May 19, 2011

ISU learning communities: A 71 percent capture rate and growing

by Anne Krapfl

Students don't pay any additional fees to belong to one, but history shows a learning community goes a long way in their academic success at Iowa State. In a recent 15-year recap, the average one-year retention rate for Iowa State freshmen in learning communities is 8 percentage points higher (89 percent vs. 81 percent) than those not in a learning community. The average six-year graduation rate is 12 percentage points higher (74 percent vs. 62 percent).

Most students come to college with two big questions: Can I handle the academics? Will I make friends?
"Learning communities create this intentional environment for students to be successful at both of those."

-- Doug Gruenewald, Learning Communities co-director

That kind of news is spreading. Last fall, nearly three out of every four freshmen (71 percent) participated in one of Iowa State's 84 learning communities. The rates vary among Iowa State's undergraduate colleges, from 98 percent in Design, to about 44 percent in Liberal Arts and Sciences. (Recall that undeclared students enroll in that college; those without a major are less likely to identify a learning community.) In between were Business (54 percent), Human Sciences (74 percent), and Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences (about 86 percent each).

Students don't use words like "retention" or "engagement" when they talk about the perks of belonging to a learning community. For them, it's much more day-to-day, and in an end-of-year survey, they offered "sense of comfort," "making connections," "opportunity to meet many people," "learn and have fun with people in my major," and "share information and experiences" as key benefits.

Most students come to college with two big questions: Can I handle the academics? Will I make friends? Thirteen-year co-director of learning communities Doug Gruenewald said, "Learning communities create this intentional environment for students to be successful at both of those."

Communities that persevere

Some of Iowa State's current learning communities -- such as BEST (Biology Education Success Teams), BLT (Business Learning Teams), WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) or First-Year Honors -- date all the way back to fall 1995, the beginning of the tradition at this university. Others from that era dissolved, typically just not reassigned when the coordinator left Iowa State. Some don't hold student interest over time.

"We like to encourage [staff and faculty] to experiment and be creative," Gruenewald said. "That means some will disappear and new ones will emerge."

He said he expects Iowa State to field 85 or 86 learning communities this fall, the 17th fall of the program. Students in the 20 or so in which members live on the same residence hall floor sign up for a learning community at the time they commit to on-campus housing. Most sign up during June orientation when they meet with their academic advisers, although some learning communities add members through the first week of fall classes.

Staff have been preparing for them much longer. Annually, during a February-March time window, learning community coordinators apply for funding from a central pool. Awards typically range from $2,000 to $20,000. Gruenewald estimates that 60-65 percent of funds pay the salaries of peer mentors -- sophomores or juniors who are the workhorses of learning communities. They coordinate the frequent study groups and out-of-class field trips, whether co-curricular or social, and some help teach class sections.

"Every learning community has mentors," Gruenewald said. "They're an incredible resource for our students. But learning communities also provide valuable leadership training for the mentors."

Self assessment: strengths

U.S. News and World Report's 2011 "College Compass" includes Iowa State in the top 24 learning community programs among all U.S. colleges and universities. Gruenewald's co-director Steve Mickelson told those attending last week's annual Learning Communities Institute "we think we're in the top five."

Gruenewald quickly ticked off what he sees as strengths of Iowa State's program:

  • Lots of assessment, from the beginning. "We try to share and publish a lot of that."
  • Strong peer mentor component. There will be more than 300 peer mentors involved this fall; in most cases they're alumni of the learning community they serve.
  • A "true" academic affairs-student affairs partnership -- in funding, administration and policymaking. "Everyone is working together on a seamless experience for students."
  • Dedication of learning community coordinators.
  • Involvement and cooperation from the beginning in the registrar's office (necessary to place learning community members in the same class sections). "The attitude here has been, 'We can make this work' -- and that's not so at other schools."
  • The focus remains on learning (not social experiences or creating a club-like environment)
  • Longevity of leadership. Gruenewald and professor of human development and family studies Corly Brooke co-directed the program for 10 years. Longtime learning communities champion Mickelson succeeded Brooke. Vice president for student affairs Tom Hill and presidents Martin Jischke and Gregory Geoffroy have promoted learning communities as well.

Looking ahead

For all its steady and sustained growth, learning communities at Iowa State still have room for expansion, Gruenewald said. He identified three goals: Capture more transfer students, identify more interdisciplinary themes and involve more faculty members.

Transfer students are as at risk as first-year students when they arrive on campus, he said, but only 23 percent participate in a learning community. Last fall, seven learning communities were designated just for transfer students and another 20 included transfer students among their members.

"We'll continue to look at that group and find ways to better meet their needs," Gruenewald said.

Sustainability is one interdisciplinary or themed idea for a learning community being investigated, he said. The seven-year-old entrepreneurship learning community is an earlier example.

"Themes give us the potential to do almost anything. We need to ask ourselves what students are interested in and find appropriate leaders for that," Gruenewald said.

A challenge to the learning communities program that isn't likely to go away is making involvement rewarding for faculty members.

"In the faculty rewards structure, there's a perception that this isn't something they should focus on," he said. Two strategies could help.

"We have had some faculty tell us, 'No one ever asked me.' So we know that once they've been exposed to the idea and have some understanding, they are more likely to get involved."

Gruenewald said he also has learned what to ask faculty for. A special discussion over the lunch hour with students about his or her area of expertise will be received better than, say, an invitation to play volleyball in the evening.