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Assessment of the LA Program

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Marley Pillion's Analysis of the Eberly College of Science Learning Assistants Program in the Context of National Science Education Reform


Marley PillonMarley Pillion is a chemistry major graduating in May 2013, where she will be the chemistry marshall. For her thesis in the Schreyer Honors College she researched other LA programs across the country and surveyed students at Penn State to help study and improve the growing LA program in the Eberly College of Science. Marley first became interested in the LA program when she acted as an LA for Analytical Chemistry, and was motivated by her experiences to help the LA program grow. Being an LA and working as a research mentor in the SEECoS program inspired her to join Teach for America, where she will be a high school science teacher in Denver, CO in the fall.

Summary of Marley Pillion's Thesis:

Although it has been established for decades that active learning teaching methods are significantly better for student understanding than traditional lecture there has been little change in the method of instruction at the university level. The Eberly College of Science (ECoS) Center for Excellence in Science Education is developing a Learning Assistants program with the ultimate goal of incorporating more active learning and research based teaching techniques in the classroom to improve the quality of undergraduate science education at Penn State.

A thorough literature investigation was conducted on the different types of collaborative active learning programs that have been incorporated into the undergraduate classroom. These programs were collaborative learning, peer-led team learning, and other learning assistants programs. Many studies from schools using these programs demonstrated that they showed significant learning gains, as well as other benefits, over traditional lectures. Other demonstrated benefits of collaborative learning programs are a deeper understanding of the material, a greater retention of the material, lower attrition rates of students (with the largest improvements being in retaining female and minority students), an increased motivation to learn, a greater interest in the subject, and a recruitment of new students to that major. The LA Program offers all of these advantages, is a more flexibly structured program, and has an emphasis on university-wide transformation rather than individual courses, which makes it ideal for incorporation at Penn State.

I studied the perceptions of the students and Learning Assistants in regard to the developing ECoS Learning Assistant Program progress in achieving its goals through the investigation of national efforts to reform undergraduate science education and study of the courses that incorporated LA’s. I utilized surveys as well as focus groups to determine student and learning assistants’ perception of the LA program. I determined that students believe having LA’s helped increase their understanding of course material and students in courses that have LA’s are more comfortable working with their peers. LA’s report having an increased understanding of course material and science pedagogy, as well as deeper relationships with the course professor.

Based on these results, I conclude that the developing LA program is on track towards achieving its goals. However, there is still significant room for improvement, and based on my findings I present recommendations for the Learning Assistants program in order for it to grow successfully and transform undergraduate science education in the ECoS. These recommendations include enforcing mandatory course meetings between the LA’s and the course professors, reinforcing for professors, LA’s, and students that the role of an LA is to facilitate group collaboration rather than act as a teacher, modifying the pedagogy course to include more active learning and practice using the skills required of an LA, and requiring professors utilizing LA’s to be more active and reflective during the transformation process by requiring them to submit reports on their course or meet with other professors using LA’s weekly.

View Marley Pillon's Thesis