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Destler Dodge

We’ve all struggled in a class at one time or another, and it can be quite frustrating when it comes to classes or subjects that aren’t really your thing.

In an effort to help students with learning difficult subjects, particularly in STEM fields, RIT’s College of Science has implemented a Learning Assistant (LA) program. The program involves students who have already been through the class working with the faculty to revise their classroom approach. The students, referred to as Learning Assistants (LAs), help lead outside discussions, assist students with homework trouble and develop new course materials. This program has led to a complete shift in the way lectures are being taught in the College of Science.

The LA program was originally developed at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Its most basic goal was to get physics students interested in teaching. At the time, there was a severe lack of K-12 science teachers, especially those trained in physics. As the program developed further, other universities saw its merits and began to implement their own versions of the LA method. RIT was one of those universities.

In 2013, RIT began its own LA program with a slightly different goal. As RIT does not have a school of education, it instead focused on helping teachers revise classrooms and lecture styles. Currently managing the program is Corey Ptak, a lecturer within the College of Science.

“We were surprised by how much it helped faculty take their classroom ideas and put them into action,” Ptak said.

Traditionally, lectures have been taught through univocal discourse, where the teacher simply spouts information to the students in the classroom. Ptak, other faculty and students saw an opportunity to revise the classroom so all participants can be included. This required classrooms to take a more student-oriented, discussion-based approach.

"Dialogical discourse has dialogue, so it's about multiple people talking … The sharing of information is not just one way," said Ptak. This style of learning is just one way that LAs are trained to help in classrooms.

“Dialogical discourse has dialogue, so it’s about multiple people talking… The sharing of information is not just one way,” expressed Ptak.

In order to become an LA, students must apply to the program and go through a series of interviews. After the program managers interview the applicants, faculty members will interview them to see if they are the right fit for their class. From there, students and faculty will team up to develop learning plans and class materials that will work best for the students.

LAs are also required to attend a pedagogy course. The course takes up two credits and instructs LAs in classroom management and cognitive science. Its basic premise is to help LAs understand how students learn in a classroom.

Ptak was surprised to see how assertive students were about the program. Students who wished to be LAs were incredibly enthusiastic.

As a result of the program, Ptak and other coordinators have found that classes with LAs have had an increased rate of student achievement, a decreased workload on the part of the faculty, an increased rate of engagement and generally more positive evaluations.

For the future, the initiative has a variety of goals. For one, Ptak hopes to see more students get interested in teaching. The pedagogy course they are required to take helps them understand teaching dynamics and learn teaching strategies. The LAs can then go out into the classroom and help their peers understand the subject more than they would be able to on their own. The course also involves a high degree of reflection. The LAs are required to reflect on strategies that work for them, as well as what they can do to improve.

The program is also expected to branch out into other areas. Recently, the LA program has spread to the College of Applied Science and Technology, and Ptak expects the program to spread to other colleges and disciplines.

Future goals for the faculty include a further transformation of classes from univocal to dialogical styles of teaching. Ptak ultimately believes that the program will help RIT be more progressive with less of a focus on lecture-style classes.

“This allows [us] to promote diversity in the classroom … In terms of diversity of learning styles, diversity of backgrounds, and still get the same outcome of student success …This is a culture of students helping students,” he said. 

To an outside observer, it might be difficult to discern an LA from a Teaching Assistant (TA). The LA program emphasizes a relationship with faculty. In order to be an LA, students must work closely with teachers to develop lesson plans and other materials needed for the class. TAs traditionally don’t offer feedback, whereas feedback for the faculty is essential for LAs. Ptak also likens the idea of an LA to that of a peer, where the LAs can offer a second perspective on things.

“[LAs] are agents of the class. They’re not just there to answer questions.”

"[LAs] are agents of the class," he said. "They're not just there to answer questions."

Overall, Ptak believes that feedback from both faculty and students has been generally positive. Current LAs believe that they’re learning more than they would have in regular, univocal classes. Faculty like Ptak believe the LA program is helping them develop new ways of teaching material.

“Without my LAs, my class would be very different,” Ptak commented.

“I did have trouble getting into that teaching mindset,” said Devon Christman, a first year Physics major and current LA. “But now everything’s running really smoothly and I’m finding that I learn more through being an LA … I know my knowledge has greatly improved.”

If any student wishes to become an LA, Ptak encourages them to contact him at cxpsbi@rit.edu.

For more information, please visit https://www.rit.edu/science/la.