November 21, 2017  

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USM Launches Learning Assistants Program to Aid in Student Success

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Learning Assistant Alexis Aleman helps students in Dr. Johnathan Broome's chemistry class. (Photo by Kelly Dunn)

University of Southern Mississippi sophomore Madalyn Mares has been there – confused, intimidated, overwhelmed, and struggling as a first-year college student. And that is why the Covington, La., native pounced at the chance to be a member of the University’s Learning Assistant pilot program.

“Being that I was a freshman just a year ago, I totally understand the stresses of being a first semester college student,” said Mares, a mathematics licensure major. “Being able to relate to other students definitely builds a stronger trust and makes it so much easier for students to open up to and learn from you as a learning assistant.”

Last year, as part of its Quality Enhancement Plan, the University began implementation of a major initiative to strengthen student learning and success in five courses with large enrollments and higher rates of F-grades, D-grades, and withdrawals.

The five targeted courses include: BSC 110 (Principles of Biological Science I); BSC 250 (Anatomy and Physiology I); CHE 106 (General Chemistry I); MAT 99 (Intermediate Algebra), and HIS 101 (World Civilization I). The strategies used to strengthen student learning are also often applied in sequential courses, such as BSC 251 (Anatomy and Physiology II) and CHE 107 (General Chemistry II), furthering the impact.

Faculty teaching the aforementioned courses nominate students who have successfully completed the course and exhibit strong interpersonal skills. The initial Learning Assistants cohort for Fall 2017 includes 29 undergraduate students, five faculty, and seven courses. Combined course enrollment for gateway class sections with learning assistants tops the 1,300 mark.

Dr. Julie Howdeshell, director of Quality Enhancement at USM, points out that the Learning Assistants program is modeled after a similar initiative launched at North Dakota State University. Last spring Howdeshell coordinated with officials at North Dakota State who conducted a series of video workshops for USM faculty teaching the QEP gateway courses.

All of the faculty incorporating learning assistants in their classes have completed extensive training in active learning pedagogies as part of the University’s Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) Faculty Development Institute.

“It’s important to note that having learning assistants in a class is only effective if the class includes active learning in which students interact with one another and engage in collaborative problem-solving,” said Howdeshell.

Dr. Max Grivno, associate professor of history, has four learning assistants working closely with him this fall. Halfway through the current semester, Grivno already deems the program a “remarkable success.”

“I am fortunate to work with some wonderful students, and they have made me more effective as a professor,” he said. “The D, F, and withdrawal rates in my classes are very low, and certainly some of that is due to my learning assistants. They have helped create more avenues for students to get the assistance they need. Sometimes, students find it easier to approach another undergraduate student.”

Hattiesburg, Miss., native Christopher Ellis, a senior majoring in history with social studies licensure, said the opportunity to mentor fellow students has provided a platform to demonstrate his affinity for history. He sees the new program as a key conduit to student success.

“The program allows incoming freshmen and/or transfer students to gain assistance from students who have already taken the course. Having someone closer to their age away from a graduate assistant or professor gives them comfort and stability,” said Ellis.

During their first semester, new learning assistants enroll in a one-hour pedagogy course designed specifically for the program and taught by Dr. Megan McCay, coordinator of academic engagement in New Student and Retention Programs. The course helps learning assistants integrate educational theory, pedagogy, and practice. The learning assistants meet with their assigned faculty member at least once a week to prepare for upcoming classes and discuss how to improve student learning.

Emileigh Sones, mathematics instructor and director of the University’s Math Zone, says that the two learning assistants assigned to her classes this semester have been tremendous resources for students.

“In the classroom, they are helping students by guiding them through the problem-solving process while using questioning techniques to help the students make connection between different concepts,” said Sones. “Students seek out the LAs outside of class for tutoring assistance or study sessions to prepare for tests. Through weekly meetings with me, the LAs work hard to excel at the content we will be covering so that they are prepared to answer questions from students.”

Andrew King, a junior majoring in biological sciences, said that becoming a part of the Learning Assistants program made perfect sense to him. King, a native of Birmingham, Ala., plans to pursue a career in teaching on the high school level.

“This program is preparing me exceptionally for what I might expect in the future,” he said. “I also thought I would enjoy it, and I am happy to report that I love doing it.”

As for tangible results from his efforts as one of 29 first-cohort learning assistants, King notes that indicators are trending upward.

“As a science major, I like to look at data and so far the scores from first exams have been noticeably higher than previous years,” he said. “It’s hard to say for certain at this point, but I definitely feel like I am making a difference.”

To learn more about USM’s Quality Enhancement Plan, call 601.266.4525 or visit: https://www.usm.edu/qep