Innovative Learning Assistant Program Provides Peer Support to Increase Student Success in the Classroom – APU Article

One of the biggest challenges for students entering college is figuring out how to succeed in rigorous classes that nurture their study skills. Even introductory classes can cause students to struggle if they don’t have proper study support. After class, they can seek tutoring or attend office hours, but how can they get extra help during class if they’re confused and need help? A faculty team from Azusa Pacific University including Bradley McCoy, PhD; Elijah Roth, PhD; Marian Saleh, MA, MS; Kevin Sheng-Lin Huang, PhD; Sharon McCathern, PhD; and Tom Allbaugh, PhD; received a $30,000 award from the President’s Scholarship Enhancement Grant for developing a learning assistant program that provides a solution to this challenge.

Learning Assistants are undergraduate students who aim to increase student engagement and success in the classroom. These students have graduated from the same class within the past year or two. “A colleague who has recently taken the course can often help unlock challenging concepts in an accessible way for students,” said McCoy, chair of the math, physics and statistics department.

Learning assistants are distinct from teaching assistants (TAs) and tutors. TAs often teach different sections of the class and help mark papers and tests; Their main goal is to support the teacher. The ultimate goal of learning assistants is to support the learner, identify where the student is struggling and help address those issues. Your role is also different from that of a tutor. Rather than students taking time for one-on-one help, Learning Assistants are right there to help and break down barriers during class.

Kate Tickle, a senior math and humanities major, served as a learning assistant on a Math 130 course. “I had a lot of experience tutoring in high school and college, but I thought this was a unique opportunity,” Tickle said. “I was able to identify gaps in students’ understanding during the lesson and helped to close these gaps and clear up misunderstandings.”

The President’s Scholarship Enhancement Grant enabled 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 remainder to be carried over to the 2022-23 school year to fund more learning assistants. Last year’s learning assistants worked in the subjects chemistry, biology, mathematics, physics, writing and computer science.

“We chose to use learning assistants primarily in introductory courses because these are gateways to their respective majors and students in these courses have traditionally had more problems, which affects retention rates for those majors,” McCoy said. “All faculty expressed a belief that the program was useful for student success.”

McCoy conducted a survey to assess the impact of learning assistants on attrition rates. For the courses that reported failing grades and estimates of likely failing grades, the failure rate dropped from an estimate of 18.2 percent to 10.7 percent when no study assistant was present. In tangible terms, this meant that in 14 classes with a total of 307 students, only 33 students received failed grades, while 56 students were likely to fail if they did not have a study assistant. “That’s 7.5 percent more students who passed than otherwise would have failed,” McCoy said. “This 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 ask a lot of questions,” Roth said. “My learning assistants identified what was confusing the students and asked important questions. They also chimed in with questions they had heard in small groups that some students felt were too intimidated to ask in front of the whole class.” One of Roth’s learning assistants connected the content to real-world situations they were in had learned in their high school courses, while the other Hunchback developed simple questions to address complex issues from the previous lecture.

Perhaps the most important part of Learning Assistants’ work is creating a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom and identifying which students are struggling and need more attention. Erika Litson, a chemist and honors humanities major and one of Roth’s learning assistants, focused on this aspect. “I usually got to class a few minutes early. This was the time before class began that I had the most time to talk to the students,” Litson said. “They knew who I was and would come up to me and ask questions about homework, materials and labs. We also just chatted about our days, what’s going on in their lives.”

As the students worked on practice problems during class, Litson walked around and checked their work while urging them to go a little further. “It was really great to see students who were struggling with problems click something in their mind, an aha moment, and solve it,” Litson said. “I want to teach chemistry one day, and moments like this really cemented that desire.” Litson and Tickle said serving as a learning assistant feels like mentorship for their future careers. “It was important for me to learn how to confidently share my knowledge of the material,” Tickle said. “As a prospective teacher, I’m really grateful for this experience.”

Roth said that with positive feedback from students, faculty and the learning assistants themselves, the program provides a model that could expand its impact. “I believe that faculty and students alike could benefit from this program across the APU.”

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