The Physics Learning Assistant Program at Texas State University: My Perspective as an LA and as a Researcher
By Jessica Conn, with Hunter Close and Eleanor Close, Texas State University
Over the last two and half years, the Physics Learning Assistant Program at Texas State University has been the major catalyst of cultural change in the physics department toward more interactivity among students and between students and faculty. Through the introduction of LAs into lecture and lab sections of the introductory calculus-based physics sequence and into the new “Physics Help Center,” which is available to all physics students, LAs promote student conversation about the core ideas and methods of physics. The result has been a more knowledgeable, more interested, more challenged, more socially connected, and happier student community.
Facts about the Program
The Learning Assistant program at Texas State University began as a pilot in the spring of 2012, in one section of introductory mechanics, and had six LAs. As of fall 2014, our program will have expanded to include all sections of mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and waves and heat, for a total of about 30 LAs and 500 students per semester. Of these LAs, about 40% are new each semester, while 60% are returning. New LAs participate in a weekly Physics Cognition and Pedagogy class, and all LAs participate in a weekly LA Prep Session, lasting two hours and pertaining specifically to the class in which they serve as LAs. During these prep sessions, which use Tutorials in Introductory Physics from the University of Washington, LAs work in small groups with other LAs and faculty to prepare for the upcoming week. LAs also have the option of tutoring students in the Physics Help Center, which has been funded by the Halliburton Foundation, Noyce, and the College of Science and Engineering. Mechanics labs are staffed solely by LAs and require an additional 1.5 hours per week of preparation, including working through additional tutorials. Normalized gains on the Force Concept Inventory in mechanics ranged from 9% to 15% before implementing the Learning Assistant program, and now average in the 40s. We have also seen a reduction in rates of the grades D, F, and W in all courses in the introductory sequence.
There are differences between our model and the CU-Boulder model: While the program at CU-Boulder pays LAs a per-semester stipend, at Texas State we have chosen to pay LAs hourly in order to accommodate differing workloads among LAs. At Texas State, LAs facilitate small group discussion in the lecture classroom, mostly centered around the UW Tutorials. Our program is currently limited to the physics department, and the department faculty has decided together when to expand the LA program into new course sections. In contrast, CU faculty from many departments apply competitively to use LAs in their courses. Our selection criteria for LAs emphasize the applicant’s (1) ability to engage enthusiastically and productively with the small-group, tutorial format, as judged by faculty who knew the applicant as a student, (2) interest in teaching at any level, (3) statement of teaching philosophy, (4) academic record, (5) interest in a physics major or minor, and (6) membership in an under-represented group in physics. Though physics majors and minors are given some preference, we strive to have some diversity of academic interest in our group of LAs. The goals of our program are similar to those of CU-Boulder’s (see laprogram.colorado.edu), with some additional articulations: we want our LAs to (1) have experiences of being competent at understanding physics, and to feel good about it, (2) have experiences of being competent at helping other people learn physics, and to feel good about it, (3) feel that they are a valued member of a community engaging together in physics learning and teaching, and (4) feel that they are valued by the department.
I (JC) have been an LA for three semesters - Fall 2014 will be my 4th semester. I was approached by my mechanics professor (EC) and asked to apply to be an LA for the following semester. It made me feel special to be recognized in this way (which I needed, because my grade wasn’t fantastic in that class). My first semester being an LA, I was assigned to mechanics classrooms, to work in the Physics Help Center and to be a mechanics Lab Instructor. I also enrolled in the Physics Cognition and Pedagogy class. That first semester was scary and exciting at the same time. I felt confident working in the classroom and in my capacity as a Lab Instructor, but felt very unsure of myself in the Help Center. I attribute this to the fact that there were prep sessions for working in the classroom and the lab. We reviewed the material to be covered and discussed possible pedagogical challenges that might come up. However, there was not this kind of preparation for working in the Help Center. The Help Center is structured so that students walk up, sit down, and start working on their work. There are typically two LAs staffing it, and if a student needs help, they raise their hand, or seek out an LA. It is the role of the LA to improvise, using methods learned in the Physics Cognition and Pedagogy class, to help the student find a solution to their question, since it would be impossible to prepare for every possible question that any student might ask. My first semester working in the Help Center left me feeling inadequate. I was getting so much out of the LA program though that my feelings of inadequacy in the Help Center weren’t enough to make me think about quitting the program. So, I reapplied for the next semester. Getting accepted as a returning LA is a different feeling than being accepted for the first time: when I was accepted for the first time, thought “My professor thinks I’m a good physics student.” When I was accepted as a returning student, I thought, “My professor thinks I’m a good physics student, and a good LA.”
In my second semester as an LA, I really felt like part of a community. I was friends with the other LAs, and had much closer relationships to the physics faculty. I felt confident in the classroom and lab, and found that I was doing better in my physics class (waves and heat) than I had in previous physics classes; this was the first semester that I got an A in physics. I found that, as a student, the way I approached class had changed. The LA program had not yet expanded to this class, and it was taught in a traditional lecture style, so I had to take more initiative to learn interactively. I found myself seeking out other students for collaborating and asking the professor for information I needed when I needed it to understand a topic. I felt like a leader in the physics community and wasn’t afraid to seek out resources when I needed them. I was starting to do physics education research (PER) in the department, and presented my research at a conference for Women in Science and Engineering. Towards the middle of the semester, I found myself hanging out in the Help Center more - not just to do my own work, but to stop by and hang out. Students recognized me as an LA and would ask for my help with their work. This time, I felt confident. I no longer thought that the only way to help someone was to know already how to solve the problem. I realized that I could help someone think about a problem and that would get them farther along than they were already. Some students enjoyed this process, and others didn’t. Some students thought that if I didn’t immediately give them the answer then I wasn’t doing my job, but this didn’t affect my self-esteem at all; I saw those students as simply less mature in the development of their thinking. I enjoyed the time I got to spend helping the other students figure out where their mistakes were.
By my third semester as an LA, I felt confident in all aspects of being an LA at this point and enjoyed mentoring new LAs. I was completely integrated into the physics community and felt comfortable approaching any student or professor for help. I also found that the physics building was my favorite place to be, and I spent as much time there as I could. I collaborated with other physics students on math homework in the Help Center or in the physics student lounge. I found that the way physicists approached math was different from the way mathematicians approached math, and that I could understand math concepts better when working with physics students. I became active in our SPS chapter as treasurer and participated on committees. My research was exciting, and I felt sure that PER was the field I wanted to go into.
As a research assistant in PER, my work has focused on understanding the effects of the LA program on other LAs at Texas State. I have been studying it through a blend of two approaches: Communities of Practice and Physics Identity (see Close, Conn, & Close, 2014). Our sources of data include LA program applications, LA written reflections, LA end-of-semester program evaluations, and clinical interviews of LAs. Through analyzing this data, I am developing an idea of the transformations that take place by participating in the LA program. Generally, I see the following trend: In the first semester, students’ pre-conceptions about what it means to be a good student and a good teacher are challenged. This leads to a sense of unease, which leads to the desire to create a new model about teaching and learning. Our newest clinical interviews include new LAs. What we have found is that many of the transformations we were seeing in the clinical interviews of LAs with two or more semesters in the program didn’t exist, or were just beginning, in new LAs. In the second semester of being an LA, students begin creating/refining this new model, which includes statements like, “It’s okay to be wrong” and “The LA program taught me how to think.” They also feel like part of the community, and gain confidence in their ability to interact within that community. We see this enhanced feeling of inclusion in statements like, “One of the things I really enjoyed about [being an LA] was that I became way more involved in the department and I feel like I have a larger network of help if I need it because of it” and “As a physics major, when I was just a student, I was too self-conscious to approach a professor to ask questions. But as part of a community, that includes my professors, I can approach them with questions, no problem. Also, building a community of student peers has also increased my academic performance.” We also notice students becoming better communicators in the second semester: “In the past two semesters of being an LA, I’ve learned how to communicate more effectively with people... If someone doesn’t understand a concept when I explain it verbally, I can draw them a picture or a diagram instead. If they can’t verbalize what they’re thinking themselves, sometimes handing over a marker so they can draw something out for me will help me understand where they’re at in their understanding of the material.” The biggest impact I’m seeing as a researcher is that students change their model of what it means to be competent, and this helps them become better teachers and better students. One student said during her interview, “Being an LA has made me a more competent person all around.”
We have seen a variety of positive impacts of the LA program on students’ engagement in physics, especially for those students who serve as LAs. It seems also that there is a process of transformation for LAs that spans more than one semester. We will continue to study this process to understand better how to maximize the benefits for the physics department community as a whole, including improved physics teacher recruitment and preparation and enhanced academic success for physics majors and minors.
Close, E. W., Conn, J., & Close, H. G. (2014). Learning Assistants’ Development of Physics (Teacher) Identity. In P. V. Engelhardt, A. D. Churukian, and D. L. Jones (Eds.), AIP Conference Proceedings: 2013 Physics Education Research Conference (pp. 89-92).
Jessica Conn is an undergraduate student at Texas State University. She has been an LA at Texas State since the Spring of 2013, and now conducts research on the LA program, as described in this article.
Hunter Close is an assistant professor of physics at Texas State University. He currently serves as the chair of the AAPT’s committee on Research in Physics Education. He participates in the Physics Teacher Education Coalition and is a member of the Energy Project collaboration at Seattle Pacific University. His current research interests include the use of complex representations in learning physics.
Eleanor Close is an assistant professor in physics at Texas State University. She also participates in the Physics Teacher Education Coalition and is a member of the Energy Project collaboration at Seattle Pacific University. Her research interests include physics teacher professional development and the development of physics identity and communities of practice in LA programs.
Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.