One CU-Boulder professor’s idea of how to help students learn more grew into such a successful program that it is now a model for schools throughout the nation.
Through the Colorado Learning Assistant Program, more than 1,500 learning assistant positions have been filled at CU-Boulder, helping to improve introductory courses in 10 departments and to positively impact more than 10,000 CU students each year.
Learning assistants outperform their peers in measures of student learning, and students in learning assistant-supported classes show learning gains two to three times that of students in traditional courses.
A desire to improve the curriculum to help students learn more led Richard McCray, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, to launch a science education program that helps students in science and math courses learn more than students in traditional courses.
The program also encourages high-performing students to pursue careers as science and math teachers in K-12 schools, where their expertise is desperately needed.
McCray’s idea grew into the program, which is now emulated nationally. In a course with 150 students, McCray had one teaching assistant, a graduate student, paid to help instruct the course. He hired a small number of undergraduates to assist in the transformation of the course. Learning assistants would not replace the graduate teaching assistant, but they could increase the teacher-student ratio by quite a bit at reasonably low cost.
McCray collaborated with Valerie Otero, associate professor of science education at the CU-Boulder School of Education, who taught a course in pedagogy called The Process of Teaching to the learning assistants. Several grants now underwrite CU-Boulder’s cutting-edge efforts to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and research.
“I wanted to see if I could do something innovative in education,” said McCray.