Monday, 23 January 2017 10:44

Undergraduate Learning Assistants Make for Stronger Courses

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Published in Teaching Microbiology
ULAs (in yellow shirts) lead classroom activities. ULAs (in yellow shirts) lead classroom activities.

Written by Bethany Adamec

Many educators shy away from active learning in large groups of students because it takes extra hands to run the activities. Patricia Shields, Ph.D., recipient of the 2016 Carski Foundation Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award, works with Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs) to infuse active learning into a large (1,600 students/year) introductory biology course at the University of Maryland. Students’ preparation for the intro course varies, and Shields found that discussions are most helpful when learning about challenging topics. So she created an optional, one-credit discussion section that incorporates active learning with the goals of increasing students’ knowledge, critical thinking skills, and enthusiasm.  

Seven years later, the discussion sections had become so popular that they’re now integrated into the main course, which is about 50% active learning-based. Shields supervises about 65 ULAs who help lead these activities. Many of the ULAs have taken the introductory course themselves and all are motivated, dedicated students. Shields also created a seminar course for these ULAs, which covers education research studies, the importance of tools like clickers in the classroom, and why active learning works. They also practice classroom activities before teaching them and keep a teaching journal.

Recent research shows that undergraduate students prefer ULAs to graduate student teaching assistants, because they find the ULAs less condescending and feel that the ULAs care more about whether or not they learn than grad students do. “Undergraduates are a fabulous resource,” Shields notes. “I really believe that a lot of people aren’t using them enough.” And if the ULAs are receiving course credits for their work, it may not even require additional funds budget to utilize them.

For faculty interested in utilizing and teaching ULAs, Shields advises starting small with, say, a one credit course for the ULAs. Then:

           1. Decide what you want the ULAs to help you with (classroom activities? grading?) 

         2. Set learning goals for them

          3. Consider hand-picking your first few groups of ULAs from students who have previously excelled in your courses 

A few common challenges for ULAs are task management, knowing the material better than the students they’re teaching before they teach it, and maintaining authority. So be sure to address these issues with your ULAs and provide them with tools to help them succeed.

Shields’s former ULAs have gone on to Teach For America, graduate school, and jobs in industry. Many say that in interviews, what got them accepted/hired were the skills they acquired as ULAs, including teamwork and leadership. The ULAs gain important career skills, and Shields gets the classroom help she needed. “I’m very lucky,” she says. “I thank my ULAs and faculty colleagues who have really been pushing me the whole way. I sit here with this award but really, it takes a village.”


Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform. 

Last modified on Monday, 23 January 2017 10:58

Amy L. Chang is the Education Director at ASM. She is using this space to communicate practical advice to develop courses, enhance one’s teaching, and motivate and retain students in the microbial sciences. She has 35 years of expertise in mentoring and advising students, fellows, advisers and faculty in the microbial sciences.