Department of Science Education

Dr. Ben Van Dusen launches the Learning Assistant (LA) program at CSU, Chico

Announced on: Friday, Oct. 13, 2017

LAs are talented (usually upper division) undergraduates who partner with university faculty to help transform STEM courses. LAs themselves engage in three main activities designed to improve their mastery of STEM concepts, while simultaneously preparing them to support their peers.

First, LAs master STEM content by meeting weekly with their mentoring faculty to plan for the upcoming week, reflect on the previous week, and analyze assessment data. Second, LAs attend a pedagogy and assessment course in STEM education once per week to effectively support course transformation. Third, LAs practice their mastery by leading Learning Teams consisting of 6 to 20 students (depending on the particular department’s instantiation of the model) where students work in small groups on problems that require that they articulate, defend, and revise their ideas.

Researchers have documented the effects of LAs on students' conceptual learning in a number of institutional and classroom contexts. For example, one investigation examined the pre and post scores of approximately 5,000 physics students on physics concept inventories over a several year period (Pollock & Finkelstein, 2008). It was found that student outcomes in introductory physics courses were significantly improved through the introduction of LAs and Tutorials (McDermott & Schaffer, 1998). Similar outcomes were found in a study of the effects of LAs with an alternative set of Tutorials on students in another institution (Goertzen, et al., 2011). In addition to improving learning gains, the use of LAs with tutorials was also shown to not exacerbate the performance gap between underrepresented student groups and majority groups. In a study of calculus students' course grades, the use of LAs was shown to completely close the performance gap between students' who had been labeled "at risk" (due to low entry exam scores) and the rest of the class (Nelson, 2010). Similar trends have been found in undergraduate chemistry classes. For example, in a multi-year study of an introductory chemistry class, it was found that introducing LAs while holding the curriculum constant led to significant differences in students' learning outcomes (Langdon, 2014).