September 22nd, 2008

Encouraging, Supporting Learning Communities

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Learning communities, an approach to curriculum design that links two or more courses, can improve student success and retention and help students develop effective learning habits. Learning communities also can improve the instructors’ teaching by exposing them to new teaching techniques and exploring connections between disciplines they might not have considered. However, to be successful, they require more planning and coordination than traditional courses, which requires a systematic approach to faculty development and support.

For the past 10 years, De Anza College, a community college in California, has been on the forefront of the learning community movement by providing faculty members with the expertise and support they need to develop and continuously improve learning communities.

The goal is to make learning communities an ongoing feature at De Anza, says Marcos Cicerone, director of staff and organizational development. With strong administrative support and an extensive faculty development program, the college is succeeding in this goal, offering eight to 10 learning communities per quarter.

De Anza’s learning community model

Learning communities at De Anza College range from two to four linked courses that share the same time block. Because it’s a two-year institution, course articulation requires that faculty work within the framework of existing courses rather being able to create new courses especially for a learning community (which institutions like Evergreen State College and Stanford University are able to do). But each course is redesigned around a common theme that spans all the courses in the learning community.

“It can’t be two courses as they exist with just the students put together. That doesn’t work for us. Some places do that, but for us that is not enough. We need to see that there really is a curricular integration and that the teachers are teaching together,” Cicerone says.

At a minimum each learning community instructor needs to spend at least one hour in the other instructors’ course(s). So scheduling is one of the considerations in matching instructors for learning communities. How the instructors structure that time together is up to them. They may divide each class period equally, or, depending on the week’s content, one may do the majority of teaching in a given week. “As long as we see they are working together in the class, how they want to structure that period is up to them. But we do ask that they spend as much time in each other’s class as possible,” Cicerone says.

Matching instructors

LinC (Learning in Communities) Program staff members conduct workshops to introduce faculty members to the idea of learning communities. Some learning community ideas come from faculty who know each other and want to work together. In other cases, Cicerone and his colleagues recruit faculty based on course combinations they think have potential as well as co-enrollment data — courses that students tend to take in the same semester like English composition, psychology 1, history 1, or political science 1.

At the beginning of the process, each faculty member is asked to take a compatibility survey that asks about time commitment, flexibility, course integration, teaching style, student retention and success, homework, testing methods, grading methods, and attendance policy.

Each faculty member takes the survey individually and discusses it with his or her partner(s) and the LinC adviser. Cicerone likens this meeting to pre-marital counseling and doesn’t try to force a match between instructors.

“If we don’t think it’s going to be successful, if we don’t think it fits the faculty members, we’re honest with them and say, ‘We don’t think it’s going to work,'” Cicerone says.

Developing a learning community

If the instructors are found to be reasonably compatible, the next step is to jointly fill out a Learning Community Proposal Form, which includes items such as

  • proposed courses to be included in the learning community
  • the learning community’s theme
  • sub-topics of the theme
  • a description of the course integration
  • a description of coordination of pedagogy
  • amount of team teaching anticipated
  • team-teaching schedules
  • rough outline of content (curriculum)
  • examples of materials and texts
  • assignment samples
  • ideas for activities and projects
  • grading criteria and methods.

This form also asks how the team will implement collaborative, multicultural, and experiential learning.

Working out these details might take a single meeting or as many as three or four, Cicerone says.

“I think the part that is most challenging for them and the part we work most with is how to go about bringing them together to see how they can integrate the curriculum, how they can integrate the assignments to make it seamless. Faculty tend to come up with a catchy title, but they don’t really develop a theme that can be sustained throughout an entire course,” Cicerone says.

Faculty guidelines

Once they agree on the details of the learning community, the team members read and sign a faculty guidelines form that describes their responsibilities, which include:

  • a minimum of one-hour of team teaching per week
  • regularly scheduled weekly meetings during the quarter to asses the learning community and students and make changes when necessary
  • participation in assessment training, preferably before the learning community begins
  • two small-group instructional feedback sessions each quarter
  • a faculty exit interview or questionnaire
  • at least two LinC counselor visitations per quarter (for feedback and quality control)
  • assistance in marketing efforts, such as providing content for promotional materials and visiting classes to promote the learning community
  • a minimum commitment of teaching the learning community three times
  • encouragement to attend other LinC training events.

Preparing faculty members to teach in a learning community can take place a year or two before they actually develop and teach the learning community.

Institutionalizing the idea

Cicerone hopes to make learning communities an ongoing feature of the De Anza learning experience. Toward that end, De Anza College offer faculty stipends, requires them to teach in each learning community at least three times, and asks them to promote the learning community on campus.

Student success and positive faculty feedback also help promote the idea of learning communities. In addition to improved student retention and success, student focus groups have helped illustrate the benefits of participating in learning communities. Many focus-group responses indicate that they learn to work in groups, and often form their own study groups in other classes that do not feature a learning community and that they learn to manage their time better and are more focused serious, Cicerone says.

Faculty participants often feel more connected to other disciplines after the experience. “This is a way for faculty to get to know another faculty member and by teaching with that faculty member learn a lot about other disciplines. It’s an enriching, invigorating experience to work that closely with another faculty member on an ongoing basis,” Cicerone says.

Contact Marcos Cicerone at ciceronemarcos@deanza.edu.


  • ladytee

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