One of the biggest challenges for students entering college is figuring out how to succeed in rigorous courses that build their learning abilities. Even introductory courses can cause difficulties for students if they don’t have the right support to help them learn. After class, they can request private lessons or attend office hours, but how can they get extra help during class when they are confused and need help? A team of Azusa Pacific University faculty including Bradley McCoy, PhD; Elijah Roth, PhD; Marian Saleh, MA, MS; Kevin Sheng-Lin Huang, PhD; Sharon McCathern, Ph.D.; and Tom Allbaugh, PhD; received a $30,000 award under the President’s Scholarship Enhancement Grant to develop a learning assistant program, providing a solution to this challenge.
Learning Assistants are undergraduate students who aim to increase student engagement and success in the classroom. These students have completed the same class within the past year or two. “A peer, fresh from the course, can often help unlock difficult concepts for students in an accessible way,” said McCoy, chair of the Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics.
Learning assistants are different from teaching assistants (TAs) and tutors. Teacher assistants often teach different sections of the classroom and help mark assignments and tests; their main purpose is to help the teacher. The main purpose of learning assistants is to help the learner, identify where students are struggling, and help solve those problems. Their role is also different from that of a tutor. Instead of students devoting time to their schedule for one-on-one help, Learning Assistants are there to provide assistance during class, removing barriers.
Kate Tickle, a math and humanities major, served as a learning assistant in a math 130 class. unique,” Tickle said. “I was able to identify gaps in understanding during the lesson among the students and helped fill those gaps and dispel misconceptions.”
The President’s Scholarship Enhancement Grant allowed the team to hire a total of 24 learning assistants in the 2021-22 school year, 8 in the fall and 16 in the spring. This used just over half of the grant, allowing the rest to be carried over to the 2022-23 school year, to fund more learning assistants. Last year’s learning assistants served in chemistry, biology, math, physics, writing and computer classes.
“We chose to deploy learning assistants primarily in introductory courses, as these are gateways to their respective majors and students traditionally struggle more in these courses, impacting retention rates. of these majors,” McCoy said. “All faculty expressed a belief that the program was helpful for student success.”
McCoy conducted a survey to assess the impact of learning assistants on failure rates. For courses that reported failing grades and estimates of likely failing grades, if a learning assistant was not present, the failing rate decreased from an estimated 18.2% to 10.7%. In terms of hard numbers, this meant that out of 14 classes with a total enrollment of 307 students, only 33 students achieved failing grades while 56 would have to fail had they not had a learning assistant. “That’s 7.5% more students who passed who otherwise wouldn’t have passed,” McCoy said. “It is significant.”
Roth, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, benefited from learning assistants in his General Chemistry I class during the fall and spring semesters. “These are complicated topics that may be unfamiliar to students, but most of the time I wouldn’t see students asking a lot of questions,” Roth said. “My learning assistants determined what was confusing students and asked important questions. They also answered questions they heard in small groups that some students felt too intimidated to ask in front of the whole class. One of Roth’s learning assistants linked the content to real-world situations she had learned in her higher-level courses while the other offered ringtones, simple questions to solve the complex problems of the previous conference.
Perhaps the most important part of a learning assistant’s job is creating a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom and recognizing which students are struggling and need more attention. Erika Litson, a chemistry and humanities major and one of Roth’s learning assistants, focused on this aspect. “I usually got to class a few minutes early. During that time before classes started, I was talking to students the most,” Litson said. “They knew who I was and came to me and asked me about homework, materials and labs. We also discussed our days, what was going on in their lives.
While the students were working on practical problems during class, Litson walked around and checked their work while pushing them to go a little further. “It was really great to see students with problems having something click in their head, an aha moment, and solving it,” Litson said. “I want to teach chemistry one day and moments like that have really cemented that desire.” Litson and Tickle said serving as a learning assistant felt like mentorship for their future careers. “It was important for me to learn how to feel confident about sharing my hardware knowledge,” Tickle said. “As a future teacher, I am truly grateful for this experience.”
Roth said that with positive feedback from students, faculty and learning assistants themselves, the program provides a model that could expand its impact. “I think faculty and students could benefit from this program through APU.”
Posted: July 26, 2022