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Learning Communities and the Undergraduate Curriculum

Learning Communities as Curriculum Structure, Faculty and Staff Collaboration, Benefits to Students

Educational observers have long argued that student involvement is important to student education. Indeed a wide range of studies, in a variety of settings and of a range of students, have confirmed that academic and social involvement, sometimes referred to as academic and social integration, enhances student development, improves student learning, and increases student persistence. Simply put, involvement matters. But getting students involved can be difficult. This is especially true for the majority of college students who commute to college, who work while in college, or have substantial family responsibilities beyond college. Unlike students who reside on campus, these students have few, if any, opportunities to engage others beyond the classroom.

For that reason an increasing number of universities and colleges, both two-and four-year, have turned their attention to the classroom–the one place, perhaps the only place, where students meet each other and the faculty. Researchers have asked how that setting can be altered to better promote student involvement and in turn improve student education. In response, schools have begun to institute a variety of curricular and pedagogical reforms ranging from the use of cooperative and problem-based learning to the inclusion of service learning in the college curriculum. One reform that is gaining attention, that addresses both the need for student involvement and the demands for curricular coherence, is the use of learning communities.

Learning communities, in their most basic form, begin with a kind of co-registration or block scheduling that enables students to take courses together, rather than in isolation. In some cases, learning communities will help students make connections with linked courses–tying two courses together, typically a course in writing with a course in selected literature or current social problems. In other cases, it may mean sharing the entire first-semester curriculum so that students in the learning community study the same material throughout the semester. In some large universities such as the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, the twenty-five to thirty students in a learning community may attend lectures with 200 to 300 other students but stay together for a smaller discussion section, often called the Freshman Interest Group, led by a graduate student or upperclassman. In still other cases, students will take all their classes together either as separate, but linked, classes (Cluster Learning Communities) or as one large class that meets four to six hours at a time several times per week (Coordinated Studies). Figure 1 shows examples of these learning community models.

The courses in which students co-register are not coincidental or random. They are typically connected by an organizing theme that gives meaning to their linkage. The point of doing so is to engender a coherent interdisciplinary or cross-subject learning that is not easily attainable through enrollment in unrelated, stand-alone courses. For example, a Coordinated Studies Program at Seattle Central Community College is titled "Body and Mind." It links courses in human biology, psychology, and sociology, and asks students to consider how the connected fields of study pursue a singular piece of knowledge, namely how and why humans behave as they do.

As described by Faith Gabelnick and her colleagues in their 1990 book Learning Communities: Creating Connections among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines, many learning communities do more than co-register students around a topic. They change the manner in which students experience the curriculum and the way they are taught. Faculty have reorganized their syllabi and their classrooms to promote shared, collaborative learning experiences among students across the linked classrooms. This form of classroom organization requires students to work together in some form of collaborative groups and to become active, indeed responsible, for the learning of both group and classroom peers. In this way students are asked to share not only the experience of the curriculum, but also of learning within the curriculum.

Learning Communities as Curriculum Structure

Although the content may vary, nearly all learning communities have three things in common. One is shared knowledge. By requiring students to take courses together and organizing those courses around a theme, learning communities seek to construct a shared, coherent curricular experience that is not just an unconnected array of courses in, say, composition, calculus, history, Spanish, and geology. In doing so they seek to promote higher levels of cognitive complexity that cannot easily be obtained through participation in unrelated courses.

The second common element is shared knowing. Learning communities enroll the same students in several classes so they get to know each other quickly and fairly intimately and in a way that is part and parcel of their academic experience. By asking students to construct knowledge together, learning communities seek to involve students both socially and intellectually in ways that promote cognitive development as well as an appreciation for the many ways in which one's own knowing is enhanced when other voices are part of that learning experience.

The third common thread is shared responsibility. Learning communities ask students to become responsible to each other in the process of trying to know. They participate in collaborative groups that require students to be mutually dependent on one another so that the learning of the group does not advance without each member doing her or his part.

As a curricular structure, learning communities can be applied to any content and any group of students. Most often they are designed for the needs of beginning students. In those instances, one of the linked courses becomes a Freshman Seminar. Increasingly they are also being adapted to the needs of undecided students and students who require developmental academic assistance. In these cases one of the linked courses may be a career exploration or developmental advising course or, in the latter case, a "learning to learn" or study skills course.

In residential campuses some learning communities have moved into the residence halls. These "living learning communities" combine shared courses with shared living. Students, typically those beginning their first semester of college, enroll in a


number of linked courses and live together in a reserved part of a residence hall.

More recently a number of institutions have used community service as a linking activity or theme for learning communities. The Evergreen State College, Portland State University, St. Lawrence University, and colleges in the Maricopa Community College District have added service learning to one or more of their linked courses. As an extension of traditional models of community service and experiential learning, service learning combines intentional educational activities with service experience to meet critical needs identified by the communities being served. Unlike voluntarism, notes Barbara Jacoby in her 1996 book on the topic, service learning is a pedagogical strategy; an inductive approach to education grounded in the assumption that thoughtfully organized experience is the foundation for learning. When connected to learning communities and the collaborative pedagogy that underlies them, service learning becomes a shared experience in which students and faculty are able to engage in time-intensive, interdisciplinary study of complex social problems that may be used to apply and test theory learned in the classroom or to generate knowledge from experience. In either case service learning in a collaborative setting seems to promote not only the acquisition of course content, but also enhanced intellectual development and a shared sense of responsibility for the welfare of others.

Faculty and Staff Collaboration

When applied to particular groups of students, as described above, the faculty of the learning community almost always includes both academic and student affairs professionals. Such learning communities call for, indeed require, the collaborative efforts of both parties. This is the case because the staff of student affairs are typically the only persons on campus who possess the skills and knowledge needed to teach some of the linked courses. Take the case of learning communities for students requiring developmental assistance. In Cluster Learning Communities, for example, the faculty of the learning community may consist of a faculty person who teaches a regular introductory course in economics and two members of a learning support center who teach developmental writing and mathematics.

To be effective such learning communities require their faculty, that is the academic and student affairs professionals who staff the learning community, to collaborate on both the content and pedagogy of the linked courses. They must work together, as equal partners, to ensure that the linked courses provide a coherent shared learning experience. One of the many benefits of such collaboration, where all voices are heard, is that the academic staff often discover the wealth of knowledge that student affairs professionals bring to the discourse about teaching and learning. Furthermore, in leaving, at least momentarily, their respective "silos," both come to discover the many benefits of looking at one's work from fresh eyes.

Benefits to Students

There is now ample evidence that learning communities enhance student learning and persistence in both two-and four-year institutions. Program assessments and multi-institution studies indicate that learning communities promote student achievement in a variety of ways. Though intentionally limited in scope, studies of learning communities have yielded a number of important insights into the impact of learning communities on student learning and persistence. First, students in learning communities tended to form their own self-supporting groups that extended beyond the classroom. Learning community students spent more time together out of class than did students in traditional, unrelated stand-alone classes and they did so in ways that students saw as supportive. Indeed, some students at the urban community colleges saw those groups as critical to their ability to continue in college.

Second, learning community students became more actively involved in classroom learning, even after class. They spent more time learning together both inside and outside the class. In this way, learning communities enabled students to bridge the divide between academic classes and student social conduct that frequently characterizes student life. They tended to learn and make friends at the same time. And as students spent more time together learning, they learned more.

Third, participation in the learning community seemed to enhance the quality of student learning. By learning together, everyone's understanding and knowledge was, in the eyes of the participants, enriched. At the same time, students in the learning community programs perceived themselves as having made significantly greater intellectual gains over the course of the semester than did similar students in the comparison classes.

Fourth, as students learned more and saw themselves as more engaged both academically and socially, they persisted at a higher rate than did comparable students in the traditional curriculum. At Seattle Central Community College, for example, learning community students continued at a rate approximately twenty-five percentage points higher than did students in the traditional curriculum.

Finally, student participants' stories highlighted powerful messages about the value of collaborative learning settings in fostering what could be called "the norms of educational citizenship," that is to say norms that promote the notion that individual educational welfare is tied inexorably to the educational welfare and interests of other members of the educational community. Students in these programs reported an increased sense of responsibility to participate in the learning experience, and an awareness of their responsibility for both their learning and the learning of others.

Learning communities do not represent the final answer to student learning. As with any other pedagogy, there are limits to their effectiveness. Some students do not like learning with others and some faculty find collaborating with other faculty and staff difficult. Nevertheless, like other efforts to enhance student involvement in learning, such as cooperative learning and service learning, there is ample evidence to support the contention that their application enhances student learning and persistence and enriches faculty professional lives. It is no surprise then that so many institutions have initiated learning communities and a number of foundations have established programs to support their development.


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