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student learning assistant helping peers during lecture in the Learning Innovation Center

Building student success: Peer-to-peer learning garners crucial support from science alumni

By Srila Nayak
Student learning assistant Jason Dong, undergraduate student in Bioengineering, providing learning support to peers.

The Learning Assistant Program (LA program) has made big strides since its inception in 2014. The program puts high-achieving undergraduate assistants in large enrollment, often first- and second-year STEM classrooms, to facilitate and strengthen undergraduate learning. Over the past five years, the LA program in the College of Science has reduced the drop-fail-withdrawal (DFW) rate in several key courses by half, and has now become a model for other colleges in the university.

Learning assistants are advanced undergraduate students who are given an opportunity to develop scientific content knowledge and valuable teaching and professional skills. They work with course faculty to implement and support innovative student engagement strategies and active learning exercises in undergraduate STEM classrooms. The latter has led to greater rates of student achievement as well as more positive feelings of inclusion and belonging in large-enrollment classrooms.

Most of the introductory science classes are gateway courses serving as graduation paths for many different science and engineering majors. Failure in these courses can hold students back from earning STEM degrees.

The LA program was founded by Lori Kayes and Devon Quick, senior instructors in The Department of Integrative Biology and Dennis Bennett, director of OSU’s Writing Center, to support learning in large classrooms, usually numbering 500 students or more. The program has spread to freshman- and sophomore-level courses in physics, engineering, statistics, mathematics and others, and impacts 3500-4500 STEM students per term.

“LAs support course transformation by facilitating more student-centered methods of teaching and learning, for example, peer engagement and increased student discourse during lecture time, which are essential in large-enrollment classes,” share Kayes and Quick.

“Having a peer learning assistant available to help a student grasp a difficult concept or simply be available to talk through a problem with a student can make a huge difference.” — Christine Vernier

The LA Program was initially supported by a four-year $2 million grant from National Science Foundation’s Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms (NSF WIDER) and ESTEME@OSU project (Enhancing STEM Education at OSU). The grant supported training for faculty developers, creation of LA support materials and dissemination to other units.

David and Christine Vernier standing outside
Science alumnus David Vernier ('76) and his spouse Christine, founders of Vernier Software and Technology, have donated funds to support the Learning Assistant Program. 

Now, thanks to generous support from science alumni David Vernier (General Science, ’76), his spouse Christine Vernier, and Ron Schoenheit (Mathematics ’65), this highly successful pedagogical initiative will continue to thrive. They have pledged $200,000 to sustain the LA Program and to ensure that its transformative impact on student learning in STEM courses and professional development continues.

Founders of the Beaverton-based Vernier Software & Technology, a high-tech STEM-focused teaching tools company, David and Christine are deeply committed to helping students reach their potential in science. They recognize that peer learning assistants can make a vital difference in the classroom.

“Having a peer learning assistant available to help a student grasp a difficult concept or simply be available to talk through a problem with a student can make a huge difference,” said Christine Vernier.

“Our hope is that the program is also helpful to the learning assistant, not only by assisting them with their college costs, but by helping them gain confidence. Who knows — it may even help to create some future science teachers, which we desperately need.” The Verniers’ gift will support scholarships for talented learning assistants with financial need.

The LA program is also generously supported by Schoenheit, a member of the College of Science Board of Advisors and the president of Cascade Coil Drapery, a wire weaving firm for architectural and industrial applications based in Tualatin, Oregon. Schoenheit was inspired to support the program partly because of his own classroom experiences more than 50 years ago.

Ron Schoenheit sitting in office space
Mathematics alumnus Ron Schoenheit's ('65) donation will help sustain the Learning Assistant Program at Oregon State University. 

“As a freshman from a high school where I got a lot of personal attention, OSU was a little overwhelming, especially in the large lecture halls. If the LA Program had been in place at the time, I would have found it to be a tremendous help.”

“The LA program has demonstrated potential and success, and is a worthwhile investment in the university. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the long-term impact on students.” — Ron Schoenheit

Overall, courses transformed with the help of LAs have increased their student success and achievement rates. A greater number of students passed the LA-supported introductory biology and physics courses in 2017 and 2018 than at any other time. Data, shared by Kayes, shows that students in LA-supported classes feel more connected to their departments, receive more feedback and have more positive attitudes toward problem solving.

“The LA program has demonstrated potential and success, and is a worthwhile investment in the university. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the long-term impact on students,” observed Schoenheit.

Results from the last five years show that classes at OSU with learning assistants spent more than twice the amount of time engaging in high impact teaching practices such as active learning and frequent formative assessment than classes without learning assistants. The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning through different classroom exercises and provide ongoing feedback that can be used to improve teaching and student learning.

The LA Program, in conjunction with other mentorship and student engagement initiatives, have collectively made a difference, shaping encouraging trends in undergraduate education at OSU. Retention and six-year graduation rates at the university reached 85.4% and 67.1% respectively in 2019, the highest figures in OSU’s history.