There is no question that higher education tends to get caught up in “fashionable” program innovations, and learning communities could certainly be considered an example. A great deal of research has established that, in terms of student retention and persistence, first experiences in college are tremendously important.
To better address the needs of entering students, many colleges and universities now include learning community experiences. Typically, learning communities are organized around one of four common models:
- linked or clustered courses (a cohort of students taking the same group of courses),
- cohorts in large courses (a group of students in a large course sharing other curricular experiences associated with the large course),
- team-taught or coordinated studies programs (students taking courses, often with theme-based content, that are team taught by professors from different fields), and
- living-learning communities (students living together in a residence hall and taking courses together).
Since the early ’90s, Temple University in Philadelphia has had a well-established linked-course learning communities program. About 10 years in, the program was assessed to “establish whether the overall learning community experience [in terms of the activities in the courses] was the same for everyone.” (p. 262) The school discovered that it was not. The differences were a result, first, of the students themselves.
Researchers identified six different clusters of students. In the largest one, “Students were actively engaged in almost all aspects of the learning community experience—from in-class to out of class, on both academic and social fronts.” (p. 256) The second largest cluster consisted of students almost the “antithesis” of those in the first—“not engaged with each other or the teacher and not experiencing high levels of activity either in or outside of class.” (p. 256-257). This caused the researchers to conclude, “Learning communities are not uniformly beneficial for all students.” (p. 262)
They also discovered that not all teachers were including activities usually associated with learning communities—things like having students work in groups. The researchers note that various interactive methods fit naturally with the goals of learning communities. “When an institution makes a commitment to the learning community program, it should recognize also the need to prepare appropriately its faculty to utilize teaching methods that are conducive to positive results.” (p. 264)
A variety of other findings support the general conclusion that the learning community experience is not uniform in its effects. “Students enter learning communities with different goals, different reasons, different attitudes about what helps them learn, and different skills. The learning community experience will clearly enhance and improve the educational experience of some, but can be lost on, even counter-productive, for others.” (p. 263)
This is a robust empirical inquiry of a well-established and carefully designed and executed program. It should cause faculty members involved with learning communities, as well as institutions that have them, not to make assumptions about automatic benefits. It’s a study that shows what should have been suspected from the beginning. Learning communities are a powerful pedagogy, but they are not a cure-all for long-standing problems associated with students who are not well prepared for college or do not accurately expect what it will take to succeed in college.
Reference: Jones, P. R., Laufgraben, J. L., and Morris, N. (2006). Developing an empirically based typology of attitudes of entering students toward participation in learning communities. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31 (3), 249-265.
Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, March 2009.