Learning Assistant Liveblog: Weekly LA meetings

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 2, 2011

Once again, liveblogging from the national Learning Assistant Workshop in Boulder.

One of the central features of the LA program are the weekly meetings between the teaching faculty and LAs.   Steve Pollock and Ben Spike led this session, discussing what these look like in our physics courses, where LAs help run out of group tutorials which have replaced our traditional labs.  You can read more about using LAs in recitation tutorials here.


A few days before the class that the LA will be working in, the LA, faculty member, and any TA’s meet for 60-90 minutes.  It’s a focused discussion on content and pedagogy — what are we teaching this week, and how?  What are the student ideas in this area?  It serves as a way to ground the LAs (and TAs!) in the content at hand.  The faculty member running this session has, obviously, been thrown in the deep end of the pool.  They often think that “as long as the TAs and LAs know the right answer to the tutorials, then everything is fine.”  These are traditional physicists, not people in the school of education.  So, they are often not aware that “getting the right answer” will not necessarily help LAs and TAs facilitate the tutorials effectively.

The whole thing is sold to the faculty as “would you like to get 7 free LAs to help run your class of 600 students.”  The price paid for that free help?  Facilitate a once/weekly session to help the LA’s get up to speed — after all, they’re undergraduates.  So, as mentioned in the previous post, this serves as a stealth method for teaching faculty about effective pedagogy and get them to consider common student ideas.

The tutorials include a pre-test meant to get students thinking about the topic, and to elicit their prior ideas.  So, in the weekly meeting, LAs and TAs work through the pre-test.  They’re also given a big packet with a variety of student responses to that pre-test over the years.  Their task is to read them over and get a sense of how students are thinking about that topic.  Steve tries not to frame this in terms of “what are their misconceptions,” but rather “what are their productive ideas that they’re coming into the classroom with?”  They might make note – publicly or in their notebooks – what common student wrong answers are and what would lead a student to make that mistake.

Then, they work through the tutorial themselves, as a group.  They need to make sure they understand the physics, yes, but most of that has been taken care of already.   They’re taught to consider questions such as, “what might students be thinking if they answer XXX?” “What might you do instructionally, based on what they’re thinking?”  “What else might you try?”   This allows the LA to be flexible in their teaching, reacting to common student ideas.

If the faculty think that the purpose of these prep sessions is simply to know the right answer, then that’s not so effective.

The primary role of the LA has to be to foster learning and discussion in groups.  They are to be “helping participate in groups on group-worthy activities.”  So, the preparation session needs to prepare them to do that.

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