ECU’s Learning Assistant Program helps students feel less intimidation in STEM classes

In a lab in the Science and Technology Building at East Carolina University, packed with students, fragile supplies and mysteriously marked cabinets and doors, the principles of biology laboratory may appear intimidating at first glance. However, more than 45 students in the room are relaxed and inquisitive.

Matt Downing, a fellow undergraduate peer and learning assistant, casually strolls around a dozen tables of students with beakers, syringes and Petri dishes containing wet spinach leaves, answering their questions and guiding them in procedures to learn about the process of photosynthesis.

After some initial discussion of concepts, definitions of terms and basic lab instructions from Alexandria Warren, the graduate student teaching assistant in the lab, first-year biology major Ashton Brinson raises his hand. Downing makes his way to Brinson, and after a brief and quiet conversation, Brinson and his lab partners return to the task at hand as Downing moves along to another group of students.

“Having Matt in the lab has been very beneficial due to his like-minded manner,” said Brinson. “Sometimes the professor can be a bit overwhelming, but Matt is more of a friend than a teacher. I can speak with him when I’m not sure about something and don’t want to ask in front of the class.”

Aiden Siatkowski, a first-year computer science major, said, “We constantly ask Matt for assistance, and he is always happy to give it. Usually, we ask him what certain unknown terminology or confusing instructions mean. If he can’t answer our question, then he brings it up to instructor Warren immediately and gets it solved. Everything in the lab runs smoothly because of it.”

ECU’s Learning Assistant Program, centered in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, is fueled by undergraduate students like Downing, who are dedicated to helping their peers successfully navigate challenging science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) coursework. They empower their fellow students and want to see them succeed.

Through the program, learning assistants (LAs) enhance instruction in the classroom by engaging students in problem solving and discussions. Alongside a faculty member, LAs help students confidently participate in a variety of STEM classes and other coursework, including biology, chemistry, physics, economics, geological sciences and mathematics.

“LAs allow faculty to engage students in an active learning environment where they work with peers to complete worksheets and complex problems,” said Dr. Joi Walker, associate professor of chemistry and one of the faculty members who established the LA program at ECU. “LAs provide feedback and guidance for the student teams in a timely manner, which is not possible with just a single professor working in a large classroom.”

According to Dr. Jean-Luc Scemama, Harriot College associate dean for academic programs, this unique connection between students and their near-peer assistants has resulted in greater gains in learning, decreased failing grades and withdrawal rates, and a stronger sense of belonging.

Faculty Collaboration

To be considered for the learning assistant program, an undergraduate student applicant must first take and pass the course successfully. Once they are accepted, LAs collaborate with faculty and receive weekly guidance in a preparation course specifically for them.

A student in the biology lab measures and pours solutions to study the effects of photosynthesis in spinach leaves.

A student in the biology lab measures and pours solutions to study the effects of photosynthesis in spinach leaves.

“Having taught the LA prep course in biology for many years, I’ve often been impressed by the deep reflection students undergo when experiencing being on the other side of the classroom for the first time. Many of the lessons they learn are intended to prepare them for their role as LAs but also prove to be useful to them as students,” said Dr. Heather Vance-Chalcraft, assistant professor of biology and coordinator of the biology LAs. “Some LAs decide that they want to pursue teaching or mentoring in their future careers, while many find their own biology content knowledge improves through the experience. I feel fortunate to see the personal and professional growth some students undergo.”

“I like having learning assistants in the classroom for three reasons,” said Walker, who coordinates the LAs for chemistry. “Students will ask LAs questions more readily than a professor. LAs are more able to recall their own learning experience with a topic and offer a recent perspective, and LAs can inform me of where students are struggling, allowing me the opportunity for ‘just in time’ instruction.”

“We develop into a strong team — over several semesters with the same LA — which is a valuable teaching dynamic,” Walker said.

Learning Assistant: Matt Downing

Downing is a junior Honors College Centennial Fellow and biology major with a concentration in ecology and evolution. He is enthusiastically serving his third semester as a learning assistant. He said he enjoys helping students understand the concepts and processes they are learning.

Downing demonstrates how to fill a syringe with a solution for students conducting the biology photosynthesis lab experiment.

Downing demonstrates how to fill a syringe with a solution for students conducting the biology photosynthesis lab experiment.

“When I took the lab, it was difficult and confusing,” Downing said. “I didn’t know what was right and wrong because biology labs are mostly argument-driven and inquiry-based. If you can back up your answer with evidence that you can show, there is no right or wrong. Coming in as a freshman, that was confusing. I was used to answers that are right or wrong.”

“Being an LA for the class, I can go around and reassure students that, ‘Yeah, you are on the right track. What you have may not be the same as the group beside you but it’s still the right answer because that is what your evidence is showing,’” he said. “I make sure people get comfortable with the prospect of thinking in an argument-driven way. That’s fun for me because I struggled with it, and now I can make it make sense to other people.”

As a learning assistant, Downing likes that students are comfortable opening up and asking him questions. He also feels students talk more in the classes that include learning assistants.

“Sometimes people fear college classes and teachers,” Downing said. “We encourage conversation. So, I think it is great to be the LA everyone talks about, saying, ‘He’s super approachable.’ I like how it enables me to get people to enjoy biology labs because they don’t have to worry about asking a question.”

Helping others is not limited to the classroom experience. Downing serves in numerous ways and hopes to continue to do so in the future. He is an ambassador for the Honors College, an active promoter of the biology department, and president of Rotaract @ ECU, a networking, leadership and service organization. This past summer, Downing traveled to Belize for a study abroad program focusing on connecting with nature to promote climate agency. In addition, he is a member of ECU’s pre-dental honors society and wants to go to dental school after completing his undergraduate degree. He said ECU is his top pick, and he wants to work here in North Carolina.

Learning Assistant: Joy Taboh

Joy Taboh, an Honors College student and Brinkley-Lane Scholar who is pursuing a biology major with a minor in psychology, serves as a learning assistant for Walker’s general chemistry 2 course. Born in the United States, Taboh lived in Cameroon, in central Africa, for most of her early life, before moving back to North Carolina at the age of 14. She hopes to attend medical school in the future and wants to work in obstetrics and gynecology or trauma surgery, depending on where her interests lead. Either way, she said she wants to travel the world helping other people.

Aiding other people is what Taboh is doing currently in Walker’s chemistry course. This is the second semester she has served as a learning assistant. She said being an LA is “really impactful,” and that she “loves it.”

Joy Taboh is serving her second semester as a learning assistant for Dr. Joi Walker’s general chemistry course. (Contributed photo)

Joy Taboh is serving her second semester as a learning assistant for Dr. Joi Walker’s general chemistry course. (Contributed photo)

“I remember when I first took the course it was a lot of working by yourself,” said Taboh, who was in a class of 150 students. “I find that now that I am an LA, the flow of the classroom is better and there is a lot more communication. Students are more willing to ask the LA questions versus the professor because they feel they can connect with you better. I wish I had that back when I was taking the class.”

A student in one of the classes that Taboh participates in as an LA once told her that she was unsure of herself when asking her professor questions, but when she talks with the LAs, she is relaxed and relates to them more because they are college students too.

“Having the LA in class breaks down the barrier between the professor and the students,” Taboh said. “I think it definitely helps with active learning, and it is also very impactful when it comes to retaining information.”

During her first semester as a learning assistant, Taboh said the teacher noticed a positive change in the average of lower grades, increasing from 65% to 72%.

“When I took general chemistry 1, it was difficult to put diagrams into conceptual forms,” she said. “Now, by the time the students are doing the worksheets and LAs are walking around talking with them, they are able to navigate it on their own, with just a little bit of guidance.”

“I think the program is really good, and I like what it is doing,” she said. “It’s a good way to build strong connections with the students, and I definitely think we will see an increase in STEM majors in the future.”

ECU’s Learning Assistant Program, implemented in the fall of 2017, is built upon a model introduced in 2001 at the University of Colorado – Boulder and is used at more than 100 institutions internationally. Learn more about ECU’s LA program and its goal of student success.