The Learning Assist

26 January 2017

Talking with faculty across campus, there is a widespread commitment to developing a sense of community within classrooms. However, it can be challenging to find ways to explicitly reinforce the idea that each student has a responsibility to help others learn. In the classics department, Chico Zimmerman and Clara Hardy have been having conversations for over a decade about ways to reward students who help their peers learn. icon showing two people assisting one another

What prompted the development of the learning assist?

In an effort to foster a sense of learning as a communal endeavor, Chico and Clara discussed that “helping others learn” should be part of the class participation grade in Classics 110.  They noted that some students were asking questions in class that were designed to show off how much they knew, rather than asking questions that were genuinely helpful for learning. When he initially implemented “helping others learn” as a part of course participation grade, Chico explicitly discussed with students why this was important and the different forms that “helping others learn” might take; then based on student contributions during class time, Chico determined a “helping others learn” grade. However, relying primarily on the instructor’s perception of who was helping others learn seemed to be missing the point; the students should identify which of their classmates’ actions were helping them learn during class. Drawing on the idea of the assist in basketball, where the player who made the shot points to the teammate who made the pass, Chico introduced the “learning assist.”  

How does one use the learning assist in classes?

The learning assist is part of the class participation grade in Chico’s course, and he has a fairly explicit discussion of the what and why on the course Moodle page. Using a google form, students can identify a classmate who helped their learning and why. One of the most common reasons students give a learning assist to a classmate is because that student asked a question that others also had. Other times the learning assist might be for an explanation given in a small group in-class activity, making a connection between classmates’ comments, or making a ‘productive’ mistake that was useful in helping to understand a challenging topic. Learning assists are given for contributions during class time, and are not intended to reflect on the informal study groups and collaborative endeavors outside of class time. Students get an email acknowledgement from Chico if they have received learning assist from a peer. Currently, the system is entirely voluntary. Most students give out a couple of learning assists in a term, but a few students give out many more.  The learning assists along with Chico’s observations of the classroom together make up the “helping others learn” portion of the participation grade.

What are the benefits of incorporating learning assists?

  1. The process fosters metacognitive reflection. Students must explicitly reflect on what benefits their learning and how others in the class contribute to their learning.
  2. Class participation moves beyond “showing what you know”. Instead, students are encouraged to think about how their participation and the participation of others can help the class as a whole learn.
  3. The learning assist makes visible student contributions that the instructor might not see, particularly when students are working in small groups.

For further reference: Description from Chico’s Moodle page