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Learning Community Designs

Learning communities represent an intentional restructuring of students' time, credit, and learning experiences to build community, enhance learning, and foster connections among students and their teachers, and among disciplines.
Barbara Leigh Smith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick

The critical variable in any learning community design is grouping the right courses. Doing so maximizes student success, makes the learning community sustainable, and helps connect students with student affairs professionals.

From students’ points of view, the most obvious dimension of a learning community is what they sign up for—what gets presented as the “learning community”. The decision about which courses to include in a learning community is critical: the courses need to make sense in terms of student enrollment patterns and curricular pathways.

The nature of the courses that get put together varies. Often, campuses put two or more courses of similar size together and students enroll in both or all the courses. Sometimes students enroll in one or two smaller courses together, as well as in a larger course where the learning community forms a subset.  Students who enroll together in one or more courses and are also assigned to a residence hall together form a “living-learning community”.

The faculty team teaching in the learning community typically collaborate in several ways: they discuss their shared learning outcomes; they design integrative assignments; and they find ways to be present in each other’s classes.  Usually, faculty teaching in learning communities do not attend each other’s classes all the time. When learning communities are fully team-taught, the total number of students in the learning community is equivalent to the number of students teachers would have were they teaching an equal number of course sections. A fully team-taught learning community that combined sociology and composition, for instance, would enroll twice the number of students that would typically be enrolled in a single section of the smaller course.

Learning communities build on current practices within the student affairs field. They get students connected with student services, including being part of orientation sessions, implementing early alert systems, designating counselors or advisors to work with particular learning communities, and integrating college readiness strategies in the curriculum of the learning community. The key is making sure that students get connected with advising and student services in meaningful ways early in their education.

Educators who design learning communities are inventive; there is no orthodoxy about which curricular designs work best so long as the learning community design works for the students it is intended to serve on a particular campus.

Typical Curricular and Co-Curricular Combinations

Linked or paired classes

All the students in one course are also enrolled in a second course. For example, students enrolled in an elementary algebra class are also enrolled in an introductory environmental studies course. The teachers meet to design integrative assignments. Because the number of students in the learning community is equivalent to the number that would be enrolled in one section of these courses, the learning community counts as only one course for each teacher. To make the connection between the courses stronger, some campuses schedule the classes back-to-back, or with a short study break between them; some campuses offer the two courses in the same time blocks but on alternate days. Faculty seek occasions to be present in each other’s classes so students see them work as a team.

First-year programs

A cohort of students enrolls in two or more courses together, usually including a first year experience or a college success course, plus other introductory courses. For example, students enroll in a student success course and an introductory composition course, and they are also enrolled in an introductory political science course where they form a small subset of the total number of students in that large lecture course. The faculty working with the cohort of students plan integrative assignments, which may show up on all three syllabi or just on two.

Coordinated studies

A cohort of students sign up for two or more classes together but the total number of students signing up for the learning community is equivalent to the number that would enroll in two or more sections of these courses. These programs are team-taught, with faculty teaching the number of students equivalent to their course load.

Living-learning communities

A cohort of students lives together in a residence hall and enrolls in at least one course together. For instance, women with majors in science or engineering live together in a residence hall where they have a peer mentor, and they enroll in calculus and chemistry together.