November 3rd, 2009

Helping Your Learning Community Reach Its Goals

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Learning communities come in all shapes and sizes. Some simply link courses and put students in a cohort; many go considerably beyond that to build a learning environment around core practices known to promote student learning. Some are new, while others have been in place for nearly 20 years.

If you would like to take a fresh look at your learning communities but aren’t sure where to begin, I recommend considering the following questions.

What are your goals?
Let’s start with the obvious: Learning communities are a means, not an end. Our goal is not to have great learning communities. Rather, learning communities provide an affordable and comprehensive means to address a variety of critical issues, such as:

  • Improving student retention
  • Promoting student success and student engagement
  • Fostering curricular coherence
  • Supporting developmental education efforts
  • Building community
  • Promoting student learning

The point here is that your starting question should not be, “How can we improve our learning communities?” Instead, you might ask, “If our goal is to increase the engagement of our students, how can our learning communities help us reach that goal?”

Are all of your core practices strong?
In our most recent book, Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2004), we talked about the five core practices in learning communities. It’s useful to ask whether those core practices are strongly present in your learning communities and how they are being implemented.

The core practices are:

  • Adopting pedagogical strategies of student engagement and active learning (e.g., collaborative and cooperative learning, use of discussion groups and seminars, inquiry-based fieldwork)
  • Fostering deeper learning and critical thinking by helping students integrate knowledge and perceive relationships and connections (e.g., through interdisciplinary curriculum; thematic curriculum; integrative projects, activities, and assignments.
  • Purposefully building a sense of community among students, along with the skills for working with others (e.g., through strategies such as living-learning communities, academic projects that involve teamwork, study groups, social events, service-learning, etc.)
  • Providing occasions for reflection and assessment (e.g., use of classroom assessment techniques, student self-evaluation, reflective journals, autobiography)
  • Respecting and cultivating diversity in the learning community (e.g., using pedagogical strategies of inclusion that support diverse ways of learning, creating supportive learning environments, representing diversity in the curriculum content, situating learning communities to serve students with diverse backgrounds)

Learning communities vary considerably in the ways they develop these core practices. Nevertheless, in designing learning communities, it is useful to ask where each of these core practices is located and who is responsible for promoting them.

Editor’s Note: Part II of this article will appear on Thursday, Nov. 5. Read it now.

Resources
A new monograph appearing in early October 2007, co-published by NASPA and the Washington Center, is titled Learning Communities and Student Affairs: Partnering for Powerful Learning.

Barbara Leigh Smith, Kimberly Eby, Robin Jeffers, Judy Kjellman, Godon Koestler, Toska Olson, Rita Smilkstein, and Karen Spear, “Emerging Trends in Learning Community Development.” The Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education’s News, winter 2006.

Barbara Leigh Smith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick. Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education. Jossey Bass, 2004.

Barbara Leigh Smith is a senior scholar at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, an emeritus member of the faculty, and a former provost and vice president for academic affairs at The Evergreen State College. Smith and Jean MacGregor are founders of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, which has led learning community development for 20 years.

Excerpted from How to Take a Fresh Look at Your Learning Community, Student Affairs Leader, December 15, 2007.

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