Learning communities are back in the news. As colleges and universities struggle with the retention of students, a problem aggravated by the economic problems plaguing our nation, learning communities once again take center stage as a viable way to help first-year students stay in school.
Learning communities are defined as “classes that are linked or clustered during an academic term, often around an interdisciplinary theme, and enroll a common cohort of students” (Evergreen). When I attended a “First-Year Experience” conference in Tucson, Arizona in 2005, I was bowled over by testimonies lauding the effectiveness of learning communities among college freshmen. According to reports from faculty and administrators at the conference, these communities, some of which had been established on campus for ten years or more, were instrumental in improving students’ abilities to assimilate information and enhancing the quality of college life.
Such improvement results in the retention of students. At Wayne State University in Detroit, the retention rate was 82.6 for freshmen enrolled in learning communities in the fall of 2008, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education (Kiley). This rate exceeded Wayne State’s typical retention rate for returning freshmen by about 6 percent.
Advantages of learning communities
Learning communities, which first appeared on college and university campuses about 20 years ago, have been gaining ground among educators ever since. The idea is that the communities encourage “learning to learn as a social act” (Evergreen). That is, instead of isolating a student on an individual course schedule, often placing the student in a classroom with strangers, the student engages in the learning process among peers and attends classes in a social unit.
In my experience as a college instructor for 12 years, I was often struck by the degree to which peer pressure formed the level of student involvement in the classroom. If the atmosphere in the classroom was open and positive among the students, even those pupils not usually disposed to speaking up in class would do so. But if tension or negativity held sway, even the brightest students kept their mouths shut—despite the fact that they knew class participation affected their overall grade.
From this one can deduce that a student’s involvement in the learning process is clearly affected by engagement with his/her peers—both pro and con. And, if this is so, it certainly makes sense to place students among others with whom they feel comfortable—that is, students of similar intellectual ability and achievements.
Disadvantages of learning communities
Critics of the learning community concept at the university where I most recently taught felt that such communities provided an unrealistic picture of a world students would soon enter as job seekers. They pointed out that most professional offices, for instance, do not necessarily offer supportive environments but, in fact, competitive ones.
This position, however, seems less pervasive among educators than the idea that the self-esteem students gain from learning communities will be carried over into the classroom (Evergreen).
Types of learning communities
At Purdue University, for example, learning communities can consist of:
1: A cohort of 20 to 30 freshmen who enroll in two or three courses as a social unit
2: A cohort of freshmen, indeterminate in number, who have similar majors and live in the same dorm
3: A cohort of freshmen who live in the same dorm and take courses together (Purdue)
Students enrolled in learning communities on some campuses experience the type of support one usually associates with family. Such learning communities offer counseling, group meetings, social events, off-campus trips, and even opportunities to become involved in community service.
Other types of learning communities may involve two or more classes linked together by content planned by faculty collaboratively, or in which the courses are team-taught (Evergreen). Or a community might couple a peer-led tutoring lab with a difficult math, chemistry or biology course (Ohio University).
In all learning communities, the role of faculty is key to its success.
Role of faculty in learning communities
In the academic institutions where I have taught, the active involvement and attitude of faculty had a significant impact on first-year students’ performance. If the faculty were comfortable working together to achieve student success, putting aside their own individual priorities, students felt this and reacted accordingly.
In one First-year Experience program I was involved in, faculty and support staff met weekly to discuss individual student progress. Notes on grade improvement, absenteeism, class participation and attitude for each student were shared and analyzed. Such discussions were held not in the spirit of criticism but in an attempt to foster a nurturing environment in all the classes the student attended. If a student showed signs of distress, he/she was referred to a counselor who also attended the meetings.
Such one-on-one follow-up may be more difficult for larger universities, but the results are well worth it. On an economic level, borderline students were “caught” before they slipped through the net and left school. On a human level, such students were given the type of care and individual attention that results in a pupil feeling that he/she has value—not only personally but to the teacher. Building self-esteem, teaching with love and a particular ability to bring out the student’s best attributes—-this is the role of faculty in a highly developed learning community or first-year success program. And it is this type of teaching that ultimately results in the student’s ability to better assimilate information and become a success in college.
Learning communities can be instrumental not only in the retention of students but in raising graduation rates (Kiley). Small groups of students, encouraged to support and interact with each other both in and out of class, nurtured by a loving, collaborative faculty—this is, indeed, the ideal learning environment, and one which will produce confident, socially-adept graduates.
Evergreen State College, Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, Learning Communities National Resource Center. Retrieved October 29, 2010 from http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/lcfaq.htm
Kiley, Kevin, “Wayne State’s Black-White Graduation Gap Reflects Detroit’s Struggles”, The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 22, 2010, Vol. LVII, Number 9
Ohio University, Community of Promise, “What is a Learning Community?” Retrieved October 29, 2010 from http://www.ohio.edu/learningcommunities/
Purdue University, Student Access, Transition and Success Programs—Learning Communities. Retrieved October 29, 2010 from http://purdue.edu/sats/learning_communities/index.html