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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU raises the bar for student engagement with peer learning assistants

If a college student takes the same course twice, it’s usually because he or she didn’t do well the first time. But a new program at New Mexico State University is promoting déjà vu in the classroom to help students succeed.

Man leaning over desk and student looking at paper
NMSU Peer learning assistant Nathan Nunley assists students with an assignment during a vector calculus class taught by Matthias Burkardt. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

“My job is to help the students understand the material by explaining it in a way that they can understand,” said Sarah Medina, one of the first 26 students in NMSU’s Peer Learning Assistants Program. “Sometimes they just need it broken down for them by someone who can put the material in simpler terms. I spend hours and hours with students so they get one-on-one experience and explanations.”

NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences recruited its first group of peer learning assistants in the fall 2014 semester. Twenty-six students who have already completed a particular course are working alongside new students in 18 different courses. They are serving as mentors for those students taking the class for the first time. The courses they are involved in this semester range from art, philosophy and anthropology to biology, computer science, math and physics.

“The most effective way is to have the peer learning assistants embedded in the lectures, workshops, classrooms or labs,” said Michaela Burkardt, physics college professor and coordinator of the Peer Learning Assistants Program. “This guarantees contact time with the other students. If the peer learning assistant is visible and accessible, it’s easier for the other students to seek them out and get help.”

The new program is one of a number initiatives funded through NMSU President Garrey Carruthers’ Performance Fund. The program will receive $88,668 over three years. Each peer learning assistant receives an award for the semester through NMSU’s Scholar Dollars.

“Helping peers to learn can be a daunting task,” said Christa Slaton, dean of NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This program requires a high level of commitment from both the faculty member and the learning assistant. From what we’ve seen so far, the Peer Learning Assistants Program has the potential to grow into a valuable addition to the college’s efforts to help our students."

Julia Barello, art professor and department head, is among the first group of faculty working with these assistants this semester.

“The peer learning assistant is closer in age, and experience to the introductory level students, so there is a different relationship that occurs between them, than between me and the students,” said Barello. “It is more fluid, more comfortable, easy going and somewhat collaborative – all of them working together toward a joint goal of success.”

Some professors who have very large classes may have more than one peer learning assistant. These teams of young people can move around a large lecture hall, engaging the students, asking questions and working with them to solve problems.

“It’s easier for a student who’s very recently had all these same challenges to help other students in class,” Burkardt said. “The students connect very quickly and easily to the PLAs. They are the same age and they may have taken the course last year. Students may be more hesitant to ask a professor but they’re not afraid of asking the PLA a question. It’s a different relationship.”

Computer science major Joseph Cahill said being a peer learning assistant is having an impact on his own studies as well as the students he helps in the classroom.

“I feel as though I’m making a difference to the students,” Cahill said. “They seem to be understanding the concepts better and getting homework done in a timelier manner. I also have a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of Java, how to debug code easier and faster, and a renewed perspective on how to approach my current homework in other classes.”

Burkardt has received positive feedback from both faculty and students in the program and is in the process of recruiting the next group of peer learning assistants for the spring semester.

While NMSU has had other specialized peer mentoring programs, this effort has a broader focus.

“I’ve never seen this kind of model reaching out to so many different disciplines,” Burkardt explained. “There is no one-size-fits all. What is taught is so different that the approaches need to be different.

“Without the PLAs it’s much harder to do in-class engagement activities with just one person there. If you have more people to circulate in the classroom and interact with the students it helps them grasp the concepts more easily.”