Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Experiences as a Learning Assistant

Being a learning assistant for a chemistry class at Penn State has given me multiple interesting perspectives on learning. As a college student, you only experience learning from a first-person perspective, but when you start helping other people learn, that's when you get to observe how everyone's methods of learning are different. At first, you may be tempted to point out to others that their learning methods are less efficient, but it is also important to remember learning methods are habits and are difficult to change.

Just a few things about the learning assistant position I'm currently partaking in. 
  1. We are volunteers
  2. We earn class credits 
  3. We have to go to all the lectures/recitations for the class
  4. We are required to take a pedagogy class
  5. We do it because we enjoy the satisfaction of being able to help another student
My observations-

One thing that really stuck out to me as a learning assistant is that many students ask, "Is there a formula to this problem?". What this question effectively means is that the student does not understand the problem at hand. Rather than focusing on the key concepts of the problem, they are resorting to using a formula to solve their problems (The easy way out).

The problems with this: 
  1. Learning is supposed to be hard! It ain't a worthy accomplishment if it wasn't a challenge in the first place!
  2. Problems on an exam may require the use of multiple formulas and the understanding of how to link these relationships together.
  3. There is no need to learn the material if anyone can just plug and chug numbers into a formula.
  4. Problem-solving skills are not developed (This is necessary for real-world applications).
Students that are often asking these questions usually are the students that score the lowest on exams. The reason for this is because college-level exams seek understanding, not memorization. The formulas are used for maybe 15% of the questions and the rest are conceptual questions which require the student to link relationships together qualitatively.

Causes of this-

I believe that the cause of the learning deficit is because high schools fail to teach students how to study effectively. Quizzes and tests given in high schools often allow students to plug-and-chug numbers into a calculator to get an answer and doesn't help students develop their problem-solving skills. This is what causes college freshmen to usually have lower grades than other years, even when the classes are often the easiest. Sometimes, it's a little too late for students. 

What we can do-

As educators, what we can do is have a better awareness of testing students for understanding. This problem is the root cause of academic failures. For example, when a student asks for a formula, we should ask them a question in response such as, "What are you trying to find in the problem?". This should be proceeded by, "What are you given?". These questions should help initiate the student's critical and analytical thinking, which will, in the long run, help them understand the material better.


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