Published: April 13, 2020

When universities and colleges nationwide announced that their classes were going remote as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the Learning Assistant Program at the University of Colorado Boulder began to receive emails from all over the world requesting help. 

Learning Assistants are undergraduate students who work alongside professors with the job of ensuring that students are feeling heard and getting the specific support they need. At the same time, Learning Assistants make sure that the professors are keenly aware of how each and every student is experiencing their course. They also communicate instructional strategies and learning theory from their weekly course on teaching and learning. 

On April 16 and April 22, online panels of Learning Assistants will answer questions from professors and the community about how students are experiencing remote instruction and how Learning Assistants are helping faculty and students. One session will involve Learning Assistants from multiple Colorado institutions and while another is geared toward a national audience and involves many universities from throughout the United States. 

The Learning Assistant Program was founded by CU Boulder Astrophysics Professor Richard (Dick) McCray in 2001 with the goals of increasing students’ confidence and success in his courses and recruiting more talented STEM majors to become K-12 teachers. Based at CU Boulder, the International Learning Assistant Alliance was launched in 2010 and now has more than 2,000 faculty participants from more than 400 colleges and universities from 21 countries.

Being a Learning Assistant means “being the student’s voice within the class by giving feedback to the professor and passing along comments from students,” explained Alison Millette, psychology Learning Assistant. “It means to be a presence in the room of one who is there for the students and that they know that,” added Luke Camp, molecular, cellular and development biology Learning Assistant.

Research shows Learning Assistants have led to dramatic increases in student learning outcomes and over 60% decreases in failure rates in introductory chemistry, physics, and calculus at CU Boulder. A recent study conducted by Laken Top, CU Boulder School of Education alumna and Front Range Community College professor, shows that the “special sauce” is in the way Learning Assistants are relating to students, creating more inclusive environments, and inviting students to take on disciplinary identities.  

“Fellow undergraduates are less intimidating and potentially have an easier time forming relationships with students, which encourages excitement and curiosity,” explained Hazel Valley Burt, a psychology Learning Assistant. 

At the same time, these Learning Assistants are developing a sense of responsibility and global awareness.
“Learning is not just about content, but it is also about advocating for acceptance within and outside the field of concepts,” said Adam Clements, an evolutionary biology Learning Assistant. “In order to advance the STEM professions and build knowledge, Learning Assistants are in place to promote active learning, communication, and advocacy.”

Learning Assistant Program co-founder Valerie Otero explained that Learning Assistants are specially positioned and they define their own roles. 

We hire them because they have critical knowledge that has been lost by our ‘expert blindspots,’” said Otero, professor of STEM education in the School of Education. “These undergraduates are our future leaders, and CU Boulder gives them space to innovate, which is leading us in new directions.”

The International Learning Assistant Alliance supports hundreds of universities throughout the world which collectively use tens of thousands of Learning Assistants every year to support hundreds of thousands of our nation’s students and faculty. A key design principle is that the Learning Assistants model are students themselves. 

“One of the purposes of a college education is for students to learn how to take responsibility for others, to make informed decisions, and to show compassionate leadership in tough times,” says CU Boulder Provost Russ Moore, who has been instrumental in building and sustaining the Learning Assistant model throughout Colorado and the nation. “CU Boulder students are getting this experience by serving as Learning Assistants.”   

A consortium of Colorado institutions has emerged between the University of Colorado Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs campuses, Front Range Community College, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Community College of Denver, and Colorado State University to work together and support each other and their students. In some cases, Learning Assistants move between Colorado campuses to increase diversity and opportunity.  

Not surprisingly, Learning Assistants are leading the charge of creating meaningful, compassionate online experiences for students during the COVID-19 crisis. They are supported by mentors and a course on teaching and learning, and they have formed an interdisciplinary community ofLearning Assistants from all over the world who are supporting students and faculty during the online transition. 

“Academics always involve communities which foster growth, and Learning Assistants use the relationships they make with students and educators to bolster the communities surrounding them,” said Medha Patel, a math Learning Assistant, summing up the important role of community in academics and the Learning Assistant experience.

To learn more about the Learning Assistant Program and the Alliance, contact Valerie Otero. To support the Colorado Learning Assistant Program or the international Learning Assistant Alliance, contact Mia Axon.

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