Overview: Peer Learning Assistants
Peer Learning Assistants (PLAs) are undergraduate students who are hired to support student learning in challenging courses by providing opportunities for more engagement, deeper learning, and informal mentoring. Commonly this is achieved by small-group interactions of students in the course with the PLAs. If students feel supported in their learning, e.g. by discussing their understanding with PLAs, this will likely result in higher order thinking about course material, better course grades, and finally contribute to their retention in the program.
The PLAs receive an award (for example $1,500/semester if they work 10 hours per week) and may work in a variety of teaching roles, depending on the nature of the course. PLAs may facilitate small group discussions and collaborative learning in classes and/or in recitation/help sessions. PLAs themselves also profit from the experience. Teaching provides them with a deeper understanding of the course material, validates their own choice of major (resulting in also better retention of the PLAs), more strongly connects them to the department in which they teach, and develops their leadership skills.
Expectations for Participating Faculty Members
Each discipline is different. Approaches and thinking that we try to teach our students is discipline specific and therefore the peer learning models are expected to vary. Nevertheless the faculty member participating in the PLA program will be expected to
- meet with their PLA(s) on a weekly basis.
- plan for assessment of student learning on essential or important objectives in the course that might give evidence of the effect of the PLA(s) in achieving those objectives.
- write a reflective report summarizing the impact of PLAs for your course.
How to Apply for PLA Support for Your Course?
If you are interested in involving a PLA with your course you should fill out an application which will ask you to
- Provide information about the course.
(official course number and title, expected course enrollment, instructional design of the course).
- List your role in the course
(e.g. instructor, department head,…).
- Describe the role of the PLA in your course.
The primary role of PLAs is to help fellow students learn in the course (rather than helping with administrative tasks). PLAs help facilitate a collaborative learning environment and a substantial portion of their time should be allotted to working with students.
How would the PLA help improve interactive engagement and student performance in the course?
Why is it desirable to involve PLAs with the course?
- Indicate how you would define and measure student success.
- Specify the weekly time commitment (up to 10 hours) you expect from each PLA, and the number of PLAs you would like to participate in your course.
Applications are now accepted for Fall 2016.
We will begin reviewing applications after April 22, 2016.
Note that applications will be reviewed competitively and awards are contingent upon funding.
Selection of Peer Learning Assistants
Students who are interested in working as a PLA will apply through the Center of Peer Learning Assistants. PLAs need not only be academically strong; they also need to have interpersonal skills such that they are perceived as nurturing, encouraging and helpful to students (and not as intimidating or arrogant). If you know students that have these qualities and are interested, encourage them to apply. It has been most helpful in the past if instructors help recruit PLAs by directly contacting suitable students from previous semesters.
To select the candidates that are the best fit for each PLA position, the student applicants will go through a screening process that will involve the course instructor, any other departmental representatives as requested by the department, and the PLA Program Coordinator.
Opportunity to Learn from Each Other
An orientation workshop will be held at the beginning of the semester and faculty will be encouraged to attend and find out what role PLAs play in other courses and begin networking. Additional workshops will be organized so that faculty and PLAs who participate in the program or show interest in the program can discuss their challenges and successes.
PLAs will be required to attend workshops that make them familiar with their role as learning assistants, give some background about how people learn and explore practices that will best promote learning. The workshops will be intended to give the PLAs a good start and to provide them with access to a mentoring community throughout the semester. As such they will be more intense/frequent at the beginning and continue throughout the semester. The training provided in these workshops will not be intended to substitute for the regular meetings with the faculty adviser who has the relevant pedagogical content knowledge. You will be asked to encourage your PLAs to participate in such activities.