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Barriers to Learning Assistant Engagement

An Investigation Into Student Encounters Learning Assistants Find Challenging and Developing Training to Navigate Those Challenges

Journal of College Science Teaching—July/August 2020 (Volume 49, Issue 6)

By Alicia Purtell, Robert Talbot, and Michael E. Moore

Learning Assistants (LAs) help students develop a deeper understanding of content and are particularly effective during active learning instruction. A foundational pillar of the LA model is the LA pedagogy course, which teaches LAs about evidence-based instruction and about how students learn (Otero et al., 2010). From LA survey responses, this study identifies interactions between LAs and students that have the potential to negatively impact the classroom environment and how other students learn—what we call “challenging interactions.” Challenging interaction training was developed for LAs taking the pedagogy course by using scenarios that LAs can act out and reflect on in class. This training aims to guide LAs as they develop their own strategies for how to properly navigate these interactions. Because of the potential negative impacts of these interactions, training LAs to address and manage these situations is important. If LAs can properly navigate these challenging interactions, they will be better able to facilitate deeper learning in their respective LA-supported classrooms.


It is becoming more common to have a large number of students enrolled in a single section of an introductory biology course (Ebert-May et al., 1997). This trend is alarming, as research shows that students are limited in their deeper understanding of the material in large lecture courses (Talbot et al., 2015). Active learning has been shown to have a positive effect on student learning in the classroom. Introducing active learning into the classroom allows students to apply the knowledge they have learned in class and develop a deeper understanding of the content (Freeman et al., 2014). Along with the implementation of active learning, Learning Assistants (LAs) are also being used in many classrooms to support student learning (see Learning Assistant Alliance, 2020).

Learning Assistants

LAs are undergraduates who work with instructors of record (any teacher or staff member employed to teach courses and authorize credit for the successful completion of courses), supporting active learning development and implementation. LAs have previously taken and succeeded in the course for which they serve as an LA. In large lecture classes, LAs help keep students on track, guide learning, deepen understanding, clear up confusion, and facilitate discussions regarding the material (Otero et al., 2010). Sometimes mistaken for Supplemental Instruction (SI) and other peer support models, LAs are unique in that they facilitate a deeper understanding of course content and answer questions during class, unlike SI, which occurs outside of class. Also, LAs engage in specific pedagogical training concurrent with their experience, whereas SIs do not. LAs have been shown to positively impact student outcomes (Van Dusen et al., 2015), remove traditional learning gaps (Van Dusen et al., 2016), and drive deeper student questioning, which can help their peers achieve a deeper understanding of the material (Knight et al., 2015). The LA model is centered on three main pillars: (1) practicing interacting and teaching in the classroom, (2) learning about science teaching and learning, and (3) attending weekly planning sessions with the instructor of record. Each pillar is an integral part of developing LAs and honing their effectiveness in the classroom (Otero et al., 2010). To fulfill the second pillar, LAs enroll in a pedagogy course where they learn theory and practice using evidence-based teaching techniques.

The Learning Assistant pedagogy course

The pedagogy course prepares LAs for their roles as active learning facilitators through participation of in-class discussion and activities centered around reading primary literature on teaching and learning. LAs commonly explore such factors as cognition, peer learning, and effective question writing (see Learning Assistant Alliance, 2020). A central goal of Baylor’s pedagogy course is to train LAs how to navigate potentially negative interpersonal interactions (i.e., “challenging interactions”) with students whose learning they are supporting in-class. We define challenging interactions as an exchange between LAs and students in LA-supported classes that have the potential to interrupt or prevent learning. We speculate that these challenging interactions occur in part due to student resistance to active learning.

Student reluctance to engaging with active learning, or accepting that a peer can help them learn, is well documented (Fagen et al., 2002; Finelli et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2017; Tharayil et al., 2018). This reluctance can cause students to act aggressive, shy, unresponsive, and many other ways that disrupt learning and ultimately create a barrier between students and LAs, thereby potentially reducing LA effectiveness (Seidel & Tanner, 2013). Such disruptive student behavior may impact not only learning, but also retention (Seidman, 2005). The inspiration for developing this training came from conversations with and reflections from LAs. We believe it is important to help LAs develop their own strategies for navigating these interactions to reduce their potential negative impact on student learning. Accordingly, we propose that training LAs to properly respond to these situations will have a positive effect on student outcomes for both LAs and students in LA-supported courses. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to describe the rationale for and implementation of training that provides LAs with the tools necessary to navigate these challenging interactions.


Study participants

Data for this project were obtained by sending out a survey link to the directors of LA programs during the Fall 2017 and Fall 2018 semesters requesting that they share the survey link with their LAs. One hundred thirty-seven LAs responded to the survey request. Of those 137 responses, 106 responses contained a substantive response that could be analyzed (29 respondents answered only the demographic questions). Demographic data for the survey participants can be found in Table 1.

Table 1. Table of demographic information for those who responded to the request for challenging interactions.

Demographic informationTotal number of respondents: 106








Class rank











Master’s student


Racial identity

African American






Native American






Survey instrument and analysis

In addition to self-reporting demographic data, LAs were asked to report (in as much detail as possible) a challenging interaction they had faced or one that they knew of. The survey was sent out using the Qualtrics survey platform. Student responses were analyzed using open coding (Patton, 2001). Two of the authors independently coded the Fall 2017 data and then met to discuss themes and trends. The two coders reported a high degree of inter-rater agreement (97%). To ensure accurate interpretation of the codes, the third author (Moore) coded the Fall 2018 data using the theme descriptions the two initial coders developed from the Fall 2017 data. Where LAs communicated more than one challenging interaction, the LA statements were counted as separate statements and coded accordingly.


The 106 LAs related a total of 144 challenging interactions (64% reported a single challenge and 36% reported multiple challenges). Early in the open coding process, it became clear that there were two distinct categories of challenges faced by LAs. These two categories were: (1) programmatic implementation issues, and (2) interpersonal difference between LAs and students. An example of a programmatic implementation issue is “My professor does not know how to correctly use her LAs.” This quote most likely represents an issue outside of the control of the LAs and therefore the LA is not responsible for mitigating that challenge. Instead, we focused here on the second category of interpersonal differences.

From the focus on interpersonal differences, five challenging interactions themes were uncovered: (1) unprepared students, (2) aggressive students, (3) knowing information/making a mistake, (4) disinterested students, and (5) friends (see Table 2 for representative quotes), which we will operationalize next.

Table 2. Quotes representing the five themes derived from LA descriptions of challenging interactions.

Theme: Unprepared students

Percentage of student responses with the theme: 22.64%

“I believe the most challenging interaction I have personally encountered is when I come upon a student who lacks knowledge from prerequisite classes that involve general information in the current course.”

Theme: Hyperaggressive students

Percentage of student responses with the theme: 17.92%

“…a student started asking me about the cross-product. Being an LA I thought that I should do my best to answer his question. However, it became apparent after a couple minutes of this that he was making fun of me and trying to show that he was smarter than me. I wasn’t sure what to do so I kept trying to go along and keep answering his questions the best I could…”

Theme: Not knowing information/making a mistake

Percentage of student responses with the theme: 14.15%

“The most challenging interaction I have is when I make a mistake in my work and spread the information to some students. Everyone makes mistakes whether minor or large and sometimes they are not so clear. So, I’ve had some situations where I do a problem, get the answer and when I’m helping some students I don’t realize it until the maybe the 3rd student. It becomes challenging because I feel bad that I just gave wrong information to some students.”

Theme: Disinterested students

Percentage of student responses with the theme: 39.62%

“For small recitations, I have found it challenging to get interaction. With only 6 or 7 students in a recitation, they just kind of do the assignment alone.”

Theme: Friends

Percentage of student responses with the theme: 5.66%

“Students that I sit near in class try to break the barrier of the teacher role as an LA to a friend. They have requested to follow me on Instagram, asked to hang out outside of class, and come to my office hours to chat instead of do work. It is a group of two male students.”

Unprepared students: students who have not done the necessary work before class to prepare themselves to be active participants during class. This causes an uncomfortable interaction between LAs and students because the LA has to decide how to address the student’s lack of preparation and how much information to provide. This crucial decision, if handled incorrectly, could either demotivate students to prepare for class because they know the LA will give them the answers, or not talk to the LA at all because of feelings of humiliation and guilt.

Aggressive students: students whose behavior or language toward their peers, LAs, or the instructor is confrontational or antagonistic. These students tend to be rude, creating a barrier between themselves and the LA. Aggressive students can appear overly confident and be intimidating to LAs. It is likely that, if not handled correctly, the LA will not feel comfortable interacting with the student, which could limit the student learning. Through disrupting the classroom learning environment, aggressive students could impede all learning in that class.

Not knowing information or making a mistake: occurs when an LA is unable to answer a student’s question or gives a student an incorrect explanation or answer to a question posed to them. Not knowing information and misunderstanding information can both be seen as a lack of mastery of material. A lack of material mastery can elicit emotional responses from the LA, such as anxiety and inadequacy. Therefore, we have decided to combine these two interactions into a single scenario. When an LA does not know a question’s answer, students may accuse the LA of being an ineffective LA. This may cause the LA to be nervous and avoid interactions with students in the future. Also, the student making the accusation may no longer rely on the LA to help them if the situation is not properly addressed, which could be detrimental if they do not understand a concept.

Disinterested students: students who are prepared, but are generally not willing to engage with the assigned task. These students display their disinterest by doing such things as homework for other classes, discussing nonacademic topics with their groups, not working with their peers, or sleeping. If not handled properly, a disinterested student is less likely to learn from activities they are working on and less likely to ask for help because they do not feel engaged by the material for numerous reasons. As for LAs, they are less likely to engage with these students because they know their impact on these students is potentially diminished.

Friends: students in LA-supported classes who attempt to leverage their relationship status with LAs to their own advantage in a manner that is either uncomfortable for LAs or circumvents the intent of the assignment students are working on (such as giving a student the answers to a worksheet). If not properly addressed, the student asking for these answers will likely repeat this behavior in the future, which is detrimental to their learning. This interaction potentially creates unnecessary tension and anxiety for LAs as they may continue to face this behavior from these students and others.

As these were the most frequently mentioned challenges (see Table 2 for theme percentages), one could infer that they were the most memorable and potentially the most pervasive challenges that LAs encountered and therefore they have the greatest potential to negatively impact student classroom learning.


Developing and implementing the scenarios

From the themes uncovered during analysis, five challenging interaction scenarios were created to introduce LAs to possible negative interactions they may have in the classroom (see Table 3 for scenario outlines). These five scenarios reflect the five themes uncovered during the analysis of reported LA experiences with challenging interaction: (1) unprepared students, (2) aggressive students, (3) knowing information/making a mistake, (4) disinterested students, and (5) friends. These training scenarios are used to help LAs learn how to respond to students if they encounter a similar experience. For each of the five scenarios, two dialogues were written: one “filtered” and one “unfiltered.” The “filtered” dialogue simulates the response of an LA who thought through what they were going to say before they said it while the “unfiltered” response simulates an LA’s potential gut or emotional reaction to the encounter. We solicited feedback from LAs at two institutions during focus group meetings on how authentic the dialogues were and how they could be improved. We then piloted the training scenarios, after which final changes were made based on our observations and feedback from student reflections and conversation. After refining the dialogues, we settled on the following implementation method. The two dialogues were acted out as role-play scenarios by the LAs in the pedagogy course. The LAs were not told which of the dialogues was “better” and which was “naïve.” LAs acted out the scenarios, and then had discussions concerning their feelings and reactions. They also proposed how they might respond in similar situations within their own supported courses and how to develop these responses while reflecting on what is discussed during the training.

Table 3. Scenario outlines developed from the five themes of LAs descriptions of challenging interactions.

Scenario 1: (“The strong, silent type”)

This scenario outlines how to interact with students who are very shy. This type of student knows the answers to the questions; however, they are too shy and afraid of getting the answer incorrect to interact with their group mates. This script for LAs in the course focuses on how to walk their students through a series of questions that prompts them to answer the question out loud and gets the student engaged in the conversation.

Scenario 2: (“Will”)

This scenario introduces students to a situation where they interact with a student whose words and actions degrade other students. In this situation, a male student puts down other students and their questions because he feels his questions are more important. LAs are prompted to consider how they might lessen the aggression of the student through focusing on their own body language, word choice, and delivery.

Scenario 3: (“I am inadequate”)

It is normal for LAs to not know the answer to every question that a student has, as they are still undergraduates. This scenario walks LAs through a situation with a frustrated student whose question the LA cannot answer. LAs should react in a calm manner and be able to admit to not knowing the answer. However, the LA should help find the correct answer for the student.

Scenario 4: (“The enthusiasm-less group”)

It is common for students to be reluctant to work in groups and to not participate, especially if it is something they are not interested in. This scenario demonstrates how LAs should react to a group of students who are uninterested in the work in front of them. LAs should help students elaborate on their answers and help them walk through the topics out loud. This engages group members and allows them to expand on the information they have learned.

Scenario 5: (“Teaching my friends”)

It is likely that LAs will be LAs in classes that their friends are taking. This creates a potentially awkward and uncomfortable hierarchy of power between an LA and their friend. This scenario demonstrates a situation that LAs may encounter with their friends in their classes. The scenario walks LAs through a way to handle this type of situation in a calm, mature manner. LAs should be kind to their friends, but not give them any special privileges or answers.

The full scenario dialogues can be found in supplemental materials (available at ). LAs are presented with two possible forms of each scenario. After reading the two forms, students are prompted to discuss how they would navigate the scenario if they found themselves in a similar situation.

To facilitate this discussion, LAs are prompted to answer the following questions: 1.If this scenario happened to you, what would you do? 2.What could go wrong with either scenario? 3.Where did the LA’s conversation with the students go wrong (what derailed the conversation)? 4.What behaviors or verbal cues should you look for that might derail conversation?

To address these questions, LAs draw on their previous classroom and other life experiences. For example, while implementing the scenarios and discussion questions in the LA pedagogy course, a group of students was discussing the scenario of Not Knowing Information/Making a Mistake. LAs talked about how challenging their own previous experiences were with not knowing information. An example of this is represented below by a student recounting their own classroom experience.

In this case, the student related the scenario to an event that occurred in their own classroom. After answering the four questions listed above, the student was able to plan a way to deal with such an event in the classroom in case it happened again. After piloting the role-play scenarios in the LA pedagogy courses at each of the two institutions, a general discussion was facilitated to gauge the LAs’ reactions to the scenarios. In each class, LAs stated that the interactions represented were highly plausible, and commonly occurred in their supported courses.


The purpose of this paper is to argue for the necessity of and provide an implementation model for challenging interactions training to help LAs navigate these interactions. There are currently more than 100 LA programs at universities around the world. Given the fact that the pedagogy course is one of the three essential pillars of the LA program, the activities and topics in this course will potentially have a lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of students each year (see Learning Assistant Alliance, 2020). Currently, the Learning Assistant Alliance website recommends 13 core and additional topics that one could incorporate in their LA pedagogy course based on general knowledge of pedagogy, but does not address which pedagogy topics are more impactful or relevant to LA programs (Learning Assistant Alliance, 2020). Our work fills that gap by identifying a topic relevant to all LAs. If not addressed, these challenging interactions may reduce the impact of LAs on the students they work with. Based on our work, LA programs should explicitly address the existence of these challenges and prepare their LAs to effectively manage them. In this paper, we have provided a model for others to adopt and implement “Challenging Interactions” training (see discussion and supplemental materials).

The discussion questions following the role play helps LAs process each of these situations that occur in the classroom. By providing space for LAs to develop their interaction navigation strategies, the LAs gain an essential skill set before any learning can be negatively impacted or relationships damaged. Previous research on the effect of training programs in nursing showed positive increases in nurse self-efficacy (McConville & Lane, 2006). Because the nurse training program parallels the LA challenging interaction training, one can anticipate that the LA training may yield a similar effect. The presence of this effect should be assessed going forward. An expected outcome of our training is to increase LAs’ self-efficacy and confidence in their ability to navigate these interactions. Self-efficacy has been shown to be an important predictor of performance and student confidence in biology classrooms (Partin et al., 2011).

Many students in the classroom demonstrate both verbal and nonverbal cues that can create a barrier between the LAs and students. For example, a previous LA related a challenging interaction containing nonverbal classroom cues: “Just finding that a few of my students are not motivated or focused during class, i.e., playing video games, texting, browsing the web, etc. I’ve also found that students are not keeping up to date with the material covered in class and is behind when covering new material.”

The nonverbal aspect of this interaction (the act of playing videos games, texting, and browsing the internet) creates a distraction for that LA and the students. Both verbal cues such as tone inflections and nonverbal cues such as behaviors or facial expressions can negatively impact the learning environment (Bjorklund & Rehling, 2009). Allowing students to act out (role-play) each scenario and providing them with an opportunity to work through their verbal and nonverbal responses is an important aspect of how this training was designed. Role-play is an important educational tool as it allows students to think through the ramifications of how they express themselves verbally and nonverbally, as well as gain an understanding of difficult topics (McSharry & Jones, 2000). Role-play also improves skills, such as language acquisition and problem solving, before students have to use them in real situations (Nestel & Tierney, 2007). All in all, the more LAs are able to practice these responses, the greater the benefits experienced by both the LA and the students they are instructing.

We assert that preparing for these potentially emotional events will benefit both LAs and students. Challenging interactions can disrupt learning far beyond the moment the interaction occurs (Meyers, 2003). As these interactions are rarely experienced in isolation, negative interactions have the potential to disrupt learning for adjacent students as well. Therefore, this training will not only improve the learning of the student the LA is directly interacting with, but also improve the learning environment for the whole class. By equipping LAs with the proper tools, conflict can be potentially avoided and fewer learning disruptions are likely to occur. This training is designed to help LAs develop new skills to better facilitate learning in the midst of conflict. This simple training should have a great impact on the experiences of LAs and students with minimal additional work.


The authors of this paper would like to thank those who contributed to this research. Thank you to the Learning Assistant Alliance and the LAs at the University of Colorado-Denver and Baylor University for their help in reviewing and piloting the training. We would also like to thank Tracy Sulak for advising on this project. Robert and Michael would like to thank the PALM network for supporting our collaboration, which sparked this work. Michael would like to personally thank Sarah Holevinski for sharing her LA experiences, which inspired this work.

Alicia Purtell is an undergraduate in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Robert Talbot is an associate professor of science education at the University of Colorado Denver. Michael E. Moore ( is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


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Preservice Science Education Teacher Preparation Postsecondary

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