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Student presents a poster on healthy dietary habits to attendees.

Learning Assistant poster session highlights teaching excellence

By Mary Hare

Students present poster entitled "How healthy diets impact course grades." In a survey of approximately 470 students, they hypothesized that those who ate before their midterm exam would have higher course grades than those who did not. Surprisingly, data analysis found no association between grades and results, suggesting that other factors were at play in student exam performance.

On December 9, 2021, 87 undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) gathered in Weniger Hall for a poster presentation where they shared valuable insights about student learning that they had gained throughout the term, touching on topics that included test anxiety, remote learning and the effect of classroom structure on performance.

The LA program is one of several new teaching methods pioneered by OSU and the College of Science that have helped usher in a new era of evidence-based science teaching. Studies have shown that students retain and absorb information better when it is delivered in an interactive and collaborative format – but for professors with large lecture hall classes, this can be easier said than done. Learning Assistants play a key role in bridging this gap, working with course faculty to implement and support student engagement and active learning exercises in undergraduate STEM classrooms.

The 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. They saw students struggling with large-enrollment classes and wanted to ensure that preventable challenges did not hold them back from receiving the STEM degrees that inspired them.

Since then, the program has spread to undergraduate courses in physics, engineering, statistics, mathematics and others, impacting more than 4,000 students last fall alone. Studies have reported the program's demonstrable success, with 2019 student retention and 6-year graduation rates the highest in OSU history.

Last month, the LAs were given the chance to present their own studies. All first-time LAs take a two-credit pedagogy course where they discuss learning theory, metacognition and teaching best practice, which they put to good use helping students. These students were also asked to develop a question of interest based on their experience. In teams, they devised methodology and analyzed their data to present at the poster session.

An overwhelming consensus found the experience to be highly rewarding, both for students taking the course, and the LAs themselves. Peer mentoring provides an opportunity to review and gain expertise in previous course material, as well as develop excellent leadership skills.

Initially supported by a four-year $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and ESTEME@OSU project, a generous donation in 2020 has ensured its continued success in years to come. OSU alumni Ron Schoenheit (Mathematics '65), David Vernier (General Science, '76) and his spouse Christine Vernier have pledged $200K to ensure that the LA Program continues to help students reach their potential in science.

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