Nov. 3, 2011

Learning communities

Theresa Windus and Jesudoss Kingston (standing center and right) were among a half dozen chemistry faculty members who joined freshmen from the department's learning community late Tuesday afternoon for an always-humbling game of Pictionary. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Learning communities: They're good for more than freshmen

by Anne Krapfl

Record enrollment this fall, including the largest freshman class ever, led to another record for Iowa State: 4,747 students participating in a learning community, 3,572 of whom are enrolling directly from high school. That's a nearly 11 percent jump in freshman participation this fall for a nationally recognized program now in its 17th year.

Another group Doug Gruenewald would like to get more involved in learning communities isn't actually a student population. It's tenured faculty. "Most faculty tell us it energizes them to spend that extra time with students," said the co-coordinator of learning communities. Others have expressed interest in learning communities when their own children reach college age, or because they find a little extra time for other activities. Gruenewald said sometimes it's just a matter of being asked -- and for the right thing.

"We encourage our coordinators to attend their department meetings and talk about their learning communities. Some faculty just aren't that aware that one exists or what it's doing," he said. "Given two or three specific ways they could be involved, with a specific time commitment, some faculty respond to the ask."

Help a learning community

You don't have to be a coordinator to get involved with a student learning community. Departments have successfully recruited faculty for activities such as:

  • Icebreakers
  • Informal lunches, department picnics or barbecues
  • Campus lectures (attend with students)
  • Service projects
  • Conversations loosely resembling "speed dating" in which students talk briefly with numerous faculty members about their research or careers

Inefficient but important

Associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology James Colbert has been involved with the Biology Education Success Teams (BEST) since the beginning, 1995. This year, he, academic adviser Denise Hix and 15 sophomore peer mentors are working with 160 freshman biology majors. Like most learning communities, they use the department's one-credit orientation course (110) to accomplish some of their goals. But Colbert said that in many ways, the learning community is less structured than it was 15 years ago. The residence hall component, for example, has been dropped. Students choose the activities they participate in and an online management system tracks who does what.

"I've learned that it takes time to get to know students. This isn't efficient," Colbert said. "But it has helped me understand what they're interested in, what they're confused about, where they are in their development as young biologists. And that understanding makes me a much better teacher."

In 1998, after much brain-wracking to find an opportunity for his freshmen that weds service, team building, adventure and biology, Colbert started the Skunk River Navy, named for the east Ames river that benefits from the group's efforts. The navy, assisted by other volunteers, has removed more than 60 tons of trash from the river's watersheds while learning about water quality and land stewardship.

Colbert said the Skunk River Navy is one of his most important accomplishments, professionally, and notes it might never have happened absent a learning community to base it in.

Intentional activities

University Professor of horticulture Gail Nonnecke had a long history with the horticulture learning community before helping organize a learning community ("GLOBE") for a new interdepartmental major in her college, global resource systems, in 2009.

The goal hasn't changed: help students be successful, but the learning community model has evolved over time, Nonnecke said.

"We add things that help them learn. [The changes] are very intentional," she said. For example, peer mentors lead study groups in locations where students live and organize social events for members. Service learning projects -- a local supper and an off-campus rock concert to raise funds for nutrition projects in Uganda, for example -- teach them about solutions to hunger in that part of the African continent, as well as about teamwork.

"Investing in learning communities is really time well spent," Nonnecke said. "When students adjust better to the university, they do better in class. I see that benefit all the time.

"As a faculty member, when you see them again in upper division classes, you know they have the skills, you know they enjoy being here."

Delivering on a pledge

Howard Tyler, an associate professor of animal science, was recruited last fall to help lead another long-standing learning community -- for animal science, dairy science and pre-vet students -- as some of his faculty colleagues move toward retirement. The learning community has experienced about 7 percent growth annually for the last five years, this fall serving about 320 students in 20 peer mentor groups.

"I was not a big fan of learning communities back in the 1990s when they first developed," he said. "I was completely wrong. Learning communities are a real asset to our students and a great mechanism to help keep them in school."

Tyler also happens to be one of the faces for his department during campus visits by prospective students. "I feel an obligation to make sure we're providing students with the experience we said we would," he noted. The learning community helps him do that.

Tyler credits his sophomore peer mentors with being the real eyes and ears of the learning community, but through them "I get to know the needs of all of our students individually, especially our high-risk and high-ability students," he said.

Responding to the ask

Recruited by her chemistry colleague Joe Burnett, professor Theresa Windus was on the team that helped launch a learning community for freshman chemistry majors in the fall of 2010. There have been about 30 members each year.

"We were losing our chemistry majors from fall to spring in their first year, so it was clear we needed to help them acclimate and make the transition a little easier," Windus said. "We'd all heard of learning communities, but one didn't exist in our department."

She readily admits it's time-consuming. "I'm not in it because I have more time. I'm in it because I believe in it. I like to see people in a good state."

Windus co-teaches chemistry 110, which focuses on research and careers in chemistry. Because chemistry majors follow different avenues in their coursework, research is a more logical anchor for the orientation course. Other chemistry faculty come to class to talk about their research programs.

"When we were getting the learning community started, I sent a note to all chemistry faculty asking who wanted to be involved. About a dozen said they would," she recalled. "It takes a community to make a learning community happen."