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Information for Faculty Interested in the Learning Assistant Program

A little bit more in-depth understanding of what the Learning Assistant (LA) program actually is and does for student learning and achievement. Below are frequently asked questions from faculty about the program.

Besides the information below check out the Learning Assistance Alliance website: https://learningassistantalliance.org/

How does a Learning Assistant (LA) differ from other peer-instruction models? 

There are a handful of peer-instruction models that are on the campus (probably more than listed below):

  • TAs (Teaching Assistants) - Typically grad students. Often do grading, often teach on their own (courses, labs, recitations, etc.). They do not usually attend the course or class taught by the professor. A very common peer-instruction model in academia.
  • Academic tutors - Top students (undergrads) who recently took the course. Hired by tutoring centers or departments to offer general help sessions on various topics. They do not concurrently attend the classes they tutor for and generally help students with their out-of-class assignments and exam preparation. Students only benefit from this kind of tutoring if they seek it out. Also a very common model in higher education.
  • SI Leaders - (Supplemental Instruction) - SI Leaders are often described as "course-integrated tutors." They attend the course they are tutoring for, so they have a lot of context when it comes to helping those students. 

LAs (Learning Assistants) - are undergraduate students who recently completed the course, are intended to work directly with students and the faculty member in a particular section. In essence, when a faculty member applies for an LA they are signing on to shift their course to a more student-centered model. LAs take a 2-credit pedagogy course on interactive teaching techniques the first semester that they serve.  This course is designed to help them learn how to effectively interact with students and facilitate learning (i.e. not give answers but elicit student thinking to move them forward). Both LAs and their mentor faculty are invited to an orientation at the start of each semester. Then LAs meet weekly with the instructor to discuss upcoming activities and how the LA will be involved in the classroom. LAs do not grade, keeping judgment and evaluation completely out of their relationship with students.  They can give formative feedback to the instructor but no points. Aside from being active during class time, LAs typically have ~2 "office hours" each week as they and their mentor faculty think may be necessary, offering additional help.

How does a Learning Assistant and Faculty Mentor function in a classroom setting?

The hope is to keep the LA program very faculty driven.  The program structure realizes that each discipline, course, and instructor has their own needs so the relationship is very open and needs-based - the faculty decides how to best use their LA.  We can provide lots of ideas, suggestions, and help but ultimately it is up to the faculty member how they implement an LA in their classroom.  We want this to be a mentor situation that moves both the student LA and the faculty forward enhancing the learning experience for all.

That being said, we do require that faculty use LAs during class in some way.  It does not have to be the entire class and we do not want anyone to try to change their teaching in one semester.  For a general rule, we ask that you shoot for at least 1/4 of each class for active learning time that the LA can participate as another "knowledgeable other" in the class - walking around helping with student interactions and learning.  

Something else to note is that we are seeing amazing results so far.  Many are hard to explain but it appears that the community created by adding an LA to a classroom is a catalyst for growth in many ways.  

 Are students required to attend all classes for which they are an LA, and if so, does the instructor provide something specific for them to do? 

Yes, LAs are dedicating their time to attending the class.  Ideally, they are to serve as another instructor (although limited) during class time - walking around answering group questions, looking for issues with content that they can discuss with the professor, etc.  The idea is that they understand the struggle with the content and can help students move through it.  

LAs work on developing questioning techniques and group work facilitation in the attached STEM Teaching and Learning course so they are better prepared to help you in the classroom.  Again, all interaction is class and faculty driven, as an instructor you decide what is best for your LA to help with.  

We ask that the faculty mentor and LA meet at least once a week to discuss learning goals for the week and how they can support your class. 

What are the expectations in the classroom, or specific goals the LA is expected to achieve? 

The LAs receive "homework assignments" in the Pedagogy course each week based on the topic covered and ask them to report back to the group on how it went - i.e. using open vs closed questions, pinpointing the key metacognition moments in their interactions, etc.  We try to keep these easy enough that they won't disturb the class time and so that they can really think deeply about the teaching they are doing.

Is the program geared more toward the LA or toward the class they are working with?

This is a tricky question... Probably the answer would be: c) all of the above and more.  

A lot of it is the community it creates around STEM content, teaching, and learning.  LAs work with students in almost a mentor position, the faculty mentor LAs, STEM class lets LAs create their own community, and so on…

The class and interactions with the faculty mentor are geared to the LA - increasing their content knowledge and management skills.  The data is amazing for how LAs content knowledge skyrockets.  One early (2013 or so) study from Boulder they had all the intro Physics courses take a content knowledge test.  The courses had LAs and TAs (grad students) assisting.  The results showed huge gains for the students in the class compared to the national average for the test (something like 20% more).  But just as interesting was that, after LAing for a semester, the LAs content knowledge gain put them ahead of the beginning grad student content knowledge scores.  

Having an additional, dedicated, trained person in the class to assist with content knowledge acquisition is also a huge part of the program.  Our initial data supports the research done at other institutions - for a small College Algebra experiment we did we had more than a 10% gain in the common final exam scores (from an average of a D to a C) and more than a 10% drop in DFW rates.

But there is more!  We also have some preliminary data suggesting that faculty are more interested in and experimenting with active learning in their classes (and using it well).  We have had a lot more faculty interest in learning more about how to best facilitate group work and not giving up after the "I tried it once and it didn't work" experience.  The LAs seem to be able to help interested faculty in navigating something new.  I wish I had a dedicated research for this aspect - what we see happening, even though it is anecdotal right now - is really cool.

Is an LA position being done for credit, or is this paid, or both?

The first semester they sign up for the STEM Teaching and Learning Class – 2 credits. We pay them for their time there as well as the time they LA.  Although it isn’t set in stone, we tell them they have up to 10 hours a week per class that should include: Time in the class team-teaching, the STEM Teaching and Learning Class, Meeting time with the Faculty Mentor, Prep time for the class, any office hours you decide they should have, etc.  We are also happy to pay them for extra time in the STEM learning center as a more general tutor if they need more hours.

Hope this answered your questions. If you are interested in being a faculty mentor, or have other questions, please contact Dr. Brooke Evans at bevans21@msudenver.edu


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