Why Learning Communities are a Smart Choice
One of the biggest mistakes I made in college was made before I set foot on campus.
It was the summer between High School and College, and I was at my dad’s house when the phone rang. On the line was a professor from the college I was going to attend, and she wanted to tell me about this wonderful program, a Learning Community.
In this program, she explained, I would take all my classes with the same students. There would be social events that we would attend as a group, and a special floor reserved in the residence hall for the Learning Community students. It sounded interesting, but being a shy and introverted person, I wasn’t really excited about meeting new people. I thought I’d spend my time with my High School friends who were attending the same college. The idea of living together and going to class together with 25 complete strangers sounded terrifying to me.
I said to the professor that I’d think about it, but I really meant “no.”
What I realize now is that I shut myself out of a wonderful experience, and that simple choice made my freshman year a lot harder for me. I was so afraid to be around strangers, that I didn’t understand that by working so closely through the term, I would have made friends. I was so sure that I would continue to spend time with my old friends, that I didn’t think that as they made new friends, I might not always see them.
As my freshman year wore on, I felt more and more isolated, and I spent more and more time visiting my girlfriend at her college, which was a smaller, closer knit community than the one I was enrolled at. Finally, at the end of Freshman year, I transferred to her college. I yearned to be a part of a community, and because of the choice I had made, I wasn’t a part of one at my first college.
Since college, I have gone on to work in the Learning Community movement, and I’ve come to appreciate the depth of my mistake.
Learning Communities are wonderful things. They take many forms. Some include a residential component, others don’t. Some are for incoming freshmen, others for continuing students. Some connect the classroom to student support services such as academic advisors, librarians, peer mentors, or tutors. Some are for special populations, such as ESL students, others are for anyone.
All Lea+rning Communities, regardless of the model they follow or the population they serve, involve some sort of collaborative learning. This usually means that the student registers for two or more linked classes together. The professors in those classes work together to integrate their course material, so what the student learns in one class relates to the material in the other class or classes.
For example, in the Learning Community I work with that is geared toward prospective Nursing students, Freshman English and Anatomy & Physiology are paired with a Freshman seminar course. In the Biology course, the students learn about the systems of the body, including the way the body metabolizes and stores energy as fat, the biological reasons for skin pigmentation, and the way the nervous system functions. In English, the students read books on body image, racism, and a memoir by a woman with a neurological disease. They then write one essay on each of these topics. Each essay incorporates material from both classes and is graded by both professors.
Therefore, these assignments count in both classes. In Freshman seminar, the students choose one of these three essays to do a short presentation on, the focus of which is how what they learned in Bio and English will help them in their careers as health care providers.
Connected Classes in Learning Communities
Learning Communities differ from block programming, even though in both, students register for the same classes together. The key difference is that Learning Communities make more of an effort to intentionally draw connections between the classes in the link.
Professors in Learning Communities invest a great deal of time and energy syncing their classes so that the connections are emphasized. In block programming, students may be taking the same classes together, but since the professors are not coordinating, the connections are not as obviously highlighted.
Some Learning Communities include connections to Student Affairs as well. In the Biology/English Learning Community, the Freshman Seminar course is taught by a Student Affairs professional who also serves as the student’s Academic Advisor. This person helps the student find the resources they need outside the classroom to be successful, and helps them plan what courses they need to take to graduate on time.
Other Learning communities can connect with Residence Life staff, Career Counselors, Peer Mentors, or just about anyone else you can think of on campus.
Learning Communities are found at all different kinds of colleges. There are Learning Communities at Public colleges and Private colleges, large colleges and small colleges, Community Colleges and Four-year Colleges. Some colleges, like Wagner College, even require that all students register for one Learning Community in their first year.
Why are Learning Communities so prevalent? Because they work. Research has shown consistently that students who take classes in a Learning Community move through remediation quicker, and graduate at a higher rate than their counterparts who do not take classes in a Learning Community. One study done at Kingsborough Community College found that students who participated in a Learning Community in their first semester were a little more likely to transfer and earn a Bachelor’s degree than students who didn’t take the Learning Community.
Students in Learning Communities connect with faculty, staff, and each other in a unique and lasting way. This past week, I was walking across campus with one of my former Learning Community students, when another student from the Learning Community came up to us. He wanted to catch up, but he also wanted to see if we had heard anything from another student from the Learning Community, who had been struggling with some family issues. I was struck by how even though these three students had only been in class together for a short time, they were good friends who look out for one another and support each other in their challenges through college. That sort of connection and community is something I could have used in my Freshman Year.
So if you’re a prospective college student, and someone offers you the chance to join a Learning Community, I hope you’ll take it. You will make stronger connections with your classmates, you will learn material in those classes better and more deeply, and you will be giving yourself a powerful tool that will help you persist and graduate.
George J Hill is an Academic Advisor and Freshman Seminar instructor in the Opening Doors Learning Communities at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY. George has an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University in Higher and Postsecondary Education, and a B.A. in English from the College of Mount St. Vincent. He serves on the planning committee for the Atlantic Center for Learning Communities, and is the Higher Education Admin for Teachers, a Facebook Community page with 45,000 followers.