Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2006 / Spring 2007 Newsletter



Previous Newsletters

this issue

Contact the Editors

Teaching to Learn: The Colorado Learning Assistant program's impact on learning content

Noah D. Finkelstein, Valerie Otero, and Steven J. Pollock, University of Colorado, Boulder

This piece discusses the Colorado Learning Assistant (LA) program, and focuses on its impact on the content expertise of future physics teachers. We draw from more extensive descriptions published in Science [[i]], and Physical Review [[ii]]. 


By now the calls for increasing the number of future physics teachers and the quality of preparation of those teachers are familiar.  It is widely recognized that we are not educating our youth adequately in mathematics and science.  One need only look at political reports [[iii]], international [[iv]] or national [[v]] studies, or research on student learning [[vi]] for evidence that we are missing our mark. Two out of three high school physics teachers have neither a major nor a minor in the discipline [[vii]] and there are no other subject matter specialties that have a greater shortage of teachers than mathematics and physics [[viii]].   Recently, the National Academies listed four priority recommendations for ensuring American competitiveness in the 21st century [iii], the first of which was to "Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education."

Several national initiatives have developed to address these critical shortfalls in teacher recruitment, preparation and mentoring [[ix],[x],[xi]]. A major focus of the American Physical Society's education efforts seeks to increase the number and quality of physics teachers in the United States; the APS Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC) [xi] now includes a coalition of 60 physics departments dedicated to these challenges.  These communities recognize that teacher preparation is not solely the responsibility of schools of education.

Content knowledge is one of the main factors positively correlated with teacher quality [[xii]]; yet, those directly responsible for teaching science to undergraduates, specifically science faculty members, are rarely involved in teacher education.  As part of the PTEC coalition, we have expanded the Colorado Learning Assistant (LA) program in order to address the needs of teacher preparation and support.

The Colorado Learning Assistant Program

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, we have developed a program that engages both science and education faculty members in addressing national challenges in education.  Currently the LA program supports 60 potential future science teachers, and runs across six different science departments.  Undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) are hired to assist science faculty to make their courses student-centered, interactive, and collaborative.  These types of course transformations are known to significantly improve the educational experience for students [[xiii]].

The LAs help initiate and sustain course transformation by facilitating student collaboration in the large-enrollment science courses.  LAs receive a modest stipend for working 10 hours per week in three aspects of course transformation. First, LAs lead student-focused learning teams of roughly 4 students that meet at least once per week. LA-led learning teams work on collaborative activities focusing on group problem solving. This segment is where students put into practice both their understanding of pedagogy and their relative expertise in content understanding.  Second, LAs meet weekly with the faculty instructor with whom they work to plan for the upcoming week, to reflect on the previous week, and to provide feedback on the transformation process.  The faculty meetings provide opportunities for LAs to reexamine content, explore teaching strategies and focus on specific challenges that the introductory physics students might face. Finally, LAs from all participating science departments attend a required course, Mathematics and Science Education that complements their LA-teaching experiences. In this course, co-taught by a school of education faculty member and a K12 teacher, LAs reflect on their own teaching, evaluate the transformations of courses, and investigate theories and practices of teaching and learning.

These students engaged in course transformation are the pool of LAs from which we recruit K-12 teachers. Thus, our efforts toward course transformation integrate with our efforts to recruit and prepare future K-12 science teachers.  The result is improved recruitment and preparation of future science and mathematics teachers as well as improved education of all students enrolled in our transformed courses [i,ii]. 

Learning Assistants in Physics

In the physics department, roughly 20 LAs are hired (from roughly 50 applicants) per semester to work across four courses.  The majority of the LAs (14 or so) are hired to facilitate the implementation of Tutorials in Introductory Physics [[xiv]] in our first and second semester calculus-based physics sequence. Tutorials are among the best-researched and documented curricular innovations in introductory physics [[xv]] and have been shown to improve student mastery of physics concepts [[xvi]].  Learning Assistants team up with the departmentally funded graduate TA in each recitation section of the introductory sequence and lower the teacher-to-student ratio to 1:14, which approaches the suggested ratio of 1:10 [xiii].

The impact of implementing Tutorials, and associated course transformations, such as the use of Peer Instruction [[xvii]], a supported help room, and an online computer homework system have been significant --- the students in our introductory sequence post learning gains two to three times the nationally reported average for traditional courses [ii].  We assess student learning in every transformed course with pre and post evaluations.  To evaluate student understanding of physics concepts in the introductory sequence, we use the Force and Motion Concept Evaluation (FMCE) [[xviii]] and the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment (BEMA) [[xix]].  In transformed courses, students have achieved average normalized improvement of as much as 66% (±2%) for the FMCE test, nearly triple national average gains found for traditional courses [[xx]]. In the second semester, with the significantly more difficult BEMA exam, the average normalized learning gains for students in the transformed courses ranged from 33% to 45%.  Figure 1 displays a histogram of the fraction of students vs. pre and post test score on the BEMA for two semesters of implementation.  These similar results occurred for two different semesters led by different professors, both of whom are involved in physics education research.

The normalized learning gains for the Learning Assistants in this environment is just below 50%, with average post-test scores matching average scores for incoming physics graduate students (TAs). The first semester that the Tutorials were implemented in this sequence, the LAs were drawn from a population of students who themselves had not participated in a transformed course.  Notably, while they were among the high performing students in their courses, their pre-test scores (denoted by the left-most arrow in Figure 1) are lower than those LAs who subsequently are drawn from a population that had participated in the course reforms as enrolled students (denoted by the middle arrow in the figure).  In both cases, the LAs are drawn from the highest performing students in their cohorts of students taking the introductory sequence. Our strong students are recruited to teach[1] and they learn as a result of teaching this material.

The Learning Assistant program has been running in the second semester physics sequence for the past two and a half years, resulting in five semesters of data.  Each course has been directed by different faculty members, and variations in the use and framing of particular course curricula (Tutorials, Peer Instruction, etc.) and Learning Assistants are the subjects of current research.  Despite variation in student performance, we have accumulated 1427 matched scores of students enrolled in the second semester course, 27 matched pre-post LA scores  (of 31 possible), and 14 matched graduate TA scores (of 20 possible).  Figure 2 plots the pre- and post-scores for students in each of these categories.

We know that content mastery is only one piece of the puzzle in supporting the development of future physics teachers. Areas of current investigation include the impact of the LA program: on student beliefs about the nature of physics and the nature of learning physics (using interviews and the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey [[xxi]]), and on student views and practices of the nature of teaching physics (using the Flexible Application of Student Centered Instruction survey [[xxii]]).



The Colorado Learning Assistant program demonstrates that it is possible to improve student achievement in our large-scale introductory physics sequences, and that the same practices that allow course transformation support the development of future physics teachers.  The experience of teaching in these transformed environments improves the education of those students who teach.  Over a five-semester study we observe consistent improvement of both the undergraduate Learning Assistants and the graduate Teaching Assistants. Our undergraduates, those who we recruit for careers in teaching, exit the experience with mastery of the conceptual content that is indistinguishable from the graduate students entering our program, and our graduate students exit with near perfect scores on these assessments of conceptual mastery.

We note that the process of developing teacher content mastery is thoroughly integrated with the development of student interest and ability in teaching, with the transformation of course practices, and ultimately, we hope with the cultural shift of the physics community to consider education and teaching a core practice of physicists.


[1] The GPA for LAs in physics is 3.75 and for all physics majors at CU is 3.0.

[i] Otero, V., Finkelstein, N., McCray, R., Pollock, S. Who is Responsible for Preparing Science Teachers? Science, 313, 445-446, (2006).

[ii] Finkelstein, N.D. Pollock, S.J.Replicating and Understanding Successful Innovations, Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 1, 010101 (2005).

[iii] NRC, Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 2006).

[iv] OECD, Learning for Tomorrow's World - First Results from PISA 2003  (OECD, Paris, 2003).

[v] NCES. The Nation's Report Card: Science 2000  (NCES Washington, DC: 2002).

[vi] Bransford, J.D.,.Brown, A.L Cocking, R.R. Eds., How People Learn : brain, mind, experience, and school (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1999).

[vii] Neuschatz, M. McFarling, M.  Broadening the Base: High School Physics Education at the Turn of the New Century (American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD 2003)

[viii] AAEE, Educator Supply and Demand in the United States.  (American Association for Employment in Education, Columbus, OH 2003).

[ix] NSF:  STEM-Teacher Preparation (NSF  STEMTP: and Teacher Professional Continuum (NSF TPC:

[x] UTeach, (2006).

[xi] The Physics Teacher Education Coalition, (2006).

[xii] U.S. Department of Education Office of Policy, Planning and Innovation, Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary's Second Annual Report on Teacher Quality, (Washington, D.C., 2003).

[xiii] Redish, E.F. (2003). Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, (New York: John Wiley and Sons).

[xiv] McDermott, L.C. and Schaffer, P.S., (2002). Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall).

[xv] For example, see Trowbridge, D.E.  and McDermott, L. C.  "Investigation of student understanding of the concept of acceleration in one dimension," Am. J. Phys. 49 (3), 242 (1981). For more: see

[xvi] McDermott, L.C. Shaffer, P.S. and Somers, M. "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An illustration in the context of the Atwood's machine," Am. J. Phys.62  (1) 46-55 (1994).

[xvii] Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction (Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall).

[xviii] Thornton. R. K.  and Sokoloff, D.R. "Assessing student learning of Newton's laws: The force and motion conceptual evaluation," Am. J. Phys. 66(4), 228-351 (1998)

[xix] Ding, L., Chabay, R., Sherwood, B., and Biechner, R., Evaluating an electricity and magnetism assessment tool: Brief electricity and magnetism assessment, Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 2, 010105 (2006).

[xx] Hake, R.R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: a six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 64-74

[xxi] Adams, W.K. et al., "A new instrument for measuring student beliefs about physics and learning physics: the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey" Phys Rev, ST: Physics Education Research. 2,1,010101 (2006).

[xxii] Briggs, D. and . LA-TEST team. Flexible Application of Student Centered Instruction.  University of Colorado School of Education. (2006).

Noah Finkelstein, Steven Pollock and Valerie Otero work at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Noah Finkelstein  is an Assistant Professor of Physics.  Together with colleagues in the Physics Education Research group, he directs several programs supported by the NSF as well as the Colorado PhysTEC site. Steven Pollock is an Associate Professor of Physics and wears two hats.  He does research in theoretical nuclear physics.  He is also active in physics education research.  Valerie Otero is an Assistant Professor of Science Education  in the School of Education.   More information on the Colorado Group  is available at:



Previous Newsletters

this issue

Contact the Editors