Congratulations on being hired! With this letter, I hope to give you some useful advice for being an effective learning assistant. This is my fourth quarter being a learning assistant for PSYC 2 and through all of my experiences, both good and bad, I have learned what things are essential for being successful in this position as well as things to avoid. I have composed a list of do's and don'ts based on my own personal experiences that I hope you can utilize now and throughout the quarter.
1. Be prepared for different types of sessions.
Big sessions, small sessions, sessions with shy students, sessions with outgoing students, sessions where students are prepared, and sessions where students are unprepared are all likely scenarios that you will encounter. The easiest way to deal with the possibility of encountering any of these different types of sessions is to create a plan that will work for all or some of them or at least a plan that can be easily adjusted to suit different types of sessions. I have found that having students work in groups on practice problems that they will teach to the rest of the students in the session tends to be a safe and effective strategy for any type of session. Also, having students generate practice problems for other students to solve is another good strategy for most types of sessions. Get creative and try out new interactive learning strategies keeping in mind that you might encounter a type of session where the strategy you come up with might not be as ideal. When this is the case it might useful to come up with multiple strategies or plans.
2. Assess students' learning
The goal of being a learning assistant is to help students learn course material. But how do you know if students are learning? An easy way to do this in PSYC 2 is to simply give a student a problem and see if they can obtain the correct answer. However, it is often necessary to go beyond having them come up with an answer that only requires doing computations and blindly following steps. It is very common in PSYC 2 that students will be able to do all of the mathematical computations to achieve the right answer, but will not know why they went through the steps or what the answer they got means conceptually. It is critical that students know what they are doing conceptually because the computations and steps change depending on the context of the situation, and the only way to know how they change is by understanding conceptually what needs to be accomplished. Asking students why they are doing certain calculations or asking what the results they compute mean are ways of assessing a deeper conceptual understanding. Some other methods to assess learning are having students reiterate what another student has said, having students tell you what would happen if you changed a number in the current problem they are working on, and having students come up with examples of situations in which they would apply a certain test or calculation.
3. Assess students' needs
Figuring out what students need to know, whether it be how to do problems on the homework or what will be on the midterm, will make sessions catered toward students' success in the class. You can figure out what students need to know by looking at their homework, paying attention to what students seem to be struggling with in class, or thinking about what was difficult for you when you took the course. Figuring out what material will be difficult for students can also help you anticipate students' questions, which will better prepare you to design an activity that will hopefully clear up those questions.
Not only will lecturing make your job more difficult and laborious, but it does not allow students to interact and learn as effectively. Most students go to class and discussion sections and are lectured to in both of these. MSI should give students a chance to apply and practice what they are learning to get a deeper understanding of the course material and figure out what they do not know and need to study more. To avoid lecturing, come up with a structured activity that will encourage the students to be the lecturers and do the majority of the talking or writing on the board in the session. A way that I do this is by explicitly giving every student a task or problem to present or write on the board. When a student asks a question always try to get other students to answer or perhaps ask the student a simpler question that might lead them to answering the initial question. The best sessions I have had are the ones in which students take over, teach each other, and facilitate the sessions themselves.
I have found that these types of students are more of a challenge to work with, which is why it can be tempting to avoid them to reduce the amount of effort on your part. The main issue that these types of students have in common is lack of participation. One solution to this is having students work in groups. Group work allows students to confer with their peers who can usually teach the unprepared student, give confidence to the shy student, or pressure the unmotivated student into participating. If these students still are not participating it can be helpful to talk to them individually to make sure they are understanding the material. Trying to get as many students participating as possible will make the session most effective for the most amount of students.
3. Interrupt students if they are saying the wrong answer
When a student is saying an incorrect answer it is tempting to jump in and correct them. A better way to deal with this situation is to use their mistake to test other students or get the student who made the mistake to reason to the correct answer. Asking the other students if they can see and correct the mistake the student made will promote active listening and increase participation and understanding of the material. If the other students are not able to catch or correct the mistake then this could be a good indicator that this is material that you should cover more. Also, letting the student finish answering and questioning them about the answer can help them reason their way to the correct answer. If students are able to reason out of their mistake once they will likely remember that same process again and avoid the mistake in the future. Mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities not just for the student making them but for everyone in the session.
I hope this advice will be beneficial to you. Nothing will be more beneficial than first-hand experience dealing with the situations I discussed above. It takes a certain amount of trial and error to figure out what works for you and your students. I wish you the best of luck this quarter and hope this job will be as rewarding for you as it was for me.