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By Leah Poffenberger
As the coronavirus pandemic began forcing universities across the country to close their doors for the safety of students and staff, a big question became how to continue providing high-quality education online. Digital tools, like Zoom and Canvas, have kept classes going, and physics professors at Arizona State University (ASU) had some extra help in the form of student learning assistants.
Learning assistants at ASU are undergraduate students who are recruited to provide tutoring, mentorship, and support to other undergraduate students taking courses in the physics department. The program was launched in 2013, thanks to a grant from PhysTEC, a partnership between APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers to improve physics teacher preparation programs. The program has since grown from four learning assistants to forty, assisting in about 17 different course sections a semester.
As classes pivoted to online formats, learning assistants played an important role in helping instructors connect with students remotely. In large courses, while professors lectured, learning assistants were on hand to monitor questions entered into a chat window, and in smaller courses, they headed up small discussion groups using Zoom’s "breakout rooms" feature. One student set up a server on Discord, a voice- and text- chat client popular among gamers, so he could be easily reached by other students who had questions about coursework.
“A lot of the learning assistants started taking ownership of what kinds of things they could do during this remote instruction,” says Kelli Warble, Teacher in Residence in the ASU Department of Physics. “[Physics instructors] said, ‘[There's no] way for me to conduct these remote instruction courses without the use of learning assistants, to monitor things like chat and to have all of these supports available.’”
The learning assistants program was originally launched at ASU to provide more focused learning opportunities for students who might be struggling in their large calculus-based physics courses. As instructors recognized the value of having extra people on hand during classes and labs, the program expanded to put learning assistants in other types of classes, including upper-level math courses.
“The goal has always been to make those large lecture courses more focused on meeting student needs and making sure student discourse and discussion and physics education research principles were being used during the teaching of those courses,” says Warble “The learning assistants themselves have always been sort of co-content help for the students in the [physics] program. And they have been sort of mentors guiding their fellow students through what are often very difficult courses.”
At the end of each semester, Warble and professors who teach introductory level calculus-based physics courses identify students who might be good candidates as learning assistants and ask them to apply. As learning assistants move through their degrees, they have increased options on what kinds of courses they can assist with—some learning assistants may help with more than one class per semester, schedule permitting. Students who become learning assistants pursue a number of degree paths, from physics to engineering to computer science, the only prerequisite is that they complete a calculus-based physics course. Some of the students have an interest in becoming physics teachers, so the learning assistant program gives them valuable teaching experience.
“Usually most of our learning assistants also continue from semester to semester if they are able—I would say probably 75 to 80 percent of them continue each semester,” says Warble. “We also have learning assistants who've gone through their whole career at ASU [as] learning assistants with the physics department in one way or another.”
As academic institutions struggle with what future semesters will look like, especially due to financial difficulties, there is concern at ASU that the learning assistants program will be severely impacted.
“There's a lot of uncertainty right now about what's going to move forward,” says Warble. “So we are worried that there won't be funding and then the instructors are telling me, ‘you know, if I don't have [learning assistants], I don't know how we can even conduct this for remote instruction.' So if anything, it was almost as if the learning assistants became, more valued during the remote instruction.”
Early assessments of the learning assistants program at ASU during the initial grant cycle showed that having these assistants in courses reduced the number of students getting Ds, failing, or withdrawing. While no such data exists for the current semester, a number of testimonials collected from instructors and learning assistants make the case for a continued program, especially in the case of continued online instruction.
“[Learning assistants] make the classroom environment more dynamic and interactive. In the remote format, [they] help to ensure that classes run smoothly and small group problem solving can be supported,” said Anna Zaniewski, a professor at ASU in a testimonial about the program. “Furthermore, both in person and online, [the assistants] serve as mentors and role models to students, creating a community of learning across academic years.” Zaniewski taught two courses in the Spring 2020 semester for first year physics majors with two learning assistants per course.
Crystal Ottoway, a senior at ASU majoring in physics, and a learning assistant who worked with two courses this past semester, also expressed strong support for the program in her testimonial.
“I cannot stress how important the program is, especially in a time such as this. There are so many different learning styles for physics students and sometimes students get left behind in conventional lecture instruction,” said Ottoway. “Learning assistants can help remedy this issue and be a relatable guide for students in a way that a graduate student or professor cannot. There are also many issues that come with larger lectures for the lower-level physics courses. Those students need the most help and actually get the least.”
For more on the PhysTEC Learning Assistants program visit the program webpage.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik