The Learning Assistant program at CU Boulder uses the transformation of large-enrollment science courses as a mechanism for achieving four goals:
- Teacher Recruitment & Preparation: to recruit and prepare talented math and science majors for careers in teaching.
- Curriculum & Course Transformation: to improve the quality of math and science education for all undergraduates.
- Institutional Change: to engage math and science faculty in the recruitment and preparation of future teachers and to engage education faculty in the transformation of undergraduate courses.
- Discipline-Based Education Research: to transform the culture in university math and science departments to value research-based teaching as a legitimate endeavor for ourselves and for our students.
The differences between the LA model at the University of Colorado-Boulder and other standard models for undergraduate teaching assistants are:
- The focus on teacher recruitment and preparation
- A special seminar targeted at helping LAs integrate content, pedagogy, and practice
- A collaborative educational research program to evaluate the effects of the LA model
- The involvement of science research faculty in recruitment and preparation of teachers
The STEM Colorado LA program has gained national recognition (Mervis, 2007a, 2007b; Otero, Finkelstein, McCray, & Pollock, 2006). We provided 8 workshops in 2007, mostly by request. We regularly provide workshops at national conferences such as the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, and the National Science Teachers Association. By request, we have provided workshops for individual college campuses around the nation as well as for entire university systems. In October 2007, approximately 30 physics faculty members from 14 different universities across the nation came to CU Boulder for a two-day workshop on how to implement the LA program at their universities. They observed LA-supported learning teams, engaged in consultations with CU Boulder faculty and LAs from 7 departments, and actually participated with the LAs in the weekly pedagogy seminar. We supplied print and CD-ROM materials and data that will help them launch the program and the pedagogy course at their universities.
The transformation of large-enrollment courses involves creating environments in which students can interact with one another, engage in collaborative problem solving, articulate and defend their ideas, and explicitly discuss aspects of the nature of science and the nature of learning science. To accomplish this, undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) are hired to facilitate small-group interaction. At the same time, the LAs make up the pool from which we recruit new K-12 teachers. LAs are paid a modest stipend (~$1,500/semester) to work 10 hours per week in various aspects of course transformation.
Although the LA experience is somewhat different for each course, the experience for all LAs involves three related activities:
- Content: LAs meet weekly with their faculty instructors to plan for the upcoming week, reflect on the previous week, and analyze student assessment data.
- Practice: LAs facilitate collaboration among learning teams of 6-25 students by formatively assessing student understanding and asking guiding questions.
- Pedagogy: LAs from all departments attend a special Mathematics and Science Education seminar where they reflect on their own teaching and learning and make connections to relevant education literature.
Faculty Member Requirements
There is no dictated design of what course transformation should look like. Instead, faculty members who seek and are awarded LAs must agree to:
- use LAs to promote interaction and collaboration among students enrolled in the course,
- meet in weekly planning sessions with the LAs who support their courses,
- attend weekly meetings with other faculty participating in the program,
- attend a summer preparation session for using LAs, and
- evaluate transformations and assess learning in their own courses.