments, etc. As noted, there are a range of practical uses for LAs from simple to more complex tasks.
Regardless of how extensively faculty choose to have LAs involved, one thing is for sure, evidence demonstrates that not only do Teaching faculty benefit from the presence of LAs, but TAs and undergraduate students have a lot to gain as well. Below are some of the highlights that recent researchers have found (Luckie et. al., 2020; Sellami; Luo et. al., 2001; Pavlacic et al., 2018).
Benefits to Teaching Faculty:
- Increase capacity and diversity in options for classroom pedagogies
- Gain experience and exposure to mentoring undergraduate students
- Receive feedback from those who the classes most impact
- Reduce administrative task load
- The use of LAs is correlated with higher course ratings
- Increased student retention
Benefits to Teaching Assistants:
- Support in workload
- Increase opportunities to mentor undergraduates
- Gain skills and knowledge on the use of LAs for potential future use
Benefits to Learning Assistants:
- Gain a behind the scenes understanding of teaching in higher ed
- CV/Resume and skills building, mentorship from the faculty members
- Opportunity to give back to other students
- Working with graduate students, exposure to graduate school
Benefits to Undergraduate Students:
- Increase learning, understanding, and performance of course materials
- Increase network of social support and mentoring
- Easier access and potentially quicker responses times to questions
- Increase in participation and engagement
- More opportunities to engage in active learning and to be taught with more inclusive pedagogies
Using LAs can be difficult at first. These challenges can be mitigated by better training and having clearly defined expectations laid out by Teaching Faculty. Studies have shown that many of the barriers to a successful program lie in poor organization of the initial implementation, as well as budgetary concerns (Pavlacic et. al., 2018, Luo & Bellows, 2001). As in any first-time experience, some undergraduate students may not be adequately prepared for the responsibilities of the role, though with proper applications and training, this can also be mitigated.
A review of the literature concludes that TAs, LAs, and students may have an equally beneficial experience when implementing LAs into the classroom. Consider this partnership for your schools, departments, and courses. UC Irvine has had a successful time incorporating LAs. The information about UCI’s program can be found here: https://dtei.uci.edu/learning-assistants/
- Trammell, & Kourtidis, J. (2018). The Impact of Learning Assistance Experience on Teaching Pedagogy. The Learning Assistance Review, 23(1), 31–.
- Martin, Miriam E, and Arik Davidyan. “Implementing an Undergraduate Learning Assistant Program Tailored for Remote Instruction.” Journal of microbiology & biology education 22, no. 2 (2021).
- Pavlacic, Jeffrey; Culp, Megan; Harvey, Summer; Cathey, Christie; and Buchanan, Erin (2018) “Using Undergraduate Learning Assistants to Aid in Course Redesign,” Modern Psychological Studies: Vol. 23 : No. 2 , Article 2.
Available at: https://scholar.utc.edu/mps/vol23/iss2/2
- Luo, J., Grady, M.L. & Bellows, L.H. Instructional Issues for Teaching Assistants. Innovative Higher Education25, 209–230 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007603816555
- Sellami, N., Shaked, S., Laski, F. A., Eagan, K. M., & Sanders, E. R. (2017). Implementation of a Learning Assistant Program Improves Student Performance on Higher-Order Assessments. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar62. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-12-0341
- Luckie, D. B., Mancini, B. W., Abdallah, N., Kadouh, A. K., Ungkuldee, A. C. P., & Hare, A. A. (2020). Undergraduate teaching assistants can provide support for reformed practices to raise student learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 44(1), 32–38. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00090.2019