Learning assistant helps transform classes

December 30, 2011 •

Over the past decade, the University of Colorado Boulder has established itself as a national leader in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, education.

Through its Learning Assistant and CU Teach programs and Integrating STEM initiative, CU-Boulder is making great progress on its goal of improving introductory math and science classes and recruiting and training future K-12 science teachers.

The Learning Assistant program, which was created in 2003 and is now a model for schools throughout the nation, hires dozens of undergraduate learning assistants each semester. The assistants help faculty in departments such as physics, chemistry, astrophysical and planetary sciences and mathematics to make changes in their large undergraduate classes, some of which have as many as 200 students in them.

By employing undergraduate students as learning assistants, the program aims to both improve introductory math and science classes and recruit and train future K-12 science and math teachers.

"One exciting aspect of this program is that these undergraduate learning assistants are the pool from which we recruit new teachers, which is one of the four main goals of our Learning Assistant model," said Valerie Otero, director of the Learning Assistant program and an associate professor in the School of Education.

Learning assistants have helped transform nearly 60 courses on campus, she said. One thing they do is break the large classes into smaller learning groups that are led by learning assistants.

One of those assistants, Emily Quinty, is now a teacher at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton. She worked as an assistant in the LA program for two semesters before graduating from CU-Boulder with an astrophysics degree in May 2007.

"Teaching was not on my radar at all," Quinty said. "But after I was introduced to the Learning Assistant program and became involved in the process of teaching, I decided that I wanted to go into teaching after college. The program really sparked that interest in me."

As an LA program assistant, Quinty worked as what she described as a "facilitator" in class rather than standing up in the front of the room teaching. It was really a different model for her, she said, and it was hard for the other students too.

"At first the students were really uncomfortable," Quinty said. "They said, 'you want me to work with three students who I don't know and talk about physics? I'm here because I don't understand it.'"

Seeing the students overcome that fear and really gain from it was rewarding for Quinty, and she saw a new model for teaching that she really believed in and wanted to try.

"I saw their understanding of physics explode, while my understanding of physics concepts also improved tremendously," she said. "I became a big believer that teaching as a student helps you understand the material better because when you have to articulate something all of the holes in your understanding become clear, and you have to figure out other ways to explain it, so you have to have a solid understanding of it."

It's a model she now uses in her own high school classroom.

"One of the most significant things I learned from the Learning Assistant program is that my role as a teacher is not the traditional stereotype of a teacher who stands up at the front of the classroom and dumps knowledge on kids and they learn it," Quinty said. "Rather, it's me facilitating interactions with the kids so they can create their own understanding of a topic, whether it's through an activity or a simulation in a lab. The important thing is they are able to bounce their ideas off each other, teach each other and really hone their understanding based on their interactions with each other."

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