Learning communities help academics

Currently, the University has more than 20 living and learning communities.

by Holly Miller

Move-in day at University residential halls can be hectic, but for 1,000 first-year University students who move into a learning community, at least they know they’ll have one thing in common.

Currently, the University offers more than 20 living and learning communities ranging from language houses to the biology house, grouping together students with common interests.

In November 2006, the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition conducted its seventh national survey of first-year seminar programming (ex. seminar courses and learning communities) in American higher education. More than 2600 institutions received invitations to participate in the survey.

41.2% report improved peer connections
38% report increased student satisfaction with institution
33.7% report increased use of campus services
33.8% report increased out-of-class faculty/student interaction
32.4% report increased level of student participation in campus activities

And recent research suggests these communities may do more than just help students find a buddy.

A study conducted by the nonprofit research organization MDRC found first-year students at community colleges who participate in learning communities are significantly more likely to succeed academically at the college level.

The study found that first-year students enrolled in learning communities pass more classes and earn more credits their first semester than those who aren’t involved.

Though the research conducted pertains to community colleges, Mannix Clark, University Associate Department Director of Housing & Residential Life, said the findings are similar to what he’s seen at four-year institutions.

“The students living in living and learning communities, the last time we checked, their GPAs were a little bit higher than those who just lived on campus and off-campus,” he said.

University learning communities are designed to provide a variety of educational, social and developmental programs and services to help with the transition to college.

But not all students have found the communities overly helpful in their transition to college.

First-year architecture student Anthony Averbeck signed up to be a part of a living and learning community hoping to find his niche on a large, urban campus, but all he found was “a good study space.”

“It hasn’t done as much as I thought it would,” he said. “It’s a good thing to have a distinction with who you live with and who you take classes with, but as far as being different from regular college life I’m sure it’s not that much different.”

Averbeck, who lives in the Honors housing, said he does agree students involved in the living and learning communities probably have better GPAs, but expected more exclusive activities to be offered.

“With our GPAs I can see that because the general atmosphere on the floor is geared toward more studying and less partying,” he said. “But, as far as being involved in other things, I don’t really know if they put an emphasis on that.”

Clark, however, said the level of activity can vary from community to community.

Lisa Sass Zaragoza, a member of the planning community for the Casa Sol living and learning community, said those involved with Casa Sol aim to provide academic support as well as social and cultural activities.

Collaboration between the department of Chicano studies and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, the Casa Sol community revolves around the lived experience of Hispanics in the United States.

“It is a way to make the University smaller. The ‘U’ is so big,” she said. “It is a way to make it smaller, and make it smaller in a social cultural context.”

Clark said the issue of learning communities is a common topic at housing and residential life conferences, and the majority of universities have a version of the program in place.

One university that has embraced the concept is Iowa State University. Since 1995, ISU has launched 70 learning communities, said Jennifer Leptien, a coordinator for learning communities at ISU.

Roughly 55 percent of ISU’s first-year students are involved in a learning community, she said, which comes out to be around 3,000 participants.

“The feedback we get from students is they really appreciate the opportunity to meet other students with similar academic interests,” she said. “There has been an increase in retention rates and we have seen an increase in graduation rates with students who have been involved with the learning communities.”

The program has gained so much momentum that Iowa State began offering a Learning Community Institute in 1998 to help program coordinators continue to grow and maintain their communities, Leptien said.

Clark said the University hopes to continue to expand its living and learning communities, but many different factors play a role in the development of the communities.

“Our goal is to grow the program, but we want it to be successful,” he said.