The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Opinion | The UI’s learning assistant program expansion will benefit students

The University of Iowa’s learning assistant program is available only in a few courses.
Photo+of+Margaret+Kaus
Photo of Margaret Kaus

When the first participation question popped up on the first day of a higher-level University of Iowa STEM class, I raised my hand, looked around, and waited for an undergraduate learning assistant so that I could discuss my answer to the question. But to my surprise, there were no assistants in that course.

The UI introduced the undergraduate learning assistant program into STEM classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning assistants are trained undergraduate students who engage with students in class and respond to questions posed in lectures. These assistants are different from teacher’s assistants, or graduate students who facilitate learning in small discussion groups, labs, and office hours.

Learning assistants are extremely beneficial to learning, and the incorporation of them into more courses will be very helpful for students.

There are over 22,000 undergraduate and 6,000 graduate students at the UI as of fall 2023. In courses that have learning assistants, such as “Principles of Chemistry I,” there are nearly 15 LAs per section of 200 students.

In response to an email from The Daily Iowan, Margaret Kaus of the Academic Support and Retention Office highlighted that specific chemistry, math, and human physiology courses have learning assistants. The decision to require learning assistants for a course is made after consultation with faculty. Therefore, some higher-level chemistry and calculus courses currently do not have learning assistants.

Kaus added that the program was first piloted in the “Principles of Chemistry I” course during the COVID-19 pandemic and eventually expanded to other courses. The goal is to continue the expansion of the program based on course sizes, difficulty, and progress toward degree.

According to research, implementation of the ‘learning assistant’ model improves student performance in concept tests and students demonstrate higher cognitive abilities. Learning assistants facilitate active learning, which, according to the definition by the Cornell Centre for Teaching Innovation involves thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating.

Learning assistants bridge the gap in classroom learning and participation. It is a form of “peer learning” where students identify with their undergraduate assistants who are just like them. It is easier for them to ask for clarification and seek answers to questions that they are hesitant to ask from their instructors.

The difficulty of a course is subjective and varies from student to student. Certain components are always difficult in most of the courses, and some are inherently laborious because they introduce novel concepts to first-year students.

As the program expands, it is essential to highlight that the learning assistant model should not be limited to selected courses. The expansion and inclusion of other courses will ensure that other STEM and humanities classes, that are equally or even more difficult than the current integrated courses, can benefit too.

 


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.


 

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About the Contributor
Shelley Mishra, Opinions Columnist
(she/her/hers)
Shelley Mishra is a first-year student at the University of Iowa, pursuing her degree in Neuroscience (Hons.).