Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education / Edition 1

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Learning Communities is a groundbreaking book that shows how learning communities (LCs) can be a flexible and effective approach to enhancing student learning, promoting curricular coherence, and revitalizing faculty. Written by Barbara Leigh Smith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick¾acclaimed national leaders in the learning communities movement¾this important book provides the historical, conceptual, and philosophical context for LCs and clearly demonstrates that they can be a key element in institutional transformation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"… the authors provide a lucid and comprehensive overview." (Authors Journal Compilation, Winter 2007)

"…is a superb resource of ideas and experiences worthy of being examined at length." (The Midwest Book Review)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780787910365
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 9/8/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

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 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 twenty years.

Jean MacGregor is a Senior Scholar at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education and teaches in the master of environmental studies program at The Evergreen State College.

Roberta S. Matthews is provost and vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Faith Gabelnick was president emerita of Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon, and president of Gabelnick Consulting Institute.

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Table of Contents


The Authors.

PART ONE: The Contemporary and Historical Context of Learning Communities.

1. Learning Communities and Undergraduate Education Reform.

2. Learning Community History: Education for What? Education for Whom?

PART TWO: Learning Community Structures and Practices.

3. Learning Community Curricular Structures.

4. Core Practices in Learning Communities.

PART THREE: Rich Arenas for Reform.

5. General Education, the First Year of College, and Learning Communities.

6. Success for All: Learning Communities in Basic Skills and English as a Second Language Settings.

PART FOUR: Initiating and Strengthening Learning Communities.

7. Information and Feedback: Using Assessment to Strengthen and Sustain Learning Communities.

8. Recruiting and Supporting Learning Community Teachers.

9. Initiating and Sustaining Learning Communities.

PART FIVE: Conclusion.

10. The Future of Learning Communities.



Name Index.

Subject Index.

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First Chapter

Learning Communities

Reforming Undergraduate Education
By Barbara L. Smith Jean MacGregor Roberta Matthews Faith Gabelnick

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-1036-8

Chapter One


Vital and successful institutions stand out by their ability to maintain direction and a sense of meaning even amid significant shifts in the social landscape.... Now, however, as major economic and social change shakes American society, higher education is facing serious tests of its resourcefulness. -William M. Sullivan

WE STAND AT AN IMPORTANT JUNCTURE in higher education, a time that calls for new levels of resourcefulness in thinking about undergraduate education and the relationships between the academy and its communities. We know more about what promotes student learning than ever before, but we still face considerable challenges in putting what we know into practice. Our students are increasingly diverse and the ways they attend college have changed dramatically in the last thirty years. The bucolic vision of students attending residential colleges has faded as more and more students commute, often attending two or three different institutions during the postsecondary experience. Many simultaneously hold full-time or part-time jobs and have family obligations. They step in and out of our institutions, combining a community college program with on-line courses and a residential experience. At the sametime, a college education is becoming increasingly important, as our society's expectations for student performance rise and the emphasis grows on the new skills and abilities everyone needs to navigate and succeed in a changing, multicultural world.

Current faculty members, both those who led and those who resisted curricular change for the past twenty-five years, are retiring, offering an unprecedented opportunity to change the face and philosophy of the professoriate. Still, we know that new faculty are being educated in ways similar to their predecessors. Although there has been some progress in shifting the priorities and rewards to teaching, recent studies suggest that research remains a dominant force in the faculty culture. The nature of academic appointments is also changing, raising a host of questions about the implications for undergraduate education and the nature of community on our campuses. The issues of faculty succession and faculty work life thus become linked with educational reform.

We also find ourselves facing enormous political and financial challenges. Many of the publications cited in this chapter point to a financial crisis in higher education. Administrators spend too much time managing declining resources and trying to figure out ways to sustain their institutions. Our society is verging on an economy that requires nearly universal college attendance, while at the same time the prospective student population is the most diverse in our history. Jane Wellman's monograph Weathering the Double Whammy (2003) describes a broad fiscal crisis combined with a minority and immigrant student population that will require larger amounts of financial aid. Thus, access and affordability, hallmark challenges in the late twentieth century, continue to press higher education's social commitment to a better educated society in the twenty-first century. We are being asked to do more with less, to find more effective and less costly ways to improve student learning.

In response to these challenges, learning communities have arisen as one of many reform efforts in undergraduate education. Now offered at more than five hundred colleges and universities, learning communities have become a far-reaching and ambitious movement. Learning communities restructure the curriculum by linking or clustering two or more courses and enrolling a common cohort of students. We believe they are one of the most powerful interventions on the educational landscape because they provide a comprehensive, cost-effective framework for enhancing student learning that is applicable in many different types of institutions. Furthermore, a growing body of research demonstrates their effectiveness in addressing a variety of issues, from student retention to curricular coherence to faculty revitalization. Learning communities have much in common with many other reform efforts in their aspirations for and assumptions about what promotes student learning. Indeed, they provide a structural platform for integrating many of these other reform efforts, such as service learning, collaborative learning, and various inquiry-based approaches to learning.

In this chapter we explore the higher education landscape and the challenges that the academy now faces. This discussion is essential to understanding why higher education is at such an important juncture. We then turn to recent calls for reform that, as we shall see, make increasingly convergent recommendations. Taking on change in a time of limited resources is difficult but necessary. Clearly, we need ways to learn to do our work better and more effectively, to help students become better learners. The chapter concludes by explaining how reforming undergraduate education through learning communities has emerged as one way of accomplishing this.

Challenges to the Academy

New Colleges, New Students, New Challenges

In the last four decades higher education in the United States has been transformed through a dramatic increase in the number and types of colleges and universities and a corresponding increase in student enrollment. The expansion of the higher education system has created unprecedented opportunities for place-bound students. Enrollment in two-year colleges went from fewer than half a million in 1960 to four million in 1980 (Kerr, 1990). Half of all students in the United States today spend their freshman year in a community college. At the same time, institutions of all types have become more comprehensive and wide-ranging in their curricular offerings. Although state-supported colleges and universities educate a growing proportion of all students, new types of institutions have also appeared. Nontraditional progressive colleges, for-profit colleges and universities, and institutions that use technology as their primary mode of instruction have emerged. In addition, many existing colleges and universities have reexamined their missions. In America's research universities, where one-third of all undergraduates earn their baccalaureate degree, undergraduate education has clearly become a greater priority although the reach of the reform efforts falls well short of our aspirations (Reinventing Undergraduate Education, 2001; O'Connor and others, 2003). Many other four-year colleges and universities have crafted new mission statements. The result has been the identification of new sectors in higher education-from "the urban university" to "the new American college" to "the public liberal arts college" (Spear and others, 2003).

As higher education has expanded, the student body has become much larger and more diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and cultural background (Marcy, 2002; Newton, 2000). Now only 16 percent of the student population may be described as "traditional"-that is, ages eighteen to twenty-two, attending college full-time, and living on campus. Many now attend college part-time. More than 70 percent work, and 41 percent are over age twenty-five (Marcy, 2002). Many of these new students are the first generation in their family to attend college. The majority of the new students are women.

Patterns of college attendance have also changed. Largely commuter institutions have become a pervasive force in higher education, raising pressing issues about how to create a meaningful academic community in a nonresidential, transitory setting. Even more problematic when it comes to maintaining academic community and coherence is the precipitous decline in the number of students who attend only one college for all four years. Few students now graduate from the institution at which they began their college career.

The fates of the two-year and four-year colleges have become intertwined, and issues of transfer and interinstitutional articulation are increasingly important. To complicate matters further, recent studies show that students do not flow logically from high school to college or from two-year to four-year institutions (Ewell, 2002c; Adelman, 1999). In fact, there is substantial lateral movement across four-year institutions and considerable reverse transfer between two-year and four-year schools. Meanwhile, relationships between colleges and high schools have become increasingly complicated. Widespread reform efforts in primary and secondary education are aiming for higher levels of student achievement, and a number of "early college" efforts are demonstrating ways to integrate the high school and college experiences and increase college attainment rates (Hoffman, 2003). At the same time, expectations for students are rising as our society becomes increasingly dependent on the kinds of knowledge and skill that are gained through higher education. In fact, the Association of American Colleges and Universities asserts that we are verging on universal college attendance as a college degree becomes the equivalent of a high school education one hundred years ago (Greater Expectations, 2002).

The challenges of educating a new generation of learners become apparent when we tackle the issues of student preparation and achievement, the mismatch between student and faculty expectations, and the differences between what colleges think is important and what parents and employers want. Although American higher education is often said to be the envy of the world, the level of student achievement and preparation needs to improve. Many statistics indicate this to be the case:

Although high school graduates may have taken the correct number of courses to graduate, more often than not they are not the right courses for pursuing postsecondary education. "About 50 percent of all first-time community college students test as underprepared for the academic demands of college-level courses.... This percentage ... has not changed significantly across the United States in at least two decades" (Roueche and Roueche, 1999, p. 5).

Students' academic preparedness is down on a variety of measures, but students' confidence in their abilities is higher than ever (Hansen, 1998).

"While participation rates in higher education have increased, the gaps between high and low income levels and college completion rates have not changed" (Roueche and Roueche, 1999, p. 3). In addition, "numerically, minority students are less equal now than they were thirty years ago on the criterion that really matters: college graduation" (Renner, 2003, p. 40).

As Karen and Karl Schilling point out, we need to look at expectations for effort and engagement if we are to improve student learning. Their research at seven institutions demonstrates a substantial mismatch between student and faculty expectations for academic work outside class, with faculty expecting three times more time on task than students report actually undertaking. Perhaps most significantly, the patterns of first-year student time investment seem to be durable across the four years, implying that the freshman year is an important place to set expectations and study habits (Schilling and Schilling, 1999). The 2002 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) annual national survey of students corroborates these findings that students are studying less than ever, declining to an all-time low of 33 percent devoting six or more hours per week to studying (Higher Education Research Institute [HERI], 2003). This recent CIRP survey also indicates that trends among students show "grade inflation, increasing financial concerns, heightened stress, academic and political disengagement, declining social activism, and record-level volunteerism" (HERI, 2003, p. 16).

There is a growing demand from employers and parents and from inside the academy itself for a new kind of education that has higher expectations (Greater Expectations, 2002; Jones, 2003). Many are calling for a practical education that increases students' capacities for dealing with a rapidly changing world. They emphasize teamwork and collaboration and developing problem-solving skills rather than memorization and the accumulation of facts that will soon become obsolete. Often referred to as "lifelong learning" or "deep learning," these capacities have become imperatives in our rapidly changing society. In fact, the new research in cognitive science suggests that lifelong learning is also fundamental to our long-term health (Quartz and Sejnowski, 2002).

The Changing Face of the Faculty and Faculty Work Life

Over the past thirty years both the nation's faculty and faculty work life have undergone enormous change. After the large-scale expansion of the higher education system in the 1960s and 1970s, the academy is now in the midst of another shift as large numbers of faculty retire. In fact, more than one-third of the faculty turned over in the 1990s. In a significant study of the entering cohort, Finkelstein, Seal, and Schuster (1998) noted that this new generation is markedly different from the previous generation: these individuals are much more diverse, international, and female, and fewer are based in traditional liberal arts fields. An increasing number come to full-time positions after years of part-time work, and others come from outside the academy altogether.

Surprisingly, however, despite years of national attention on improving teaching and learning and rebalancing faculty roles and rewards, the new cohort is even more research-oriented than their predecessors (Finkelstein, Seal, and Schuster, 1998; O'Meara and Rice, 2004). In general, the new cohort does not differ markedly from their predecessors in relying on traditional lecture-based pedagogies, although women faculty have been found to spend more time with students and rely less on lecturing (Finkelstein, Seal, and Schuster, 1998). This information is corroborated by other recent studies of the freshman year that indicate a growing mismatch between students and faculty, with students reporting that most classes are lecture-based whereas they prefer more experiential approaches (Sax, 2000).

The structure of academic appointments is also changing. More faculty members are being hired to part-time and non-tenure-track appointments. This trend is expected to continue, raising concerns about equity, self-governance, and the ability to build strong local communities of faculty. "The faculty" is becoming a vast territory including different types of appointments with little systematic attention paid to supporting the needs of all.


Excerpted from Learning Communities by Barbara L. Smith Jean MacGregor Roberta Matthews Faith Gabelnick Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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