Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
April 18, 1997

Learning communities worth the growing pain

by Anne Dolan
Learning communities bring growing pains for the schools that organize them, but worthwhile paybacks in student success and student retention rates, agreed participants at a half-day symposium April 11. The symposium was sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence and brought together ISU faculty and staff and leaders of learning community programs at several universities.

While there is no "right" way to set up learning communities, generally first-year students with similar academic or career plans are grouped in a cluster of courses to encourage them to learn together. Faculty cooperate to integrate the content of the courses in a cluster.

Learning team members often live together in the same residence hall. To work well, learning community programs require a buy-in not only from students and faculty, but from student affairs staff, the registrar's office and, where applicable, residence staff, learning team members said.

At Iowa State, learning communities have been growing since 1995, when 342 students were involved in 20 teams. Next fall, there will be at least 48 teams, involving more than 680 students, according to assistant registrar Laura Doering. She estimates that 21 of those will bring teams together in residence halls. This year, 96 faculty members taught class sections that were at least partially filled with students from learning teams.

"There's a lot of give and take between faculty and residence hall people, and the details of our program still are evolving," said Steven Bauman, a member of the math faculty and the Bradley Learning Community at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Bradley is named for the 240-bed residence hall in which the program has been based for the last two years.

After two years, a community has been built at Bradley, Bauman said. "The down side is that it's difficult to be intruded on, to send in new faculty who haven't been through the war," he said.

Freshman learning communities at Temple University, Philadelphia began in 1993. About 60 percent of Temple learning teams are organized around a composition course and the others, around a math course, said Daniel Tompkins, a faculty fellow in the program. Typically, three courses are offered sequentially to team members.

Learning teams create scheduling headaches and Tompkins noted a cooperative, innovative registrar is essential. Other tips he offered were to provide supplemental instruction in courses with high failure rates and peer advising by undergraduates.

Tompkins also said it's essential that faculty work together to integrate course content.

Marty Townsend, director of the Campus Writing Program at the University of Missouri, Columbia, said faculty who "just don't get it" block the effectiveness of learning communities. Some faculty see only the academic goals and benefits of learning communities and see little value in the social component of the structure, she said.

Missouri organized Freshman Interest Groups in 1993. This fall, there will be 55 groups for more than 800 incoming freshmen at the university. Townsend said the learning communities help new students feel they belong to a big school, perform better academically and remain enrolled at higher rates than non-group students.

Students choose to join learning communities, but some questioned whether at-risk students are signing up. Universities handle at-risk students differently. For example, at Wisconsin and ISU, at-risk students are not tracked or singled out for their own learning community. Townsend said Missouri wants to do a better job of retaining minority students from the Kansas City area. When at-risk students from this population elect to be in a group, they are placed in groups that receive more guidance and peer and faculty mentoring, she said.

The ISU Registrar's Office has developed a Request and Proposal form and fact sheet called Learning Teams 101 for faculty members who would like to know more about organizing learning teams.

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