New academic support program to help students during the pandemic and beyond

Learning Assistants attend their Fall 2021 orientation. The Learning Assistant program is finding ways to support education through student-led collaborative learning. // Photo courtesy of Stephanie Reikes

In the face of pandemic-induced academic challenges, Tech’s new Learning Assistant (LA) program was created to facilitate interactive learning within classrooms across campus.

The LA program acts as a hybrid of two existing Tutoring and Academic Support programs: Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Peer-Led Undergraduate Study (PLUS) leaders.

During a lecture, recitation, studio or lab, LAs help to facilitate active learning and collaborative instruction by answering questions from students in a one-to-one or small group setting. This interaction helps to make courses more student-centered and lower the student-teacher ratio, which is especially useful for larger lecture courses.

To assist with promoting student learning, LAs must take a one-credit pedagogy course (CETL 2001) to learn various interactive educational techniques.

In addition to their classroom duties, LAs also meet with their instructor to plan upcoming assignments and activities, hold office hours for students and may assist with grading.

Faculty must apply each semester to have their courses supported by a LA. Current courses involved with the LA program include AE 2010: Thermodynamics and Fluids, CHEM 1211K: Chemical Principles I, ME 2202: Dynamics of Rigid Bodies, MGT 3062: Financial Management and several others.

The LA program was created and is now coordinated by Stephanie Reikes, who teaches pre-calculus courses MATH 0999, MATH 1111 and MATH 1113. 

Reikes is also the director of the Math Lab, which provides drop-in math tutoring to students at Tech.

“The inspiration of the Learning Assistant program came about during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reikes said. “My course, MATH 1113, previously had PLUS sessions. However, during the pandemic, attendance had dropped, and PLUS was cut from my course. In the absence of PLUS, I felt my students could still use some additional support, and I thought if I could bring the support to them in the form of embedded tutors, I could see improved academic success.”

The LA program website further describes the need for the program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As instruction transitions back to an in-person format, instructors will need to decide which elements of remote learning they want to maintain. For example, by shifting content delivery to online videos, the in-person component might be used for collaboration and discussion. This is a great opportunity to transform the classroom experience into an active environment with the help of Learning Assistants,” the website describes. 

Joshua Kretchmer, who teaches CHEM 1211K, uses LAs as suggested on the program website to facilitate a flipped classroom with students participating in-person and virtually.

“I teach a large lecture class using a flipped class model. Most of my time is devoted to working in-class problems … The LAs move around the classroom answering questions and probing students as the students work through the problems,” Kretchmer said. “The LAs also help answer questions online to students who are not attending in-person … [because] I do not monitor the online chat.”  

The general response from professors, LAs and students regarding the program so far has been excellent.

Joseph Galanti, second-year BA, is a LA for MGT 3062.

“It has been a highlight in my time at Tech,” Galanti said. 

“I’ve answered plenty of questions that have clarified and strengthened a student’s understanding of the material, and it’s always exciting to see them experience that light bulb ‘aha’ moment.”

Galanti explained how he plans an active role in leading class activities like Kahoot! online quizzes.

“Leading these activities helps keep students engaged and helps solidify their comprehension of the material,” Galanti said. “I feel that the physical presence of knowledgeable peers in the classroom and the hands-on interaction with students significantly benefits how the material is interpreted and retained.”

Galanti also discussed additional benefits of the LA program in helping students during lectures.

“I think what separates the LA program from other support programs is our … ability to help students on the spot who may be struggling,” Galanti said. “While some students don’t take the time to attend office hours or tutoring sessions, being there during class time to address any concerns helps to relieve some of the stress they may have.”

Students in classes with LAs agree on the advantages of the program. 

Reikes has received lots of positive feedback from students, including comments on the approachability, helpfulness and patience of LAs who assisted learning in ways such as providing study tips based on their own experience from the course. 

Reikes’ aspiration for the program is that it has a lasting positive impact on campus, even when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“I hope to continue to grow the program each semester to provide support to even more students,” Reikes said. “I hope this new program helps faculty re-think how they are teaching so they can see the benefits of an active learning classroom.”

Faculty who are interested in applying for LA support in their courses in fall 2022 can do so until March 11 at Students can start applying for open LA positions at the end of March.