In the fall of 2020, a group of University of Nebraska–Lincoln students took part in a pilot program testing a new way of training learning assistants.
In a cross-disciplinary seminar facilitated by Josh Brummer, an assistant professor of practice in mathematics, the students engaged in a semester-long course aimed at improving their understanding of effective teaching and learning techniques. The goal was to better equip them to serve as learning assistants in their individual fields of study with a cross-disciplinary approach. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the course was offered both synchronously and asynchronously and run through Canvas.
Learning assistants are undergraduate students, usually in STEM-related majors, who have demonstrated an advanced understanding of a course and serve as peer mentors to other students and help create a more enriching learning environment. Learning assistants typically express an interest in teaching in their field of study.
Beyond tutoring students on the material, learning assistants often help facilitate group discussions in class and strategically bring about more meaningful interactions for students. Learning assistants are particularly effective because they are peers of the students they are working with and thus can better relate to their challenges.
The university’s use of learning assistants is new, but several other institutions have mature programs that have impacted student learning for the better. Brummer’s newly developed training seminar, which saw enrollment of over 50 students representing 15 majors, was novel because of its cross-disciplinary focus. Rather than silo students into groups consisting of just those from their field of study, the seminar brought together groups with a more diverse background of experiences and viewpoints.
“We thought this was a really unique opportunity to bring together people from different disciplines and focus on effective instruction practices and strategies that are non discipline-specific,” Brummer said.
Exposing the learning assistants to a wider variety of experiences also helps prepare them for working with students who may come from different walks of life than they’ve previously encountered. Another advantage to cross-disciplinary training such as this, is that participants not only feel an appreciation for themselves, but for the perspectives of their peers.
“I think that support community, that community of people who really are participating fully and seeing how their contributions are valued and seeing how the contributions of others that are similar or dis-similar from them are valued, is really important,” Brummer said.
One unforeseen bonus of creating this seminar is the relationships it created. Brummer said several of the cross-disciplinary groups displayed a surprising level of camaraderie. For some, the class brought about an expansion of their social circles.
This seminar was made possible by a grant through the Center for Transformative Teaching. Applications for the next round of Center for Transformative Teaching Teaching Grants are due April 30. To learn about the grants, or apply, please visit the Center for Transformative Teaching website.