The newly created Learning Assistants (LA) program is composed of a group of undergraduate students that will participate in the teaching experience in College of Science classes beginning fall 2014. Scott Franklin, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the program, defined LA as “…undergraduates who are helping faculty either in the classroom or in other outside activities focusing on helping students working in groups learning material.” Though they may seem similar to Teaching Assistants, they will serve their own purpose and have their own goals. “Their primary purpose is not to work one on one with the student; it really is to help a collaborative working process,” Franklin explained.

The idea of Learning Assistants is not new; Franklin adopted the idea from the University of Colorado after their success with it over the past 10 years. “There’s a lot of good evidence out of Colorado that classes with Learning Assistants have done a lot better on a number of tests,” said Franklin. “Classes with Learning Assistants have learned more of the content than classes without.” It’s not just a learning experience for the students but for the LA’s as well. Franklin believes that they will come out with a better understanding of the material they teach and how a student thinks.

Franklin explained that he has a couple of goals for the program. The first is to give students a good experience with teaching. Though they may not necessarily want to be teachers, Franklin hopes to spark some interest so that the LA’s may pursue another exposure to teaching in the future. The second is to help faculty transform classes. LA’s will not be there to just answer questions from students but to figure out what is the “right question to ask the student.” The third goal involves encouraging students to teach long term as a college professor or in high schools.

The LA program won’t be integrated into any other colleges yet; it will be restricted to the College of Science in selected biology, chemistry, math and physics classes. Franklin will be funding the program through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant with help of his department and the University. Whether the program will spread to other colleges is unknown, but if the program is successful it might impress other programs to follow suit.

Illustration by Emily DeVault