The CSUSM Learning Assistants Program

Edward Price, Department of Physics, California State University San Marcos

San Diego County, where California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) is located, has a high concentration of technology-based firms, and projections for regional and state growth show a strong need for workers with degrees in all STEM disciplines1. Consistent with these needs, in 2007, the CSUSM Physics Department began offering a B.S. in Applied Physics, its first physics bachelor’s degree program2. As a regional university, CSUSM is connected to and dependent on the state of local K-12 STEM education. The recent National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics noted the connection between STEM careers, high school physics, and high school physics teachers: “An effective precollege physics education is indispensable in preparing U.S. students for global competition.” Quality high school physics depends, in turn, on qualified physics teachers3. Yet, California, like much of the nation, faces a shortage of qualified physics teachers, and high school mathematics and science teachers generally. Over the next 10 years, projections indicate a need for in excess of 30,000 new mathematics and science teachers4. For all these reasons – self-interest, regional economic needs, and the current and future health of the field - helping prepare high school physics teachers is an important goal for the CSUSM Physics Department, consistent with American Physical Society (APS) and American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) goals and priorities5. We have been able to pursue this goal while simultaneously building a new physics degree program; indeed, the two efforts support each other, with a Learning Assistants (LA) Program based on the University of Colorado (CU Boulder) model 6,7 playing a central role.

In an LA Program, undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) assist faculty in class, meet regularly with the course instructor, and participate in a weekly seminar on teaching and learning, which provides guidance on effective instruction and an opportunity to reflect on their experiences in the classroom. The LA program promotes course transformation, improved student learning, and teacher recruitment. Starting a physics program from scratch offered the opportunity to incorporate recent innovations in physics education when developing courses. Because most CSUSM students come from the local area, the health of the Department is coupled with the vitality and strength of local high school physics education. Thus, the LA program goals (course transformation, improved student learning, and teacher recruitment) align with our efforts to launch a new and thriving undergraduate program.

Program Overview

What does the LA program look like at CSUSM? It shares many core features with the University of Colorado model, including the participation of LAs in structured class activities (in contrast to office hours, tutoring, or grading), an ongoing pedagogy seminar for the LAs, an emphasis on teacher recruiting, and coordination between the STEM faculty and the School of Education. CSUSM is a very different institution from CU Boulder, and our LA program reflects this. At CSUSM, the LA program has included math and science (primarily chemistry and physics) courses since its inception. In contrast, the CU Boulder LA Program began in physics and later expanded to other STEM departments. In 2005, the California State University (CSU) system started a Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative (MSTI) in response to statewide needs for more qualified mathematics and science teachers8. The CSUSM LA Program was established in 2008 with support from MSTI, and so included math and science, not just physics. Broadening the program also had the practical benefit of roughly doubling the program’s size: during the first semester there were 4 LAs in physics courses, 3 in math, and 1 in chemistry. This helped achieve an economy of scale in program management; for instance, leading the pedagogy seminar requires about the same effort with 4 or 8 LAs. It also resulted in a pedagogy seminar (and indeed, entire program) that was more vibrant. The program had to find ways to work with part-time instructors, or adjuncts, who teach many courses at CSUSM. These faculty often teach many courses and have limited time to develop new materials. Modest curriculum development stipends are offered to encourage faculty to transform their courses to more effectively utilize LAs. Faculty are required to document their materials and share with other instructors to promote shared practices.

At CSUSM the LA program is co-directed by faculty from the Department of Physics (Dr. Edward Price), and the School of Education (Dr. Brian R. Lawler). College of Science and Mathematics faculty work with the LAs in their courses and School of Education faculty lead the teaching and learning seminar. The CSUSM LA program is described at Since 2008, the CSUSM LA program has placed over 130 LAs in 11 STEM gateway courses (see Figure 1), including 50 LAs in physics courses. The program has grown with campus enrollment, increased participation from faculty, continued support from the CSU MSTI Program, and recent additional support from PhysTEC. In 2011, CSUSM received funding for a targeted PhysTEC project. As a PhysTEC site, CSUSM has increased the number of LAs in physics courses, expanded the LA program to a nearby community college, and created a group for local high school physics teachers.

CSUSM offers two calculus-based introductory physics sequences, one taken primarily by biology majors (PHYS 205 and 206), and the other taken by physical science, math, and computer science majors (PHYS 201, 202, and 203). LAs are placed in both sequences. The courses for biology majors meet twice weekly for a total of six hours, with students working actively in groups, then explaining their work to their peers in a whole class discussion9. The instructor lectures for a total of about 75 minutes per week, mainly to help students organize their ideas about the phenomena encountered in their group activities. In this setting, LAs help facilitate group work, and respond to student questions. Given the course’s non-traditional format, the LAs, as former students, are an important source of continuity and help students who are new to the course to transition effectively.

PHYS 201, 202, and 203 have a more traditional format of lecture and laboratory. In lecture, LAs help facilitate Peer Instruction10; the labs are project based, and LAs work help students with the design, building, and analysis of their projects.

LAs are placed in introductory physics, pre-calc, calc I and II, and general chemistry
Figure 1. LAs are placed in introductory physics, pre-calc, calc I and II, and general chemistry. The left axis shows the number of students impacted and the right axis the number of learning assistants.

Teacher recruiting and Impacts on LAs

Participation as an LA has many benefits for the students. The opportunity to explore teaching in a structured program leads many LAs to consider careers in teaching. LAs also benefit from the opportunity to review or better learn the course material, practice communication and presentation skills, and interact closely with a faculty member. At the end of each semester, we ask LAs to comment on their experience. These remarks suggest a well-developed understanding of teaching and learning. “Good teaching guides a student through the thought processes to acquire new knowledge.” “[Good teaching was] providing the material in a manner so that the students needed to think, and also ask[ing] ‘good’ questions to aid them. The questioning part was hard at first because I was so used to math being watched then practiced.” LAs experience gratification when working with students. For instance, one student reported, “The first time I made sense to a student and saw their face light up with understanding… In a small world it made me feel big -like I know something.” Finally, LAs appreciate that teaching is an intellectually challenging activity: “One of the challenges I faced was coming up with the best questions to ask students when helping them solve problems. As it turns out, I had to do this on a case by case basis. What might be the best question to ask one student may not necessarily be the best question to ask another student…”

At CU Boulder, Otero et al. found that “approximately 12% of LAs are actually recruited to K-12 teaching careers7.” At CSUSM, approximately 10% of math LAs have entered the single subject math credential program. It is too soon to know if a similar pattern will develop in physics. CSUSM’s first Bachelors of Science in Applied Physics was awarded in 2009, and many of the 50 LAs in physics courses have been majors in other fields. However, a number of current Applied Physics majors have expressed interest in teaching.

Supporting and sustaining course transformation

There are many research-based physics curricula that promote active engagement and student learning. However, implementing these approaches can be difficult for many reasons, including large class sizes, the inertia of past practices, lack of experience with non-traditional techniques, time constraints, student expectations, and departmental expectations. The CSUSM LA program helps address some of these issues by providing additional manpower (the LAs) and a curriculum development stipend if faculty are making their courses more interactive. By providing faculty with additional resources, the LA program catalyzes and sustains curricular changes. At CU Boulder, Otero, et al. found that the LA program “improved student understanding of science content, and engaged a broad range of science faculty in course transformation…” Not only did STEM departments find improved student achievement as a result of the LA program, but, “faculty members report increased attention to what and how students learn6.” We see similar outcomes at CSUSM.

Two examples illustrate how the LA program has supported and sustained course transformation. In one case, a new instructor began teaching PHYS 206 with LAs. While open to the course format and pedagogy, this instructor’s teaching experience was exclusively with the lecture format. However, the LAs and instructor established trust, and the LAs would often provide suggestions, give feedback, and help the instructor “stay true” to the course format. The instructor went on to become very confident and comfortable with the course format. While other factors were also important, the continuity and support provided by the LAs contributed to this outcome.

Another instructor (in a different course) had introduced some in-class activities, such as having students work in groups to analyze demonstrations. After finding these difficult to implement, the instructor requested an LA. The LA helped facilitate group work, presented demonstrations, and acted as an intermediary between the instructors and the student. At the end of the semester, the instructor wrote, “All of the procedures introduced to improve the student participation in the learning process could be employed without the LA but only at very greatly reduced scope, possibly rendering them a waste of time.” This instructor was also interested in implementing clickers (a class response system where students can vote and the instructor can show the results), but had technical concerns. The LA learned to use the system and the instructor was able to focus on pedagogical issues rather than technical ones. 

At CSUSM, a Learning Assistants Program has helped us launch and grow a new physics degree at a time when other programs are being closed due to low enrollment11. The B.S. in Applied Physics at CSUSM has grown from 11 majors in 2008 to over 80 in 2012. The LA Program goals of course transformation, improved student learning, and teacher recruiting are also important goals for our growing program. In particular, through teacher recruiting and preparation we can strengthen local K-12 STEM education. In the long run, this will benefit our Department, our region, and the physics community.

Edward Price is an Associate Professor of Physics at California State University San Marcos. His research interests in physics education include curriculum development and the impact of technology on the classroom environment.


The CSUSM LA Program is supported by PhysTEC, CSU Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative, and NSF Grant DUE-1068477. Dr. Brian R. Lawler Co-Directs the CSUSM LA Program with the author, and Debbie DeRoma coordinates the program. We are grateful to our faculty colleagues for their participation in the program, and of course to the Learning Assistants.

  1. DeVol, R., Anita Charuworn, Soojung Kim. (2004). California’s Position in Technology and Science: A Comparative Benchmarking Assessment: Milken Institute.
  2. One of the newer CSU campuses, CSUSM was established in 1989 in north San Diego County. It is a regional-comprehensive university currently enrolling over 10,000 undergraduates.
  3. NTFTEP [National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics]. (2010). National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics: Report Synopsis. Retrieved from
  4. CSU [California State University]. (2011). The California State University Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative: 2010-2011 Report. Long Beach, CA.
  5. In 2001, APS and AAPT launched the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project to improve and promote the education of future physics teachers. PhysTEC is described at
  6. Otero, V. K., Finkelstein, N., McCray, R., & Pollock, S. (2006). Who Is Responsible for Preparing Science Teachers? Science, 313 (5786), 445-446.
  7. Otero, V. K., Pollock S., & Finkelstein, N. (2010). A physics department’s role in preparing physics teachers: The Colorado learning assistant model. American Journal of Physics, 78 (11), 1218-1224.
  8. The CSU Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative is described at
  9. C. De Leone, R. Marion, and C. Ishikawa, “Adaptation and Implementation of a Radically Reformed Introductory Physics Course for Biological Science Majors: Assessing Success and Prospects for Future Implementation,” in Proceedings of the 2006 Physics Education Research Conference, edited by L. McCullough, L. Hsu, and P. Heron (American Institute of Physics Publishing, 2007), 883, pp. 113-116.
  10. Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A User's Manual: Prentice Hall.
  11. Hodapp, T. (2011). The Economics of Education: Closing Undergraduate Physics Programs. APS News, 20, (11) p8. format_pdf