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Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities is the long awaited follow-up to the groundbreaking book Creating Learning Communities. The authors continue their exploration of the concept of learning communities as an innovation in undergraduate curricular instruction that allow students to actively participate in their own education, and deepen and diversify their college experience. Jodi Levine Laufgraben and Nancy S. Shapiro address a wide range of topics such as campus culture for sustaining learning communities, learning communities and the curriculum, pedagogies, and faculty development.
Learning community programs have steadily increased in number as more institutions have recognized learning communities as effective structures for promoting curricular coherence, deeper learning, and community among students and teachers. The shape of higher education has also adjusted to the new realities of shifting demographics and economics. Surveys have just begun to track the pervasiveness of learning communities in higher education. A 2002 national survey of first-year academic practices conducted by the Policy Center on the First Year of College found that 62 percent of responding institutions reported "enrolling at least some cohorts of students into two or more courses" (Barefoot, 2002).
College guides now recognize that many colleges and universities have changed the way they do business in terms of the delivery of academic programs and support resources. Several now include features and rankings that identify programs, including learning communities that promote more meaningful undergraduate experiences. The U.S. News & World Report 2003 Guide to America's Best Colleges featured a new section on "Programs That Really Work," including a ranking of twenty-four learning communities initiatives. In a 2001 issue, Time honored four colleges that "know how tohelp newcomers survive and thrive" (McGrath, 2001, p. 3). Learning communities are described as one approach that improves first-year student persistence, and Seattle Central Community College was profiled for its extensive efforts on behalf of learning communities.
Several national survey instruments, including the National Survey of Student Engagement and the First-Year Initiative Survey, now include questions to identify students participating in learning communities so the impact of participation can be explored in depth. Results from the 2001 First-Year Initiative (FYI) Survey showed that linking first-year seminars with other academic courses reveals some advantages. In the pilot administration of the FYI instrument, 11 percent of participating campuses reported linking 80 percent or more of their first-year seminars to other courses. An additional 16 percent of survey participants linked 20 to 79 percent of their sections. When controlling for "required" (if seminar required), grading, content, and theme, sections of first-year seminars linked to learning communities had greater learning outcomes for academic skills, study skills, critical thinking, and engaging pedagogy (Swing, 2002).
What Is a Learning Community?
In Creating Learning Communities, we described several uses of the term "learning communities" (Shapiro and Levine, 1999). The intent was to illustrate that, within the universe of learning communities, there is a sense that no "one size fits all," and classifications, as well as models of learning communities, vary as needed to adapt to distinct campus cultures. In both Creating Learning Communities and this book, however, the focus is on curricular learning communities. As a common reference point, we offer the often-cited definition from the 1990 Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith monograph, Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines: "... any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses-or actually restructure the material entirely-so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise" (p. 19).
Recently, this definition has been revised to place greater emphasis on the curricular nature of learning communities and the intentional restructuring of teaching and learning experiences for students and faculty: "In higher education, curricular learning communities are classes that are linked or clustered during an academic term, often around an interdisciplinary theme, and enroll a common cohort of students. A variety of approaches are used to build these learning communities, with all intended to restructure the students' time, credit, and learning experiences to build community among students, between students and their teachers, and among faculty members and disciplines" (National Learning Communities Project website.
Learning communities initiatives share several basic characteristics. Learning Communities
Organize students and faculty into smaller groups
Encourage integration of the curriculum
Help students establish academic and social support networks
Provide a setting for students to be socialized to the expectations of college
Bring faculty together in more meaningful ways
Focus faculty and students on learning outcomes
Provide a setting for community-based delivery of academic support programs
Offer a critical lens for examining the first-year experience (Shapiro and Levine, 1999, p. 3)
If you scan the websites or literature of many learning community programs, you will find mission or goal statements that include many of these characteristics. Table 1.1 includes some examples.
Learning communities can take different forms and be located in different places in the academic program. There are, however, four commonly described approaches or models for configuring learning communities: (1) paired or clustered courses, (2) cohorts in large courses or FIGs (freshman interest groups), (3) team-taught programs, and (4) residence-based learning communities, models that intentionally link the classroom-based learning community with a residential life component. The Learning Communities Directory maintained by the National Learning Communities Project in partnership with the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education at the Evergreen State College is a useful resource for locating examples of learning community programs.
Paired or Clustered Courses
Paired- or clustered-course learning communities link individually taught courses through cohort and often block scheduling (scheduling of courses in back-to-back time slots). The paired-course model links two courses and is considered a basic approach to learning communities in terms of curricular integration. A paired-course learning community typically enrolls a group of twenty to thirty students in two courses. Offerings tend to be existing courses that traditionally enroll significant numbers of first-year students. One of the two courses in the pairing is usually a basic composition or communications course. These courses tend to be more interdisciplinary in nature and promote a classroom environment in which students and faculty get to know each other (Levine Laufgraben, 2004; MacGregor, Smith, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2002; Shapiro and Levine, 1999).
In paired-course learning communities, classes are often linked based on logical curricular connections and skill areas. For example, a pairing of calculus with general chemistry can promote scientific discovery and quantitative reasoning skills, whereas a pairing of Introduction to Sociology and College Writing could emphasize exploration of the self and society. Pairings might also include a section of a one- to three-credit student success or first-year experience course.
Clusters expand the paired-course model by linking three or four individually taught courses around a theme. Clusters are often small and usually enroll cohorts of twenty to thirty students. One course tends to be a writing course, and the cluster usually includes a weekly seminar. The weekly seminar plays an important role in helping students and faculty build curricular connections between the courses. These seminars are ideal settings for synthesis and community-building activities. Some cluster models include larger lecture-type courses in which the student cohort enrolls as a subset but then also enrolls in a smaller cluster-only seminar or writing class.
Cohorts in Large Courses
These learning communities are often referred to as "FIGs"-freshman interest groups. FIGs are the simplest model in terms of organization and cost (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith, 1990). This approach works well at large universities or at other institutions where freshmen are typically enrolled in at least one or two large lecture courses in which the learning communities students represent a subset of the total enrollment. When a large lecture course also requires enrollment in a smaller recitation or discussion session, FIG students are typically enrolled in a designated learning community section. In addition to one or two large courses, FIGs typically include a smaller writing course and a weekly seminar limited to FIG students. An undergraduate peer teacher typically leads the weekly seminar (Levine Laufgraben, 2004; MacGregor, Smith, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2002; Shapiro and Levine, 1999).
A less commonly used approach is the federated learning community in which student cohorts enroll in larger courses along with a teacher who serves as master learner. The federated learning community integrates courses around a theme. The master learner facilitates a weekly seminar to help students synthesize what they are learning. The master learner usually has no teaching responsibilities beyond the federated learning community (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith, 1990).
Team-taught learning communities, also called coordinated studies programs, enroll varying numbers of students in two or more courses organized around an interdisciplinary theme. Team-taught programs represent the most extensive approach in terms of curricular integration and faculty involvement. Some require full-time faculty and student involvement, but participation can also be part-time, involving two to five courses. On many campuses, the learning community constitutes students' entire schedules for at least one semester and sometimes an entire academic year.
Themes are faculty-generated and interdisciplinary. Themes can be broad and liberal arts based, emphasize skill development in related disciplines, or prepare students for study or practice in professions. Small group discussion sections are an important part of the community. Students and a faculty member break off into smaller groups to build upon what is being learned in the other courses in the community or discuss assigned texts (book seminars).
Total community enrollment varies but can range from forty to seventy-five students. In larger team-taught programs, the cohort is often subdivided into smaller seminar groups to achieve a faculty-to-student ratio of one faculty member to twenty or twenty-five students (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith, 1990). Due to increasing fiscal pressures, typical enrollment in these programs are now more likely to be closer to seventy-five students and three teachers, with a teacher-student ratio of twenty-five to one (Levine Laufgraben, 2004; MacGregor, Smith, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2002; Shapiro and Levine, 1999).
A fourth approach to learning communities, residence-based programs, involves the adaptation of a particular curricular model to include a residential component. (Chapter Eight discusses living-learning programs in greater detail.) A primary goal of residence-based education is the integration of students' living and academic environments. Residence-based learning communities go beyond assigning students with similar majors to the same floor of a residence hall. In residence-based learning communities, intentionally organized student cohorts enroll in specified curricular offerings and reside in dedicated living space.
Residence-based learning communities are designed to integrate diverse curricular and co-curricular experiences. For this reason, residence-based learning communities may be the most radical of the four learning communities approaches because they require change within multiple university systems: curriculum, teaching, and housing (Shapiro and Levine, 1999). The curricular component of residence-based programs typically resembles one of the three learning communities approaches described above: clusters, FIGS, or team-taught programs. Academic and co-curricular community activities are scheduled in residence halls, and in many instances classes actually meet in classrooms located in residential spaces (Levine Laufgraben, 2004; MacGregor, Smith, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2002; Shapiro and Levine, 1999).
Why Learning Communities? Understanding Learning Communities in the Current Context of Undergraduate Education
The rational for learning communities is discussed in greater detail in Creating Learning Communities (Shapiro and Levine, 1999). The justification for learning communities, however, is also raised in this chapter, in the context of program improvement and sustainability, since more recent reports and research point to the ongoing need for reform in undergraduate education. Understanding the structure and purpose of learning communities helps explain why learning communities are a particularly useful curricular model for the current context of undergraduate education. For the past ten years, higher education has been coming to terms with a new reality. Funding challenges include rising tuition, skyrocketing enrollment projections, and diminishing state funding for public institutions. There is also pressure from business and industry to focus on workforce development in place of traditional liberal education values.
The past several decades have led to a growing universality for higher education, which has resulted in a rapidly changing demographic profile. More than 70 percent of all high school graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education. About one-third of all students in four-year institutions begin their college careers in community colleges, and many students enrolling in four-year programs take one or more courses at colleges other than the one from which they graduate (Adelman, 1999).
While more students aspire to attend college, research suggests that fewer and fewer are prepared to succeed. Forty percent of students in four-year institutions take remedial courses, and more than 60 percent of community college students require remedial education (Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio, 2003). The implications of these realities for students lead more institutions to consider cohort models, such as learning communities, to bridge the gap between what students bring to college and what they expect to take with them when they leave.
Excerpted from Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities by Jodi Levine Laufgraben Nancy S. Shapiro Excerpted by permission.
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1. Introduction: The What and Why of Learning Communities.
2. A Campus Culture for Sustaining Learning Communities (Anne Goodsell Love).
3. Planning and Assessing the Curriculum.
4. Pedagogy That Builds Community (Jodi Levine Laufgraben, Daniel Tompkins).
5. Faculty Development.
6. Developing Purposeful and Focused Assessment.
7. Approaching Diversity Through Learning Communities (Emily Decker Lardner).
8. Sustaining Living-Learning Programs (David Schoem).
9. Next Steps: Expanding Our Understanding of Communities of Learning.