Program lets undergrads help teach classes and engage students

As an undergraduate assistant called a TA-squared, Taylor Bailey (center) helps students in an introductory biology lab.

A program at Colorado State University is helping undergrads get more involved in the classroom – as students and as instructors.

The Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) calls it the learning assistant, or LA, program. It lets undergraduates who have already taken a particular course help a faculty member teach – much like a graduate teaching assistant.

By giving undergrads the opportunity to teach, the program allows students to learn the material better and to build their resumes. And from an instructor’s perspective, LAs help facilitate active learning, which is the process of engaging students with small groups or hands-on activities, said Stacey Clark, learning assistants program coordinator at TILT. Clark said that LAs also can give verbal quizzes, help answer questions and guide small groups through problem solving.

“The LA program is a very collaborative effort,” she said. “And TILT is making an effort to spearhead that collaborative effort to grow the learning assistants program in such a way where more instructors are able to utilize active learning and learning assistants.”

Assisting the assistants

TILT’s role in the program is to provide initial orientation and ongoing training for LAs. Apart from that, each department or college at CSU manages their own LA program differently. For example, some have organized it as an internship for college teaching credit, while other departments directly hire undergrads into paid assistant positions. Not all departments have an LA program, whereas others, like the Department of Biology, administer their own program.

The biology department calls theirs the TA-squared program. Managed by Laboratory Coordinator Donna Weedman, it places undergraduates in lab sections of introductory biology classes. Weedman said that undergrad assistants help to prepare and teach labs with graduate teaching assistants. They’re basically the assistant to the teaching assistant, “hence the TA-squared,” Weedman said.

In addition to helping students be more engaged with the material, the experience can also help undergrads earn letters of recommendation and looks good on resumes and grad school applications. Plus, they get the satisfaction of helping other students understand difficult subjects like biology, “and that’s a wonderful feeling,” Weedman said.

Facilitating faculty

From the faculty perspective, an undergraduate assistant can help in a variety of ways. Undergraduate assistants can help faculty get an idea of how well the class understands certain lessons, Clark said. They can also help engage more of their peers.

“In talking with instructors, they love their LAs,” she said. “Being able to do active learning in a classroom of 120 students would not be possible without their LAs.”

In the biology department, undergraduate assistants even get the opportunity to teach an entire lab by themselves once a semester.

Getting involved

Depending on the department, there are a variety of ways that undergrads can get involved. Some departments allow undergrads to apply directly to the position through RAMweb. Other departments, like biology, typically recruit specific students who have excelled in introductory classes. However, Weedman said students can also email her if they are interested.

In general, undergrads need to have completed and excelled in the course they want to assist in, but they don’t need prior teaching experience, Clark said.

Colleges or departments who want to take advantage of the LA program can either directly hire undergrads or provide them the opportunity to enroll in an unpaid internship via a 300-level college teaching course. Clark recommended that interested departments should talk to her about how TILT can help them design courses that allow for more active learning and the use of LAs.

At CSU, there are currently more than 50 TILT-trained LAs helping in large lectures, smaller seminars and lab classes. Typically these are introductory courses in the College of Natural Sciences, Walter Scott Jr., College of Engineering and College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Since the start of CSU’s LA program in 2015, TILT has trained more than 100 LAs, said Lory-Ann Varela, director of academic affairs and learning programs at TILT.

“We hope that by using best practices of peer education, student engagement and integrated learning, we can help students regulate their own learning and promote a growth mindset toward academic challenge,” she said.