Digital Learning Blog

Learning Assistants as Peer Educators in Large Online Courses

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Digital Learning Blog

Following the graduate student worker strike of 2023, many faculty members like me were caught off guard by the sudden need for alternative instructional support. The term “learning assistant” initially brought to mind images of undergraduates serving merely as classroom aides. However, as I began working with UCI Certified Learning Assistants for my large online courses, it quickly became evident that LAs offered unexpected benefits for students and for me as an educator. 

Unlike teaching assistants (TAs) focused on grading and administrative tasks, LAs at UCI are trained as peer educators tasked with facilitating active learning through approaches like guided discussions. Their role is outlined on the university’s LA program website, which describes how LAs can “support courses that are traditionally difficult or have high enrollment” by leading collaborative activities designed to promote higher order thinking skills.1

I first tried a team of 12 LAs in my 500-student online Art 9A “Media Art & Technology” course during the fall quarter. My initial plan was to have the LAs lead weekly topic-driven discussion groups of around 40 learners each on Canvas, with TAs providing oversight. While my expectations were modest, I was amazed by the positive impact LAs brought to student engagement right from the start. The discussions facilitated by the LAs were vibrant and substantive, with participants contributing longer and more critically engaged posts compared to previous quarters without LA support. This was particularly noteworthy given that Art 9A and my subsequent 1100-student Art 8 “Changing Creativity” course were GE Category IV Arts & Humanities classes serving a broad range of undergrads, some quite apprehensive about courses outside their main disciplines. 

What began as a simple experiment in supplementing TA support soon revealed the real potential of peer-guided instruction. After just a few weeks of working with the LAs and receiving their feedback in our regular planning meetings, I realized that their contributions were instrumental in helping me become a more effective instructor. One hand, the LAs occupied a unique hybrid space within the student discussion groups, where they could relate to comments expressed based on their own recent experiences. But LAs also were trained in active learning methods, allowing them to analyze the pedagogical encounter from a critical perspective and offer insights I would not have been able to access as an instructor. 

Armed with this dual perspective, the LAs provided invaluable suggestions for improving the course. Their ideas included modifying discussion prompts for better engagement, adding participation options to accommodate diverse learners, crafting supportive messaging to guide students through the online environment, sending added assignment reminders, and most importantly, modeling the enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity I hoped to cultivate in the courses. Through this collaborative process, I came to understand that peer instruction offered a distinct advantage. Being embedded in the student groups yet tied to the instructional team, the LAs could engage in a continuous cycle of practical experience, critical reflection, and informed implementation in a way that benefited learners and instructors alike. 

The success I witnessed in deploying LAs aligned with theoretical foundations explaining the workings of peer learning. In the recently released book, Effective Use of Collective Peer Teaching in Teacher Education, Rolf K. Baltzersen traces the roots of peer instruction to the educational philosophy of John Amos Comenius, who emphasized the interconnectedness of teaching and learning.2  Peer learning embodies this philosophy by blurring the lines between teacher and student, creating an environment where all participants both contribute knowledge and receive it. Citing Comenius, Baltzersen writes that the act of teaching itself is a powerful learning experience:  “Those who teaches others, teach themselves.”3   

When learners assume roles as peer educators, they invariably end up delving into material more deeply, discovering new ways of expressing their comprehension, and acquiring enhanced theoretical tools along the way. Such aspects of the LA experience reinforce an undergraduate’s personal skill set while enhancing what Baltzersen calls “metacognitive capacity.”4 Moreover, peer learning taps into the synergistic effects of collective knowledge and distributed intelligence.  

As groups collaboratively engage in learning activities, they pool their diverse insights to create a more comprehensive understanding than any individual could achieve alone. This aggregation of perspectives allows classroom groups to transcend the conceptual limits of isolated learners. The “wisdom of the crowd” premise further explains how peer learning environments can produce more accurate, creative, and robust outcomes through the collective input and decision-making of all students.5 In essence, initiatives like UCI’s LA program cultivate an educational experience where the shared insights of the full class elevate the quality of learning for everyone involved. 

While the potential benefits of leveraging LAs are compelling, realizing this potential requires a sustained commitment on the part of the faculty members who engage LAs.  Regular consultations, clear expectations, and open communication channels are essential for ensuring LAs can excel in their roles as peer instructors and active learning facilitators. This also is why all first-time LAs are required to complete the comprehensive “LA Pedagogy” course conducted by Josh Arimond of UCI’s Certified Learning Assistant Program. 

It’s also important to remember that LAs represent a complementary resource rather than a replacement for TAs.  Grading, one-on-one tutoring, and other individualized support duties remain best handled by graduate level TAs and instructors. However, in the context of large courses where achieving meaningful student-instructor engagement is a persistent challenge, LAs offer a compelling and cost-effective solution for promoting active learning at scale. 

Thinking about my experience with the LA program, I can genuinely say it has shifted my perspectives on teaching and learning. What began as a stop-gap measure during a campus crisis became a generative experience –– both enhancing my students’ engagement and success and catalyzing new insights for me an educator.  As UCI continues to contemplate new approaches to interactive instruction and digital learning, the innovations in peer instruction through programs like UCI’s LA program will continue to be important. Creating environments in which knowledge is animated through group learning, we can continue to develop more engaging and inclusive educational experiences for everyone. 

Already I’m seeing other areas beyond class discussions where LA facilitation can extend to generative projects and improvisational research. In addition, LAs could play a significant role in improving inclusive learning and student success since their role as undergraduate peers has the potential to advance diverse perspectives and varying learning needs. I am looking forward to again working with LAs as consultants on teaching approaches and course activities, with a goal of developing pedagogies that engage and empower all learners in a course. It seems that LAs are well positioned to clarify course curricula, coach others in “how” to navigate the undergraduate experience, and to generally demystify the often obscure or unwritten codes of what is sometimes termed the “hidden curriculum” in higher education. Based on the experiences I’ve described above, I plan to continue working with LAs as pedagogical partners and I encourage faculty colleagues to give the program a try.


1 UCI Certified Learning Assistants Program
2 Rolf K. Baltzersen, Effective Use of Collective Peer Teaching in Teacher Education.
3 Effective Use of Peer Teaching in Teacher Education, p. 2
4 Effective Use of Peer Teaching in Teacher Education, p. 68.
5 Effective Use of Peer Teaching in Teacher Education, p. 111.

About the Author

David TrendDavid Trend
Professor, Claire Trevor School of the Arts

David Trend is a Professor in the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. Before arriving at UC Irvine in 1997, Trend was dean of Creative Arts at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, where he developed multimedia partnerships with schools and corporations in Silicon Valley. Prior to that, Trend was graduate program coordinator in the Inter-Arts Center of San Francisco State University. During the past fifteen years, Trend has been a frequent consultant for foundations, state arts and humanities councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Trend’s teaching draws connections among the fields of cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and media analysis. Courses he has taught at UCI include Language and Vision in Everyday Life, A Culture Divided, Issues in Media Violence and Fear, Seminar in Cultural Activism and Radical Democracy, Issues in K-12 Education, and Media, Art, and Technology.

In recent years, David has played a vital role in supporting DTEI faculty development programs. He and Megan Linos, DTEI’s Director of Digital and Online Learning, received the 2022 Confronting Extremism through Community, Thriving and Wellness award, which supported 40+ faculty and graduate students cultivating a DEI-A culture in the classroom via the first Inclusive Teaching Institute in Spring 2023.