Learning Assistants at UCI

If you are a student interested in becoming a Learning Assistant, click here.

All of the resources provided by the LAs made my suddenly-asynchronous class feel solid and supportive to my students. I’m very thankful they were willing to help me.

Adrienne Williams

Assistant Professor of Teaching, Developmental and Cell Biology

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. Learning Assistants are more effective than other undergraduate, in-class support (eg. Peer Tutors or Lab Assistants), because they are required to complete a full quarter of pedagogical training. Learning Assistants at UCI receive pedagogical training to effectively facilitate active learning in a variety of classroom settings- lectures, discussions, and labs. All LAs, in the Certified Learning Assistants Program, enroll in UNI STU 176: LA Pedagogy concurrent with their first quarter as an LA.

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 your school’s LA Faculty Advisor (if listed) to schedule an LA Consultation to discuss your course design and determine whether learning assistants are a good fit.
  1. During your LA Consultation, you will also discuss LA recruiting strategies and instructions to obtain your UNI STU 198 section to manage and grade your LAs.
  2. Coordinate with your LA Faculty Advisor and Josh to enroll New LAs in the CLAP training/certification course, UNI STU 176: LA Pedagogy.
  3. Meet weekly with your TAs and LAs. Alex Bower from DTEI (ahbower@uci.edu) will be happy to attend an early-quarter TA meeting to help TAs work effectively with LAs.
  4. (Optional) Give points for having your students complete an end-of-term online evaluation of learning assistants.



Responsibility of Academic Units

Academic Units are responsible for all policies regarding the recruitment and selection of Learning Assistants in their Unit. They are also responsible for overseeing and regulating the proper use of LAs in their Units (Eg. LAs are not allowed to grade or lead instruction).


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.

New Faculty: Steps to Get Started

The following information is for faculty interested in leveraging LAs for the first time. Many schools have LA Faculty Advisors (LAFAs). LAFAs act as liaisons between the schools and CLAP. If your school does not have a faculty advisor, Josh will act as your LAFA.

1. What to consider as you think about adding Learning Assistants to your course(s)
  • Is Active Learning a major component of your course structure?
      1. Learning Assistants are only effective in courses that provide a lot of Active Learning opportunities
        1. Lectures: 25-50% Active Learning
          1. Professors will occasionally pause lectures to introduce short Active Learning activities
        2. Discussions and Labs: Minimum 80% Active Learning
          1. Sessions usually start with a brief introduction/lecture review
          2. Students then work in their groups for the majority of the session
          3. If desired (and highly recommended), end of sessions can be excellent opportunities for groups to “share-out” what they learned or accomplished.
      2. Have a clear vision of how LAs will interact with students during Active Learning
      3.  What will the LAs be doing during “down-time”?
        1. Think about where your LAs will be situated when they’re not actively working with students
          1. Are there enough seats for LAs in the classroom?
          2. Do you want them waiting in the wings or on stage with you?
          3. Do you want them sitting together, or spread out among the students? 
          4. Your frequent Active Learning activities will dictate what’s best 
            1. If you’re doing a lot of short, discussion based activities, then sitting among the students may be best.  Students/LAs just have to turn and talk.
            2. If activities are longer or more involved, then LA locations may not be as important
  • Can you commit to a weekly pedagogy meeting with the instructional team?
      1. Meeting weekly to discuss upcoming lessons and reflection on previous lessons is crucial to a successful LA experience (LAs, professors, and TAs)!
      2. Cohorts that do not meet weekly, almost always fail.  LAs feel unprepared and professors/TAs feel that LAs aren’t effective
      3. Ideally, the whole instructional team attends (Professor, TAs, and LAs)
        1. Full team meetings work best in most situations.  Less things go wrong when the whole team is on the same page.
        2. Situations vary.  For example, some lab courses don’t have lectures, so the LAs only work with TAs.  Unless all the TAs are coordinating and instruction is consistent for all sessions, it may make more sense for LAs to meet weekly with their TAs for planning. 
      4. Weekly meetings can be in-person or in Zoom
      5. Electronic communications (no matter how frequent) are not adequate substitutions for actual meetings
  • Do you have enough tasks for the LA to keep busy?
      1. LAs earn course credit based on their weekly scheduled hours (3 Units Max)
      2. UNI STU 198 (LA Mentorship)
        1. 3-4 hours/week = 1 Unit 
        2. 5-7 hours/week = 2 Units (typical/preferred)
        3. 8-12 hours/week = 3 Units (usually courses w/ 3-4 hour labs)
      3. The  majority of the LAs’ responsibilities should be interacting with students
      4. Courses with discussion or lab sections tend to provide enough weekly hours for 2 Units.  Lecture-only courses usually require additional weekly responsibilities.  
        1. LA Learning Sessions: Similar to office hours, except LAs can ONLY students that need help with course content. Questions about grading or other administrative concerns should be directed to instructors and TAs
        2. Formative Assessments: While LAs cannot grade assignments/exams, LAs can  help with formative assessment. Formative Assessment can be a valuable tool for instructors and LAs to discuss student progress and future pedagogy planning.
        3. Facilitating Discussion Boards:  LAs can be scheduled (on a weekly basis) to monitor and respond to student discussion boards.  
        4. Feedback and Advice:  LAs can be assigned to provide weekly  (ungraded) feedback on assignments, projects, and group work. While some of these things may end up in the gradebook, the LAs are not assigning the grade.  
        5. LAFAs can provide more examples and options for additional responsibilities, if needed   
  • How many LAs do you need?
    1. The size of your LA team will depend on your Active Learning Activities
    2. Hiring LAs based on Total Enrollment
      1. Works well with Active Learning activities in large lecture halls.
      2. Most of your activities are going to be short- 10 minutes or fewer.
      3. While students may occasionally work in groups, these types of Active Learning. activities generally require working individually or in pairs (neighboring students)
      4. New professors tend to  start with 1 LA per 20-25 students.  As instructors gain experience, they will figure out their ideal LA/student ratio.
    3. Hiring LAs based on the Number of Groups
      1. Works well when students are required to work in groups often or when activities take up a large
      2. Discussion and Labs are often scheduled this way.
      3. Most professors start with 1 LA per 3-5 groups.
        1. This ratio is best for group work that doesn’t usually require LAs to spend more than a couple of minutes at each group.
        2. LAs are mostly checking-in with each group, which may lead to short conversations 
        3. Common for Labs 
      4. If you anticipate LAs will need to stay with groups for extended periods of time (5 minutes or longer), consider recruiting 1 LA per 2-3 groups.
2. Contact your school’s LAFA (LA Faculty Advisor)
  1. If your school doesn’t have an LAFA, contact Josh Arimond (jarimond@uci.edu)
  2. Email your LAFA to let them know you’re interested in using LAs 
  3. Generally, LAFAs will require an LA Consultation meeting to make sure LAs are appropriate
    1. Be prepared to discuss your course structure and how you plan to use LAs during Active Learning
  4. If approved, your LAFA will help you get started 
    1. Use the rest of this guide to prepare for your LA Consultation  
    2. After meeting with your LAFA, you should have a better understanding of everything listed below.  Make sure to ask questions if your LAFA misses anything.
3. Request your UNI STU 198 Section
  1. All instructors are assigned their own UNI STU 198 sections
    1. Only LAs on your LA team can enroll in UNI STU 198 (Academic Senate)
    2. Professors are responsible for assigning LAs Add Codes and making sure that all of their LAs are enrolled with the proper number of units
  2. Your LAFA will give you a link to the current UNI STU 198 Google Form
    1. New links/request forms are provided each quarter
    2. Publishing UNI STU 198 sections and generating Add Codes can take a week or two.  Contact your LAFA, if it’s been more than two weeks.
  3. LAs earn course credit in UNI STU 198
    1. When assigning LAs their Add Codes, also include how many units each LA should enroll for
    2. Depending on their weekly LA responsibilities, some LAs may earn more or less units than others.  If needed, LAFAs can share the CLAP recommended guidelines 
4. Recruit your LA Team
    1. Faculty are responsible for recruiting their LA teams
    2. You should be ready to start recruiting your LA team
      1. LAFAs and CLAP can provide tools and resources to help you get started
    3. Decide how you want to collect interest from potential LA candidates
      1. Create an LA application 
        1. Highly recommended for all recruiting efforts
        2. Google Forms are easy to create and manage
          1. Applications can be as simple or complex, depending how much information you want to collect to make decisions
          2. All responses can be found in one place 
      2. Ask candidates to email you directly
        1. Only recommended for professors that need a very small team, and the candidate list isn’t very large
        2. Be careful!  It can be difficult keeping track of emails, especially if your inbox is consistently busy. 
  • Obtain your LA Candidate list
      1. Ideally, LAs have taken and did well in the course (or professor-approved alternative courses)
        1. Choose a minimum grade requirement
        2. CLAP recommends students that have earned a B+ or better
      2. If you’ve taught the course before, your former students are excellent LA candidates
        1. Before opening recruiting efforts to students that took the course with other professors, many professors try recruiting their former students. 
        2. Former students know you and your teaching style. They know how to successfully navigate your course. 
        3. Canvas and WebRoster can help you collect their contact information
        4. If you’re currently teaching the course, recruiting announcements at the end of the quarter,  in-class or Canvas, can be very effective.
      3. If you’re opening the recruiting process to all students, you’ll need a course grade report 
        1. Contact your LAFA to obtain a list of all students that meet your course and grade requirements.
  • Compose and email your recruiting letter
    1. Templates are available, upon request
      1. These are very wordy, but thorough
    2. Consult with your LAFA, if you prefer to write your own recruiting letter
    3. Consider including deadlines
      1. Many students wait until the last minute to apply
      2. It’s easier to extend deadlines than it is to add them later
5. Select your LA Team
  1. While interviewing is a great way to choose the “right” LA, it is very time consuming
  2. Consider including free-response questions in your application to help you make decisions
  3. Don’t be surprised if your early LA teams are selected based on being available
  4. For courses that need LAs to support discussion or lab sections, decisions are often based on student availability
  5. Account for attrition
    1. Student availability can be problematic, as the quarter draws near
    2. You are likely to have a few LAs that have to change their LA schedule or even withdraw from their LA positions
    3. Back-up candidates are highly recommended
6. Submit your Finalized LA Team to CLAP
  1. Submit your LA team at least 2 weeks prior to instruction (earlier the better)
  2. Each school/LAFA has a different process, contact your LAFA to learn more
  3. It’s not uncommon to add/remove LAs from your team.  Make sure you keep your LAFA (and/or Josh) updated with any changes
7. What happens after you submit your LA team?
  • CLAP will contact your team with a Welcome Email
      1. The Welcome Email has the UNI STU 176 enrollment instructions for New LAs, and some information for the CLAP-certified LAs to review.
      2. Josh will make sure all New LAs on your team are enrolled in UNI STU 176
  • Assign your LAs a UNI STU 198 Add Code
      1. Each Add Code can only be used once
      2. Add Codes are located in WebRoster
  • Time to start prepping your instructional team
      1. Your first instructional team meeting should be scheduled before Week 0
        1. The main purpose of this meeting is for everyone to get to know each other, share your philosophy behind teaching the course, and setting expectations
        2. Determine how the team is going to communicate with each other
          1. There should always be an open line of communication
            1. Some questions, concerns, and advice can’t wait until the next meeting or instruction day
            2. It should be quick and easy for the team to ask and respond to questions or concerns
          2. Emails are fine, but many successful LA teams are using apps like Slack, Teams, or Discord
            1. Getting the message out on multiple platforms is always a good idea
        3. This would also be a good opportunity to finalize/confirm LA schedules
      2. Make sure to schedule the day/time for your weekly planning meetings during the quarter
        1. Try to schedule planning meetings as close to the next instruction day as possible. For example, courses with a MWF lecture schedule should try to meet Fridays after lecture or Mondays before lecture (assuming you don’t want to meet over the weekend).
      3. LA schedules should finalized by Week 0
  • Week 1: Instruction
    1. Introduce your LAs to the students
      1. Explain their role(s) and what students can expect from them
      2. If there’s time, give them a couple minutes to talk about themselves
    2. Get LAs involved early
      1. Structure Day 1 so that LAs and students can interact early (and often)
      2. The sooner students get comfortable with LAs, the better
      3. Consider extra Active Learning activities on Day 1 (or, even better, all of Week 1)
        1. Again, the sooner students get used to working with LAs (Active Learning), the better the rest of the quarter will be

Returning Faculty: Recruiting Steps for Returning Faculty

1. Make sure your LAFA knows you’re using LAs for the upcoming quarter
  1. If your school doesn’t have an LAFA, contact Josh Arimond (jarimond@uci.edu)
  2. Email your LAFA
  3. This will be CLAP’s primary tracking source for assigning your UNI STU 198 sections (if needed)
2. Start with scheduling your returning LAs
    1. Find out which LAs on your team are planning to return for the next quarter
    2. Decide how you want to handle schedule assignments for returning LAs
  • If you’re going to do it…
      1. Collect returning LAs’ availability for lectures, discussions, labs, etc. 
      2. CLAP can provide a schedule template, if needed
      3. Create the schedule
  • If you want the returning LAs to do it…
    1. Working in person
      1. Arrange a meeting that all the returning LAs can attend
      2. Give them a schedule template and let them work out the their schedules together
    2. Working virtually
      1. If this is going to be done virtually, give them a deadline!
      2. Provide the schedule template in a Google Doc that they can all access/edit
        1. Usually they’re good at working it out themselves, but it’s a good idea to monitor their progress   
      3. Know and be included in how they plan to communicate
        1. Zoom
        2. Email
        3. Messaging App
        4. Google Doc comments/notes
3. After returning LAs are scheduled, recruit new LAs to fill the gaps in the schedule
  1. CLAP or LAFA can assist with recruiting resources or candidate lists, if needed
  2. If this is your first time recruiting on your own, CLAP or LAFA support is available
4. Submit your finalized LA team with LA names and UCI emails (no personal emails)
  1. Submit your LA team at least 2 weeks prior to instruction (earlier the better)
  2. Each school/LAFA has a different process, contact your LAFA to learn more
  3. CLAP only sends welcome emails to finalized LA teams
  4. If you’re planning to have a large LA team (20+ LAs) and expect long delays between early recruits and later recruits, CLAP can send welcome emails in chunks.  Contact your LAFA to work out the details. 


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 Physics78(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 Research77(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 Research7(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 Teaching44(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 Review17(4), 327-362. Link.