Learning Assistants go a long way

Ashley Orozco/Contributing Writer

In my chemistry class, we have two ways of celebrating the end of a chapter: an online quiz and a Learning Assistant (LA) activity.

The first activity had us building a glass case for a hypothetical Fear Factor event; it had to hold a certain volume of fake cow’s blood. My first reaction was disgust; my second, “Why are we doing this?”. I suppose I was being haughty and didn’t think I needed the extra help. Why couldn’t we just end class there and call it a day?

Despite what I thought to be my full understanding of the concept, I found, in going through with the assignment and listening to other students’ presentations, that my grasp on the subject was strengthening.

Dr. Swamy, who has been teaching chemistry for 6 years at FIU, doesn’t think lectures are enough and believes the group activities really hammer in the concepts. “It gives the students critical thinking skills and allows them to work on a problem that bridges concepts in the group [of LAs and peers],” she says. It sure worked for me- I aced my first exam.

While the LAs don’t give you the answer (what good would that do?), they do guide you toward a better understanding of the material. And if you still don’t get it, perhaps one of your group members does and can explain it to you in a simpler way.

“A large percent of the population are kinesthetic learners, so they really don’t learn by seeing things and hearing it. They learn by actually doing things,” says Ariel Fuentes, a sophomore who became an LA after receiving an e-mail about the program from his chemistry professor.

The LA program was actually brought to FIU from Colorado by the physics department in 2007, and started in Chemistry in Spring 2010, with Dr. Lichter taking a lone LA under his wing. Since then, the program has grown to about 22 LAs in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Survey of Chemistry and several more in the other sciences.

Usually, an e-mail blast goes out to the top 20% of the respective class inviting students to the program, but, as Dr. Swamy said, “Students have a network that the FBI would envy.” If your people skills are up to par and you understand the concepts, you, too, can apply.

As of now, the program reaches the major sciences and math departments. If you’ve ever taken Intermediate or College Algebra, you might have noticed the various LAs roaming the lab ready to give you the password for the quiz or lend a hand for any of the problems with which you’re having trouble.

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