Learning Communities

Summary of reform: "A 'learning community' is a deliberate restructuring of the curriculum to build a community of learners among students and faculty. Learning communities generally structure the curriculum so that students are actively engaged in a sustained academic relationsh with other students and faculty over a longer period of their time than is possible in traditional courses." (Smith and Hunter, 1988).

Learning communities are curricular structures that promote academic success by emphasizing student-student and faculty-student interaction and interdisciplinary linkage of courses. Essentially classes are linked around an interdisciplinary theme like poverty. While programs vary in form and content, they represent an intentional restructuring of students¹ time and credit to foster greater intellectual connections between students, students and faculty and between disciplines. Learning communities help students to make transition from secondary to postsecondary environment. They focus on improving the quality of learning -- the process -- not just content or outcomes. Linked classes can be required or not required; required linked classes seem to be more successful. Prevalent most among introductory writing, mathematics, and introductory survey courses. Learning communities are difficult to develop within decentralized environments since requires centralized planning of linking courses; much learning community activity has taken place within community colleges. Learning communities help to change culture of an institution toward collaboration between academic and student affairs and among faculty in terms of shared teaching, syllabi, and student problems. Learning communities can in institutional partnerships, so the impact is not only on students but faculty, but also administrators and institutional culture.

Connection to other reforms: Collaborative Learning, Technology, Science Reforms, Faculty Peer Review
Model Institutions: University of Washington, Seattle Central Community College, La Guardia Community College, University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Houston, Portland State, Maryville (St. Louis), Maricopa Community College

Web Site:
Types of institutions: multiple institution types
Duration: About twelve years.
Source list of institutions: Washington Center
Contact for further information: Jean MacGregor, Co-director for the Washington Center, and Barbara Leigh Smith, Academic Dean at Evergreen State College and Director of the Washington Center

Level of institutionalization: Structural and curricular changes are necessary to create learning communities so institutional commitment tends to be strong.

Outcomes: Students feel more motivated and empowered (Smith and Hunter, 1988). Student retention of content and institutional retention of students both improve within learning communities. Students develop peer groups and friendships, including students who commute and are not on the campus in a traditional full-time fashion; students are better to integrate social and academic needs and meet both (Tinto and Russo, 1994). Faculty lose isolation within their teaching roles, and feel that they (in collaboration with others) have more curricular control.

Process: Students and faculty members form clusters of courses that allow interlinking of material or ideas between the courses. The courses typically cover diverse subject areas (such as an English course, a current events course, and a science course), though they may also cover related areas (calculus, science, and English). Students pursue group work and coordinated projects to develop skills beyond rote memorization. Faculty learn more about students through extended interaction.

Target of Reform: Both students and faculty

K-12 parallel: Mimic secondary smaller environments

Origination of reform: Institutional

Support: Other government support

Linking Characteristic 1: linking or integrating

Linking Characteristic 2: collaboration

Linking Characteristic 3: making environments smaller

Linking Characteristic 4: student centered

Assessment? Yes

Description of assessment: Vincent Tinto, Pat Russo, Anne Goodsell, and Jean MacGregor have done several studies to illustrate the benefits of learning communities to student outcomes. Some institutions are assessing their individual learning communities such as Temple University, Seattle Central, and the University of Washington see Tinto and Russell, 1993; Tinto and Goodsell, 1993; and Levine and Tompkins, 1996. Washington Center has a 1991 publication that outlines several assessment projects of learning communities. The National Center on Postsecondary Teaching Learning and Assessment performed a seris of studies on collaborative learning, including learning communities.

Resistances: Some resistance exists, due to the perceived need for extensive additional resources to make structural changes. Some faculty resist teaching classes in residence halls, team-teaching or working collaboratively.

Evolution/History: Learning communities evolved out of the concept of living and learning environments. What makes this reform distinct is that it focuses more on curricular and pedagogical changes that enhance linking and coordinating of curriculum rather than out-of-classroom experiences.

Many western cluster colleges (UC-Santa Cruz, Johnston College of the University of Redlands) were formed in the 1970s (Thompson, 1973). These colleges incorporated fewer rank distinctions among faculty and students, fewer and broader departments, and worked to personalize the educational experience for the student, as well as allow students the "opportunity... to discover the nature of society - its history, variations, needs, future patterns." (Thompson, 1973). Learning contracts took the place of grades, allowing students to make an agreement of what they would pursue through a course, and instructors the opportunity to provide more in-depth evaluation of student work at the end of the course.


Major sources:

Davis, David J. The Cluster College Revisited: A Dream Falls on Hard Times. College Teaching 33(1), 15-20.

Gabelnick, Faith, MacGregor, Jean, Matthews, Roberta, and Smith, Barbara Leigh (1990). Learning Communities: Building Connections among Disciplines, Students and Faculty. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 41. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Gaff, Jerry G., et. al. (1980) The Cluster College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Finley, Nancy (1991). What Differences Do Learning Communities Make with Faculty? An Inside-Out View: Conversations about Curriculum Reform at Seattle Central. WashingtonCenter News, 6 (1).

Levine, Jodi H. and Tomkins, Daniel P. (1996). Making Learning Communities Work: Seven Lessons From Temple University. AAHE Bulletin 3(June), 3-6. -

MacGregor, Jean. (1991). What Differences Do Learning Communities Make? WashingtonCenter News, 6 (1), 4-9.

Matthews, Roberta. (1986). Learning Communities in the Community College. Community, Technical and Junior College Journal, 57(2).

Matthews, Roberta S., Smith, Barbara Leigh, MacGregor, Jean and Gabelnick, Faith. (1996). Chapter 22, Creating Learning Communities. Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Pursposes, Structures, Practices, and Change.

Ryan, Mark. B. (1992). Residential Colleges: A Legacy of Living and Learning Together. Change 26-35.

Smith, Barbara Leigh. (1991). Taking Structure Seriously. Liberal Education, 77(2).

Smith, Barbara Leigh, and Hunter, Rosetta (1988). Learning Communities: A Paradigm for Educational Revitalization. Community College Review, 15(4).

Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in Higher Education (1984). Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education.

Sullivan, Claire F. (1990). Freshman Interest Groups at the University of Washington: Building Community for Freshmen at a Large University. WashingtonCenter News, 4 (2), 1- 8.

Thompson, Lyle. (1973). Johnston College: An In-Depth Description of a Successful Experiment. AAUP Bulletin 59 (December), 411-418.

Tinto, Vincent, and Russo, Pat (1994). Coordinated Studies Program: The Effect on Student Involvement in a Community College. Community College Review.

Tollefson, Gary. (1991). What Differences Do Learning Communities Make? An Outside-In View: Faculty Views of Collaborative Learning Communities in Washington Community Colleges. WashingtonCenter News, 6 (1), 4-9.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. (1991). Assessment And Learning Communities: Taking Stock After Six Years. WashingtonCenter News, 6 (1), 1- 3.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. (1990). What¹s Happening: Learning Community Programs and Faculty Exchanges at Participating Institutions. WashingtonCenter News, 4 (2), 17-19.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. (1990). Learning Communities Taking Root. WashingtonCenter News, 4 (2), 1-5.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. (1990). Scenes from the Washington Center Conference: Learning Communities: Creating Connections among Students, Faculty and Disciplines, February 11-12, 1994. WashingtonCenter News, 4 (2), 18-19.

Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. (1990). Comments on 10 Years of Learning Community Work in Washington by Kibitzers at the February 1994 Learning Community Conference. WashingtonCenter News, 4 (2), 20-25.

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