September 23rd, 2008

Learning Communities Link Courses, Bring Academic and Student Affairs Together

By:

Faculty need to be very careful about how they commit their time and energy, so any potential partnership with student affairs need to be compelling and clearly articulated.

“We in student affairs, specifically in housing and residence life, always want to get faculty involved, but I think it’s really important for us to consider how we can best do that without being an additional draw on time and effort,” says Michelle Rodems, residence coordinator at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

One major partnership between academic and student affairs at UNCW is the Cornerstone Learning Communities Program, a program in which first-year students take eight of their 15 credit hours as part of a learning community that features linked courses and integrative seminars taught in a specially designed residence hall.

New residence hall, new program

The idea for the program began in 2001 among several department chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences as a way to increase interdisciplinary study and reenergize the humanities. A learning communities steering committee comprised of department chairs and representatives from the College of Arts and Sciences Office and the Division of Student Affairs attended the National Learning Communities Summer Institute in 2002 and developed a plan to launch a learning communities pilot in fall 2003.

Cornerstone Hall, a new residence hall, was scheduled to open at the same time, and the steering committee was able to work with the architect to modify the design of the building to better suit the program’s needs.

The learning community model the steering committee came up with consists of eight learning communities of 25 students each. The program is offered to first-year students on a first-come, first-served basis. Students who sign up for the program select a learning community based on their interests. Each learning community consists of a pair of linked basic studies courses and an integrative seminar. Past learning communities included “In Search of Myself: Stories of Culture,” which linked an anthropology course with an English course, and “Talking Heads: Politics and Public Speaking,” which linked a political science course with a communication studies course.

The linked courses are scheduled so that students take them in the same room, one after the other. The integrative seminar combines content from the freshman seminar with themes from the two linked courses. Faculty members from the respective departments teach the basic studies courses, and a student affairs staff member, academic adviser, or librarian teaches the integrative seminars.

Recruiting faculty

One of the challenges early on was convincing faculty to participate. “Some faculty members had a perception that some of those people maybe didn’t have a rigorous enough academic background, and they questioned the rigor of what would be offered in those integrative seminars,” says Claudia Stack, codirector of Cornerstone Learning Communities. “I spoke to that and told them, for example, I have an undergraduate background that is very strong in the classics-I translated Plato as an undergraduate-and that I would like to teach an integrative seminar that included some western philosophy. I was able to give them a concrete example of something rigorous that they understood.”

One thing that got faculty members’ attention was the $3,000 stipend offered by the provost for each faculty member who participates. The program calls for proposals in the fall, a year before the learning communities are to begin. In some cases, faculty have a clear idea of which courses they want to teach and with whom. In other cases, the steering committee matches faculty and integrative seminar instructors.

Linking courses

By January, the learning community faculty teams commit to the program, which also includes mandatory participation in a learning community workshop in May. The workshop includes best practices presentations and time for teams to work together on modifying their courses. “These are courses that exist in the basic studies curriculum. They do get modified somewhat, but not a huge amount because I think faculty feel obligated to cover most or all of the material that’s laid out for the course,” Stack says.

The workshop also serves as an opportunity for faculty to get to know the integrative seminar instructors. This is an important relationship because the integrative seminar instructors work closely with students outside of class and can help faculty better understand the issues these students face.

Sean Ahlum, marketing and computing consultant in the Office of Housing and Residence Life, is an integrative seminar instructor who has enough flexibility in his schedule to attend the same classes that the students in his learning community attend. Ahlum meets with students once a week outside of the basic studies classes. The seminar covers things such as library skills, health and wellness, and technology skills while integrating the themes that come up in the two linked courses. Since Ahlum attends those classes, he is in an excellent position to help students understand the thematic connections between the courses.

In addition, Ahlum meets regularly with the faculty in his learning community and shares his insights about the students’ experiences inside and outside the classroom. “There’s so much programming and so much education going on outside of the classroom. It’s really nice for the professors to be able to get a sense of that through their integrative seminar instructor. They ask me about housing, disciplinary conduct hearings, what academic resources are available to the students outside of class, and what it’s like to eat in the dining hall. I make sure to take them over to eat with our students every now and then,” Ahlum says.

There is another layer of student affairs involvement. Each learning community has a peer mentor, an undergraduate student who works with the learning community faculty and attends the integrative seminar. These peer mentors keep regular journals and contact reports of their interactions with students and meet regularly with the learning community faculty.

Rodems says that students are more likely to express their concerns to peer mentors than to the faculty members.

Outcomes

Although there is not yet much assessment data to analyze the effectiveness of the Cornerstone Learning Communities, those involved point to several positive outcomes thus far.

“After being in a learning community for a while, students start to look for other connections in their other classes, which I think is pretty neat,” Stack says.

Faculty benefit as well. “I think faculty get a more holistic picture of the student. They see that the student is engaging in activities and relationships around campus and they’re not all class-related, and they realized how important the professionals in other areas are to the students’ development,” Stack says.

Faculty also learn from each other by observing each other’s teaching in a setting that is not a performance evaluation, Stack says.

The Cornerstone Learning Communities program has opened lines of communication between academic and student affairs that were haphazard prior to the program and usually based on chance personal connections across campus, Rodems says. “I don’t think academic affairs realized all the resources available to them. If they have concerns about students, they call me. If they want to do a program, they let the peer mentor or me know, and we organize it.”

Contact Michelle Rodems at roemsm@uncw.edu, Sean Ahlum at ahlums@uncw.edu, and Claudia Stack stackc@uncw.edu.