Learning Assistant Program

Learning assistants (LAs) are undergraduate students who, through the guidance of weekly preparation sessions and a pedagogy course, facilitate discussions among groups of students in a variety of classroom settings that encourage active engagement.

SPU Physics LAs support our introductory algebra- and calculus-based physics courses, courses for non-science majors, and courses for elementary teachers-in-training. As an LA, you make it possible for us to teach these courses using research-based instructional materials and strategies and so contribute to better learning for our students.

Physics students learning


Based on the University of Colorado-Boulder model, SPU’s LA program takes a three-pronged approach that integrates teaching practice, weekly content preparation, and pedagogical instruction:

  • Practice: SPU’s introductory physics courses integrate lab, lecture, and small-group discussion. During class, LAs and faculty circulate the room and facilitate discussion among groups of four to six students. LAs attend every class session and offer tutoring hours outside of class, and some grade homework.
  • Prep: SPU LAs meet weekly with coordinators and/or course instructors to review course content and to exchange information about how students are progressing in the course.
  • Pedagogy: SPU’s weekly LA Pedagogy course exposes LAs to educational theory and best practices in facilitating dialogue. The specific content of the course changes from year to year but maintains a theme of noticing and responding to student ideas and actions, treating sense-making about student thinking as one of LAs’ primary roles. The pedagogy course is framed as an opportunity to “try on” various lenses for teaching and as a place that LAs can pursue the questions and ideas that emerge from their practice.

In all three components, LAs’ role is framed as that of an “expert learner”: LAs are recruited to be facilitators of discussion, not masters of content.


SPU’s LA Program is a national exemplar, and we think being an LA matters for many reasons, and matters differently for different students and LAs. Three themes that we have seen across cohorts and across years include:

Our LA Program improves student learning.

  • When you listen to and facilitate discussion among students, you make it possible for SPU to ground our physics instruction in students’ ideas. (After all, without the support of many listeners in the classroom, how would we hear and build on students’ ideas?)
  • Research has documented many positive impacts of instruction that is grounded in students’ thinking, including improved student learning.
  • As the histogram below shows, students in SPU introductory physics courses score well above students in traditional courses on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), an assessment that measures students’ conceptual understanding of mechanics. In fact, students in SPU’s introductory physics courses, on average, score higher than many students in reformed interactive engagement courses.
Physics Learning Asistants histogram of FCI average normalized gain

Our LA Program prepares Learning Assistants for helping professions.

Participating in SPU’s LA Program prepares you for helping professions, including, but not limited to, teaching.

The emphasis in the Pedagogy course on listening and really trying to understand where students are coming from — and then responding to where they are in their thinking (rather than, say, where we are in our thinking) — develops capacity for anyone who will need to make decisions that are tied to what another person is thinking (e.g., doctors who need to make appropriate and caring diagnoses, engineers who need to understand users’ needs, teachers who want to enact standards-oriented pedagogy).

LAs also have opportunities to deepen their own content knowledge, get to know what they value in interacting with others (through regular reflections on their own teaching), and practice regular communication about ideas.

Our LA Program builds community.

The SPU LA Program is a community that cares about one another and about our students’ learning. Learning to listen to others — and do this well — and discovering why we care about teaching is not just intellectual work, and we believe that we have a lot to learn from one another. We know when it’s time to laugh and when it’s time to be serious, as you can see from the pictures below.

Physics learning assistants


Qualifications. To be a physics LA, you must have already taken the course for which you want to be an LA, and you must be willing to try out the pedagogical strategies and ideas we discuss in pedagogy class.

Applying. Decisions about the LA Program happen on a quarterly basis. Applications to be an LA in the Autumn Quarter are due in early June; applications to be an LA in the Winter or Spring quarters are due approximately midway through the previous quarter (so early November for Winter Quarter and early February for Spring Quarter). Email Dr. Kara Gray (grayk5@spu.edu) for more details.

Registering for LA Pedagogy. Being an LA requires that you take an LA Pedagogy course: PHY 4520 in the first quarter you LA, and PHY 4511, 4512, or 4513 for LAs who return for additional quarters. Each of these is a 2-credit course and counts as an upper-division physics elective.

Getting paid. LAs get paid for official contact time with students — including time facilitating discussions in class and time working with students in collaborative learning sessions — and for grading. Laurie Mendes (mendel@spu.edu) coordinates LA pay, so be sure you get in touch with her to fill out appropriate paperwork before you start as an LA.

Research opportunities

We are really proud of our LA Program, and so we often do research to document the great work that LAs are doing in our courses. Many of the papers that result from this research are co-authored with LAs. You can read more about our LA Program in the linked publications below. Please contact Dr. Amy Robertson (robertsona2@spu.edu) if you are interested in participating in research on SPU LAs.

Current publications

C. E. Lovegren and A. D. Robertson, “Development of Novice Teachers’ Views of Student Ideas As Sensible and Productive,” in 2013 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, edited by P. V. Englehardt, A. D. Churukian, and D. L. Jones (AIP, Portland, OR, 2013), pp. 225-228.

A. D. Robertson, E. P. Eppard, L. M. Goodhew, E. L. Maaske, H. C. Sabo, F. C. Stewart, D. L. Tuell, and S. T. Wenzinger, “Being a Seattle Pacific University Learning Assistant: A transformative experience of listening and being heard,” American Physical Society Forum on Education Newsletter, Summer 2014 (2014).

E. W. Close, L. Seeley, A. D. Robertson, L. S. DeWater, and H. G. Close, “Seattle Pacific University: Nurturing Physics Teachers at a Small Liberal-Arts School,” in Recruiting and Educating Future Physics Teachers: Case Studies and Effective Practices, edited by E. Brewe and C. Sandifer, AIP: Melville, NY, pp. 37-52 (2015).

A. D. Robertson, “Valuing student ideas morally, instrumentally, and intellectually,” in 2015 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, edited by A. D. Churukian, D. L. Jones, and L. Ding (AIP, College Park, MD, 2016), pp. 275-278.

A. D. Robertson, K. E. Gray, C. E. Lovegren, K. L. Rininger, and S. T. Wenzinger, “Curricular Knowledge as an Entry Point for Responsive Instruction,” under revision for Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research (2016).

A. D. Robertson, “Supporting the Development of Curricular Knowledge Among Novice Physics Teachers,” under review for Journal of Science Teacher Education (2016).

A. D. Robertson and J. Richards, “A Responsive Approach to Supporting Pre-Service Physics Teachers in Enacting Responsive Teaching,” in preparation for Science Education (2016).