Earning a degree from RIT is no cakewalk. Fortunately, there is no shortage of support accompanying the often overwhelming coursework.

The learning assistant (LA) program fielded by the RIT Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning and Evaluation (CASTLE) is a promising addition to the university's resources. Undergraduate LAs are hired to facilitate an environment that stimulates interaction and collaborative problem solving.

The program is supported by the school of Life Sciences, Physics and Astronomy, the College of Applied Science & Technology, Mathematics, Chemistry and Material Sciences and NTID. Currently in its third year, the program was developed by the Science and Mathematics Education Research Collaborative (SMERC) to give students a genuine teaching experience.

LAs develop teaching methods dependent on the diverse group of participating students. They network with RIT faculty to navigate the terrain of teaching and constructive group study.

Corey Ptak is the LA program leader and committee member. According to him, the program has already gone through several evolutions since its initial conception to as a method to recruit student teachers. 

"What it eventually morphed into was a mechanism for students to inject some of their experiences back into the classroom," said Ptak. "Essentially this was an avenue for students to take their ideas to improve classes they’d taken ... and dynamically change the way the course is taught.”

Many students are more familiar with the role of teaching assistants than with learning assistants, who have more responsibilities than TAs. The primary role of an LA is to mediate discussion-based learning between students in the course. LAsmeet with their faculty mentor on a weekly basis to develop and plan course activities. Outside of the course, LAs also host weekly student help sessions.

That being said, not all LA experiences will be uniform. The roles will typically be determined by the course, faculty mentor and the LA themselves.

According to Ptak, LAs are often assigned more responsibility and therefore more pedagogical freedom than Teaching Assistants (TAs).

“There is training. Having a learning assistant that is trained in education allows us to delegate to them and work with them to revise our courses in a more meaningful way ... TAs don’t necessarily get training, or at least it’s very minimal. TAs very rarely do things like write assignments, collect data and do assessments of classroom revisions. LAs do all of those things. The way I like to frame it is that LAs are pedagogical agents of that course and they are incorporated into the actual course structure in a more meaningful way,” said Ptak.

Obtaining that student input is one of the key motivations for having an LA program at RIT, explained Ptak.

“It is very important for faculty to be accountable to the students they teach," said Ptak. "And if students are having bad experiences, they should be able to give a certain level of feedback that actually makes its way into the course. Student evaluations always find their way into substantive changes within the classroom when LAs are involved.”

"The LA program allows us to create a culture in which student feedback, student ideas and student issues take a central focus in the teaching process." 

Ptak noted that all mentors reported that students were more open with concerns they had in the course with LAs rather than faculty. The LAs can bring those concerns to the faculty or develop methods to alleviate those concerns themselves. This allows changes to be made on the fly and for the course to be more responsive to student needs.

“The LA program allows us to create a culture in which student feedback, student ideas and student issues take a central focus in the teaching process,” Ptak said. 

LA's are increasingly in demand

Since its inception five years ago, the LA program has grown. Now, each department that already has an LA program has had a steady increase in the number of LAs employed. 

Ptak recognizes how valuable the program is, but stops short of saying it should be implemented across the entire university. 

“The best kind of learning assistant experience is one in which the faculty chooses and wants it, not one that is forced," he said. "If the faculty are looking for ways to revise their class in a way that reduces the amount of work and they want to be more student-centric, the LA program is a resource to them. It should never be something that’s forced on unwilling faculty.”

Vision for the Program

That being said, Ptak urged faculty to take advantage of the expanding LA program. 

“We know that course transformation is hard, that it takes work, but the LA program is a group of dedicated people who are here to really help with those transformations because we care about the students. We can as a group of faculty support one another in educational reform, to make this a more student-centric institution," he said.

Ptak also encourage students to get more involved. 

“You don’t have to be interested in going into education to take part in a valuable program. Learning about the process of learning dramatically changes how you interact with your own courses. It’s a mechanism by which you can take ideas you have about improving courses you’ve taken at RIT and put them into action. Becoming an LA is your opportunity to change that class for the better. LAs are student agents that are changing the culture of classes at RIT,” Ptak said. 

Ptak highlighted the pedagogical transformations that LAs typically go through and the lessons they inculcate into their own learning process..

“If the students walk away from the LA program with one thing, it is that good educational practice is good for students, faculty, and everyone at the institution and hopefully they have an experience that opens up their mind to thinking more about what the classroom is there to do and their space within that classroom,” he said.

Student learning assistants share their thoughts

Student LAs agreed that their participation in the program has contributed to their own growth as much as to the students they worked with.

Devon Christman is a third year Physics major and five-time LA who has been an active learning assistant since her freshman year.

"The LA program found me as opposed to the other way around," she said. "My University Physics I professor showed me a flyer and said it might be something that I’d be interested in. Oh, and the meeting’s today, so show up.”

Christman has been an LA ever since. The experience in the beginning involved overcoming personal obstacles that the program allowed her to confront.

“I was nervous. I didn’t really understand the balance when some of the kids I was LA for were also my friends. The students didn’t take me seriously because I was constantly going to my faculty mentor to solve problems,” she recalled. 

Christman now now holds review sessions as an LA that have up to 40 students participating.

Alana Moraes, a third year Civil Engineering Technology major, is another learning assistant in the engineering department. She said her natural inclination to help her peers got her a recommendation from a professor to become an LA.

“My favorite thing about being an LA is probably when a student’s eyes light up when they’ve figured out something they’ve been having trouble with," she said.

Christman shared this sentiment. “The best part about being an LA is witnessing that ‘a-ha’ moment in a student. When you don’t really know how you’ve explained something differently, but it clicked for them and they’ve learned something,” she said.