Physics Students Help Peers Improve Their Learning
An insightful physics instructor once said to a novice teacher, “You have one mouth and two ears. In teaching, use them in that proportion.” The learning assistants (LAs) in the Physics Department have taken this advice to heart.
LAs are undergraduate students who help fellow students learn under the supervision of a faculty member. An LA’s job is not to explain concepts but to ask good questions that help struggling students make progress by themselves.
To succeed with their peers, LAs revisit class topics from the point of view of a learner, discussing possible difficulties and practicing with each other the art and science of listening and asking questions. They also enroll in a course that introduces them to big issues in education — what do we know about how people learn? What role do social threats to learning play in a university classroom? How can we help students take charge of their own thinking to learn better?
With help from the LAs, students learn physics by doing physics, by problem-solving and working through labs. Instead of memorizing isolated facts and formulas, students in LA-facilitated classes see physics as what it is: an opportunity for students to engage in sense-making about the world around them.
The physics LAs have created a powerful, mutually supportive and equitable community of students who celebrate physics learning and enjoy the technical aspects of teaching.