Learning Assistant Program

Learning Assistants (LAs) are undergraduates who succeed in a course and are then redeployed in a future offering to support student learning.  LAs work closely with faculty and instructional team to build interactive and collaborative classroom environments, and are trained to facilitate cooperative group work, which can improve learning outcomes in STEM courses.  LA programs around the US have improved student outcomes, particularly for students historically excluded from STEM, and support institutional-scale adoption of evidence-based instructional practices.  The College of Science at the U has a robust college-wide LA program:  I led a pilot LA program in Physics & Astronomy during 2017-18 and helped build the college-wide LA program in 2018 that is currently in operation.

One of the key components for effective active learning is for students in small groups to discuss and question each other about the concepts while solving problems.  Having LAs who are predominantly dedicated to facilitating active learning within these small groups greatly increases robust student discussion and hence student learning. Importantly, the LA model discourages using LAs to grade student work.  The LA community hypothesizes that prohibiting LAs from grading helps them maintain a near-peer relationship with their students, which allows students to feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, and struggling with new ideas. 

This hypothesis, untested until now, has important institutional implications.  In particular, the prohibition against grading student work introduces a potential barrier to growing and sustaining a vibrant LA program since departments often find it difficult to provide adequate grading services using graduate TAs alone, and employing more undergraduates as LAs reduces their availability for grading positions.  This one-year pilot study will begin to address if and how tasking LAs with grading responsibilities moderates the interactions between LAs and their students, leading to evidence of less productive discussion between students while working in groups.  Such evidence might consist of fewer student questions, less willingness to vocalize dissenting perspectives, and anxiety about being wrong, which will be ascertained by observations and surveys.  More generally, this study seeks to shed light on the conditions where some grading activities might be permissible for an LA.

Funding:  A pilot study was recently funded by a $17,500 University of Utah Research Incentive Seed Grant, and will be the basis for a broader NSF proposal to characterize the multiple ways LAs can be used to engage students in productive learning in large introductory STEM courses.

People and Roles: 

  • Prof. Gina Frey, Professor of Chemistry (ChemEd):  Gina helped write the grant and is helping to guide the research agenda.  She is co-PI on the Seed Grant. 
  • Josh Edwards, third-year graduate student in Chemistry (ChemEd):  Josh is carrying out much of the research activities and helping to train additional students.
  • Jess Cleeves, Associate Director for Equitable Instruction in the CSME:  Jess leads the LA program at Utah.  She will facilitate the research and use the results to improve the LA program. 
  • My role:  I piloted the LA program in P&A and helped build and continue to oversee the college-wide program now in operation.  I also initiated this study, am co-advising Josh Edwards on his PhD research, and am PI on the Seed Grant funding this research.
© Jordan Gerton 2019