Learning calculus is a full-scale community activity in the Department of Applied Mathematics at CU-Boulder. Students learn from their teachers, but also from other students.
The same is true for various other courses in applied math, such as Matrix Methods, Applied Probability, and Complex Variables. Students serving as learning assistants, or LAs, reinforce what they’ve already learned by helping other students who are taking a class for the first time.
“Often, the students can get the concepts more easily from a peer since that student has just gone through the same learning experience,” says instructor Sujeet Bhat.
“As a teacher, it’s hard to have face time with every student,” he adds. “The LAs help to make the class more hands-on.”
In the Learning Assistant Model, which was developed at CU-Boulder in 2003, undergraduate students who have done well in a course are employed by the department to assist faculty members or their teaching assistants by working with students in small groups. Typically, two LAs are assigned to each section of a course so that they can engage students repeatedly in discussion of mathematical concepts.
“The LAs try to encourage discourse among the students because research shows that helps them understand the material better,” says Anne Dougherty, associate chair of the department.
They often assist the faculty with course grading as well, which in turn helps them to see how they might improve their teaching.
LAs attend an orientation at the start of each semester and co-enroll in a School of Education course on math and science education that introduces them to learning theory and teaching practices.
By employing undergraduate students as learning assistants, the campus-wide program aims to both improve introductory math and science classes and recruit and train future K–12 science and math teachers. The applied math department was an early adopter of the LA model and now uses 25 or more LAs each semester for various classes.
Applied math major Chris Aicher says it’s the “ideal job” for him since he really likes math. “It’s kind of like studying too even though I’ve already taken the class,” he adds.
While Aicher doesn’t know yet if he’ll pursue a teaching career, he does plan to attend graduate school. Whatever he does, being an LA is likely to give him a leg up.•