APS News

Learning Assistants Impact Undergraduate Teaching

Learning Assistant Allison Lanini and Prof Valerie Otero
Photo by Monica Plisch/APS Staff

Learning Assistant Allison Lanini and Colorado Education Professor Valerie Otero collaborate on a demonstration of interactive teaching.
By Gabriel Popkin

At a recitation section for an introductory physics course at the University of Colorado at Boulder, groups of students are typically seated around tables discussing the nuances of Newtonian mechanics or the intricacies of electromagnetic induction–but it’s not easy to spot the TA. In fact, there are probably several assistants in the room, but they don’t lecture or work problems on the board. Instead, they move from table to table asking students questions to elicit their misconceptions about physics, and guiding them toward a more sophisticated understanding of the concepts being taught. These undergraduate Learning Assistants not only help their peers learn physics, but often discover a passion for teaching in the process.

Now four years old, the Colorado Learning Assistant program is starting to attract attention from science faculty around the country who want to recruit strong students into teaching careers. To capitalize on this momentum, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC)–a project led by APS in collaboration with AAPT and AIP–recently organized and sponsored a two-day workshop that brought 22 faculty members from a diverse group of 14 colleges and universities to Boulder to learn how to replicate Colorado’s successes on their own campuses.

 The workshop, which was led by a team of Colorado science and education professors, caught the Learning Assistants in action both in the recitation sessions described above, and in the weekly science pedagogy course that all Learning Assistants take during their first year in the program. This course provides the crucial opportunity for the program leaders to impress upon the young teachers the importance, and difficulty, of truly engaging students. As Valerie Otero, an education professor who co-teaches the class, put it, “the Learning Assistant experience helps students realize that teaching is a real intellectual challenge, and for many of them, this is exactly what they’re looking for.” To demonstrate this, she had workshop participants and Learning Assistants guide hypothetical non-science majors from a naïve conceptual model of a phenomenon–in this case magnetization–toward a more sophisticated model accepted by scientists.

Other workshop sessions focused on the importance of collecting data to measure the impact of the program. Physics professors Steve Pollock and Noah Finkelstein have amassed years’ worth of assessment results that demonstrate that the program has improved the conceptual understanding of students in introductory physics and of the Learning Assistants themselves. They also pointed out that at just $1,500 a semester, a department can hire numerous Learning Assistants for the price of one graduate TA.

But perhaps the program’s greatest success has been as a teacher recruitment tool. Nine Learning Assistants were enrolled in physics and astrophysics teacher certification programs at Boulder in 2005-2006, as compared to one student (who was not a Learning Assistant) in 2004-2005, when only five students in the entire state of Colorado were enrolled in physics and astrophysics teacher certification programs. Ted Hodapp, Director of Education and Diversity at APS, explained the program’s appeal. “Learning Assistant programs are a kind of surprise attack for students who haven’t previously thought of themselves as potential teachers. By giving students a low-stress, low-commitment early teaching experience, physics departments can get them excited about teaching and recruit them into teacher preparation programs.”

The Colorado program turns this excitement into a career track by requiring Learning Assistants who want to remain in the program after two semesters to enter a teacher certification program. This makes them eligible for NSF-funded Noyce Teaching Fellowships of up to $10,000 a year, in exchange for a commitment to teach in a high-needs school after graduation. Noyce Fellows also get invited to serve as mentors for novice Learning Assistants, and collaborate with faculty on education research projects. Otero strongly encouraged workshop participants to provide this money for their future teachers.

At a question-and-answer session during the workshop, several experienced Learning Assistants shared their perspectives on the program. They spoke about the culture change that the program has catalyzed within science departments, as students and some professors have begun to view teaching as a respectable and worthwhile career for a science major to pursue. They also noted the tight learning community that develops among Learning Assistants, many of whom remain in the program for multiple semesters. Most workshop participants indicated that they appreciated the opportunities to interact with real, live Learning Assistants.

Most faculty attendees described specific plans they had generated during the workshop to develop elements of the program on their campuses. To sustain and spread the enthusiasm that the workshop generated, PTEC is developing a web-based Learning Assistant “home” (http://www.ptec.org/conferences/CULA/), and hopes to organize future conference sessions on Learning Assistant programs.