Detailed Description of Key Innovations: Learning Teams and Undergraduate Learning Assistants

University of Colorado at Boulder

Course Structure

The entire class (~200 students) meets twice a week. At the first meeting, the students take a 15-minute quiz. The instructor provides a brief outline overview of the coming weeks activities: the topics that the students need to learn from the hypertext and the team projects. Perhaps he also gives a demonstration. Then, during the middle of the week, each student meets for one hour with a small "learning team" of 10 - 15 students at a laboratory classroom equipped with computers. The learning teams are supervised by ULAs and work collaboratively to prepare answers to questions and to carry out inquiry-based team projects. The discussion questions and the team projects define the learning activities of the students. About a dozen discussion questions are posted on the web each week. They range from questions in which the students must simply retrieve facts from the hypertext or one of the external links, to complex questions that require the students to draw a conclusion from a variety of facts and principles. Some questions have no definite answer and are intended to elicit controversy.

The team has developed software for the students in a given learning team to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously on the web. When a student logs in with his or her password, he or she is directed to the team home page, where the students can create common workspaces for any task they specify. New discussion questions are posted there each week, along with a matrix displaying which questions have been answered, which questions still need answers, and who is responsible for providing the answers. Any student on the team can see the answers posted to all questions (by members of their own team) and can post advice regarding the answers. All teams are expected to post written answers to all questions, and every member of each team must sign up as a designated answerer for one or two questions.

Finally, at the third meeting, the instructor leads a "discussion session", in which he directs questions, not to individual students, but to the learning teams (who sit together in groups). If a given question is directed to a given team, the designated answerer for that question must respond on behalf of the team. Before the instructor meets with the class, he reviews the posted written answers to each question (using convenient software to display all the answers to a given question). If all the teams have more-or-less the same correct written answers to a given question, the instructor will probably skip that question. Instead, he will devote the class discussion time to questions for which the written answers are dissonant among teams, either as a result of misconceptions or because the question was intended to elicit controversy. At least once or twice during each discussion session, the instructor will pose a related question and give the class a few minute break so that the members of each team can "have a conference" among themselves to formulate an answer. The coaches keep score of the verbal answers during discussion and these scores are added to the cumulative team scores. The discussion sessions reinforce the students' learning and clear up misconceptions. Often, the students become passionately engaged in debate and teams compete vigorously for the opportunity to answer. Occasionally, the discussion goes beyond the posted questions into issues that the instructor did not anticipate.

Learning Teams

Although there is plenty of literature showing that collaborative learning can be very effective, it does not follow that students will engage in the practice automatically. A few will, but many students need prodding to overcome their ingrained habits to study alone (perhaps because they fear to display their lack of understanding to their classmates). To ensure that the members of the learning teams actually work together, 40% of a student's score in the course is attributed, not to the student's individual performance, but to the team's performance. (The remaining 60% is based on the student's performance on quizzes and examinations.) The scores for the written and oral answers to the discussion questions are attributed, not to individuals, but to the team. Thus, every student on a team has an incentive to help every other student prepare good written and oral answers to the discussion questions. Likewise, grades for collaborative homework projects are assigned to teams, not individuals.

The Colorado project goes a step further. Members of the learning teams are permitted to divide the cumulative team score among themselves as they see fit. On the team home page there is a password-protected facility by which each team member can rate each of his or her teammates, not on ability, but on performance. Each student can see his or her average performance rating by the rest of the team (but not the ratings by individuals), and can compare that rating to the average rating of all members of the team. Then the team scores are divided among the members according to a simple algorithm based on these ratings. This occurs several times during the semester.

The system works remarkably well. Before posting the results of the team ratings, the instructor asked the coaches whether the students have rated each other fairly, and 90% of the time the coaches said that the students' mutual ratings conformed almost exactly to their own perceptions of the students' performance. (10% of the time, the coaches recommended that the instructor mitigate a low rating for one or two individuals, which he did that.) Since the students within a learning team knew each other personally, they could and did exert powerful peer pressure to perform. The students perceived the system as fair.

In addition to preparing answers for the discussion questions, the students in the learning teams must work collaboratively on team projects. Many of these team projects are inquiry-based exercises based on powerful interactive Java simulations. Another kind of team project is to prepare web pages on some special topic in astronomy. The coaches show the students how to use a web page composer, and the students prepare a web site devoted to some specific topic (e.g., life in the universe). They learn to use search engines in a discriminating way, to embed images, hyperlinks, and other multimedia features. The best of this work is incorporated into the hypertext.

Undergraduate Learning Assistants

The stratagem to employ undergraduate learning assistants in lieu of a graduate teaching assistant turned out to be one of the most successful ingredients of the transformed course. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to hire students of exceptional talent as learning assistants. The criteria for selection were: (1) the student had taken introductory astronomy and scored in the top 20th percentile; (2) the student was interactive; (3) the student had understood the goals of the transformed course and was eager to help make the experiment work; and (4) the student was mature and displayed leadership skills. To identify potential assistants, the instructor:

  • asked colleagues who taught other sections of the same course to provide him with lists of students who met the first two criteria to supplement his own list of such students who had taken the course from him;
  • sent a detailed job description and invitation to apply to about 20 students from these lists;
  • provided the 15 who responded that they were interested with the proposal to the Pew Grant Program describing the goals and methodology of the course;
  • invited them to read it and to make an appointment to discuss their interest and qualifications to participate in the project.

In a half-hour interview, he could assess whether the applicant had understood the proposal, would be an enthusiastic participant, and had the interpersonal skills to be a good team leader. Most applicants met these criteria, and about half of them were hired.

Surprisingly, only about 1/3 of the students who applied (and were hired) to become learning assistants were science or engineering majors. More women than men applied (factor ~2). However, about 1/3 of the learning assistants subsequently changed their majors from humanities and social sciences to natural sciences as a result of the experience.

Each learning assistant (or coach) supervised two learning teams. The coaches were expected to meet with each team one hour per week and to provide individual guidance to students after these meetings. In meeting with their teams, they were expected to help the students understand how to use the computers and software, and to guide the students to work collaboratively on their discussion questions and team projects. They were instructed specifically not to tell the students "the right answers," but were given guidelines to teach students how to find the answers for themselves. For example, if a student was having difficulty with a concept or procedure, a coach might simply refer that student to another student in the team who had mastered the problem. The learning assistants' were also expected to attend the discussion session of the class (where they would help to keep score of the verbal answers), and to continue to guide the students to collaborate asynchronously by monitoring and encouraging their work on the team home page.

One evening each week, the instructor met with the all the learning assistants for about an hour. During these meetings, they discussed the work to be done during the coming week or two and reviewed the successes and failures of the project. This weekly meeting was one of the instructor’s most satisfying and enjoyable experiences in teaching the course. The learning assistants developed a strong esprit de corps. They were assertive and provided much creative and detailed advice about how to improve the course. With exams and quizzes, one can measure to some extent how well the students are learning the material in the course, but the scores don't tell the instructor how to help the students improve their comprehension. The feedback that the instructor gained from the meetings with the learning assistants gave him a much better sense of how to improve the course than he could ever get from exams.

The learning assistants play a key role in the continuing development of the transformed course. For example, the team continues to develop inquiry-based on-line team projects, consisting of Java simulations embedded in a set of instructions and questions that are intended to lead students to discover scientific principles by collaborating in small groups. Learning assistants are fully engaged in the design and development of these projects. First, the team brainstorms the conceptual design. Then, when they have a preliminary design (i.e., a web page with instructions, the applet, and forms for submitting the answers), the "beta-test" it on the learning assistants. That process invariably leads to some revision. Once the team is satisfied that the project is ready for the students to use, the learning assistants understand it fully. Finally, when their teams actually carry out the projects, the learning assistants provide further formative feedback on how well the project worked, and that leads to further revision for the subsequent semester.

Undergraduate learning assistants have proven to be far more effective than most graduate teaching assistants in introductory science classes. They are highly motivated to make the course a success. Learning assistants do not need expert subject knowledge to carry out their duties effectively. They need good learning skills and the ability and desire to impart those skills to their fellow students. Because the students in their teams regard the learning assistants as peers, they tend to be more open about their difficulties in comprehension than they would be with graduate students, and this leads to better feedback to the instructor.

The learning assistants reported that their experience in this capacity was one of their best experiences as an undergraduate, and some of them have changed their majors to pursue careers in education. This made the team realize that they might have stumbled onto an effective mechanism to induce talented people into careers in education. Therefore, in fall 2001, the learning assistant experience began to be augmented with more formal training by offering the learning assistants a concurrent seminar course in education, led by a professor in the School of Education and the astronomy instructor. In this seminar, the participants read and discuss literature on inquiry-based education, collaborative learning, and the design and appropriate role of information technology in education -- all issues closely related to the learning assistants' experience. Undergraduates, graduate students, in-service teachers, and several faculty members attend the seminar from research departments in science and mathematics and from the School of Education. In addition to reading the materials and participating in the discussion, the learning assistants are expected to produce a report that relates some aspect of the literature that has been discussed to their experience as learning assistants.



Program in Course Redesign Quick Links:

Program In Course Redesign Main Page...

Lessons Learned:
Round 1...
Round II...
Round III...

Round I...
Round II...
Round III...

Project Descriptions:
Sorted by Discipline...
Sorted by Model...
Sorted by Success...
Sorted by Grant Rounds...