Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs; also called peer learning assistants or undergraduate teaching assistants) interact with students to assist them in learning course material through active learning. ULAs prepare for this work by participating in a pedagogy course or meeting regularly with faculty instructors. ULAs offer a number of benefits:

  • They remember what it was like not to understand the material so they may be able to explain it in ways that students can understand.
  • Students may perceive them as less intimidating that faculty instructors and thus will be more wiling to ask them a question or seek clarification or guidance on a problem from them. 
  • There can be more ULAs in the classroom at one time so that students can ask questions and get guidance without waiting to talk to just one person (the instructor).
  • They can report to instructors on what material students are struggling to learn.

In addition, ULAs come to better understand the material themselves by teaching and they can try out teaching as a potential career path.

How it works

The Department of Chemistry runs a ULA program to support student learning in large enrollment general chemistry courses. Here is how they went about developing the program:

  1. They restructured the general chemistry class sessions to involve active learning, for example, using clicker questioning or process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) activities. This restructuring is important because it ensures there are meaningful learning activities with which ULAs can help. See this kind of classroom in action here or here.
  2. They appoint one ULA per 50 general chemistry students. ULAs earn credit or pay for completing their duties, which includes taking a professional development course, CH372C: Peer Mentors in Research and Teaching. This course addresses both content (to make sure ULAs understand the material) and pedagogy (to make sure ULAs function effectively as coaches, rather than just telling students the answers). Watch this videoto see the professional development class in action, or this video to see what ULAs get out of the experience.
  3. ULAs help during class and discussion sessions by circulating among students and prompting them to discuss their reasoning as they solve problems. Knight et al (2015) show that it is important that ULAs prompt students for reasoning rather than provide them explanations in order to maximize student learning. For a ULA perspective, see this video from UT Austin's ULA program or this video from University of Pittburgh's Undergraduate Teaching Assistant program. 
  4. A faculty member oversees the program and teaches the professional development course as part of their teaching responsibilities.


Learn more

For more information on establishing an effective ULA program, visit the Learning Assistant Program website at CU Boulder or watch this video describing their program. 

For more information on how to teach with ULAs, visit the Science Education Resource Center website at Carleton College. 

For more information on ULAs in physics classrooms, visit the PhysTEC website.

For more on UT Austin's ULA program, contact Dr. Cynthia LaBrake or Dr. Stacy Sparks