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Current Research

We employed both quantitative longitudinal survey and qualitative case study and interview methods…to ascertain to what degree participation in a learning community enhanced student success …and to understand why and how it is that such communities do so.
Cathy McHugh Engstrom and Vincent Tinto

Field-Originated Studies

The first comprehensive account of learning community work, Learning Community Research and Assessment: What We Know Now, alerted learning community practitioners to the geography of learning community practice beyond their campus. The research team—Kathe Taylor, William S. Moore, Jean MacGregor, and Jerri Linblad—studied every program assessment, institutional research report, thesis, dissertation, and national study they could find. At the time of their report, learning communities had spread to diverse campuses across the country including two- and four-year institutions, both public and independent. Their findings highlighted what many educators knew about their own campus learning community program but on a far broader scale.

Retention rates and academic achievement for students in learning communities—defined by the research team as a cohort taking the same classes, often with a unifying theme, and often tied to a residence life experience—compared positively with students enrolled in stand-alone classes. This finding applied to developmental, college-level and honors programs, those designed to meet general education requirements or to introduce students to the professions and majors, and those that combined curricular and co-curricular learning.

There was one caveat. As the researchers noted, most studies relied on quantifiable data: student retention, grades, grade point average, and student satisfaction. Very few studies assessed the quality of students’ learning experiences in learning community programs. In 2006, Washington Center launched a national project on Assessing Learning in Learning Communities to rectify this omission, followed by the Online Survey of Students’ Experiences of Learning in Learning Communities.

Studies From Outside the Field

Since Taylor and her colleagues' inventory of predominantly field-originated research and assessment, additional studies have illuminated learning community practice. The 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement, based on data from four-year colleges and universities, identified learning communities as one of ten “high impact undergraduate practices.” In 2008, a quantitative longitudinal study, Learning Better Together, studied learning communities for developmental students at thirteen community colleges using a modified version of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, supplemented by in-depth qualitative case studies at three participating institutions: Cerritos College, DeAnza College, and LaGuardia Community College. The findings showed that students in learning communities had higher persistence rates than the control group. And, based on self-reports, students experienced higher levels of engagement, more positive experiences at college, and a higher assessment of their intellectual gains compared to their non-learning community peers.

In July 2012, MDRC released two reports as part of their six-year Learning Community Demonstration Project, one on a freshman learning community program at Kingsborough Community College, and another on developmental education learning communities at six community colleges, including Kingsborough. The studies compared the persistence and graduation rates of a control group of students who did not participate in a learning community with a similar sized group who were invited to participate in one.

Examined side-by-side, the two reports highlight the variation in findings that can be expected when the learning communities studied vary widely from multidimensional learning community interventions done well to instances where the very basic components of learning community practice are not present.

Kingsborough’s one-semester freshman learning community program—supported by committed administrators and ongoing professional development for teaching teams—included enhanced counseling and tutoring for students who were enrolled in an English course (primarily college level), an academic course within the student's major, and a freshman orientation course. The six-year study at Kingsborough found that students' short-term and long-term outcomes improved, with more learning community students (35.9%) earning a degree within six years than the control group (31.3%).

By contrast, the short-term findings at the five community colleges other than Kingsborough were less conclusive, with no measurable impact on persistence and a half-credit impact on credits earned in the targeted subject area. In this MDRC study, "learning communities" were loosely defined as having linked courses, student cohorts, faculty collaboration, and student support. But the degree to which learning communities studied at the six campuses had these characteristics varied: some learning communities had student cohorts, some didn't; some learning communities had support from department chairs, deans and senior administrators, some didn't. On some campuses there was no evidence of faculty collaboration (some faculty did not know they were teaching in a learning community) and no collaboration occurred between student support services and academics.

To date, the preponderance of research on learning communities—including MDRC's study at Kingsborough—supports the claim that learning communities done well have positive impacts on students' learning experiences, persistence, and achievement. Nearly all of the research shows higher levels of student engagement, stronger relationships with faculty and fellow students, stronger connections to the institution, and—as self-reported by students—greater understanding of concepts of integration and higher-order thinking skills.

There is clearly room for much more research and analysis. For instance, which cross-campus collaborative components need to be in place to support effective (and sustainable) learning community programs? What particular learning community practices are especially effective at fostering transformative learning, sustained student engagement, and persistence to graduation—as evidenced by both quantitative and qualitative data? And, what kind of professional learning program supports educational excellence and capacity-building?

The studies described below offer a starting point.

Two and Four-year Colleges and Universities

Online Learning Communities' Student Survey: Highlights from the 2011-12 Survey
Maureen Pettitt. Skagit Valley College. 2011.

This report describes the 2010-11 findings from Washington Center's Survey of Students' Experiences of Learning in Learning Communities. 3,706 students from 22 two- and four-year colleges and universities participated in the survey. Among  other findings, 75% of surveyed students reported that they often or very often work on connecting or integrating ideas, strategies or skills from the classes or disciplines included in the learning community.

Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality
Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner. American Association of Colleges and Universities. Washington, D.C. 2010. Chapter 2. pp. 13-21.

This report provides an excellent overview of the research about learning communities, identified as a high-impact practice in the American Association of Colleges and Universities' (AAC&U) College Learning for the New Global Century. It looks at findings related to academic achievement and persistence, behavioral outcomes, attitudinal outcomes, liberal education outcomes, and outcomes for underserved students.

Learning Community Research and Assessment: What We Know Now
Kathe Taylor, William S. Moore, Jean MacGregor, and Jerri Lindblad. Olympia, WA: Washington Center. 2003.
This Washington Center monograph reviews previous assessment studies, highlighting some single institution studies and and other notable work. It suggests areas for further research and assessment.

Building Learning Communities for New College Students: A Summary of Research Findings of the Collaborative Learning Project
Vincent Tinto, Anne Goodsell-Love, and Pat Russo. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, National Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. 1994.
This report describes the findings of the first longitudinal study on the impact of learning communities on student learning in higher education.

Four-year Colleges and Universities

The Impact of a "Healthy Youth" Learning Community on Student Learning Outcome Meaures
Karen L. Butler and Phyllis Worthy Dawkins. The Journal of Negro Education 77:3. Summer 2008.
In this study, the authors compared student learning outcome measures for students enrolled in a learning community at Johnson C. Smith University with students who were enrolled in a non-learning community section of the same course. The results indicated a statistically significant difference on midterm and final exam scores.

Experiences that Matter: Enhancing Student Learning and Success: National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Annual Report 2007
National Survey of Student Engagement. 2007.
The Selected Results section highlights learning communities. Students in learning communities that integrated material across courses, through discussions or integrative assignments, had higher scores on all five NSSE benchmarks—academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.

Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement
Chun-Mei Zhao and George D. Kuh. Research in Higher Education 45:2. March 2004.

This article describes a 2004 study that evaluated National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data for 80,479 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 365 four-year colleges and universities, comparing students who had participated in a learning community or were planning to participate in a learning community with those who had not participated in a learning community and did not plan to do so.

The study did not differentiate between students who had already participated in a learning community and those who planned to enroll in one, so it is not, strictly speaking, an assessment of the results of learning community participation. The results in this study reflect student self-reporting, as measured by the NSSE. Students who had taken or planned to enroll in learning communities reported higher levels of academic effort, academic integration, active and collaborative learning, frequent interactions with faculty members, and greater satisfaction with their college experience. They were also more positive about the support they received from academic advising and student services. There were no differences in freshman academic performance as measured by grades, but seniors who had participated in a learning community at some time in their college experience had higher grades than those who had not.

Two-year Colleges

Commencement Day: Six Year Effects of a Freshman Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College
Colleen Sommo, Alexander K. Mayer, Timothy Rudd, and Dan Cullinan, with Hannah Fresques. MDRC. 2012.
Details the six-year results of the study, described above, of the Opening Doors Learning Communities program at Kingsborough Community College.

The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education: A Synthesis of Findings from Six Community Colleges
Mary G. Visher, Michael J. Weiss, Evan Weissman, Timothy Rudd, and Heather D. Wathington, with Jedediah Teres and Kelley Fong. MDRC. 2012.
Details the findings from MDRC's study, described above, of one-semester learning community programs at six community colleges.

Breaking New Ground: An Impact Study of Career-Focused Learning Communities at Kingsborough Community College
Mary G. Visher and Jedediah Teres, with Phoebe Richman. MDRC. 2011.
Part of MDRC's Learning Communities Demonstration, this project targeted students who were in at least their second year in college and had declared a major. Students were enrolled in three courses: two linked courses required for their majors (for example, biology and psychology for health-related majors) and an integrative seminar focused on interdisciplinary connections between the two courses as well as career options. These learning communities also emphasized integrative assignments, project-based learning, and active, collaborative work by students.

While this study did not have quantifiable impacts on educational outcomes or credit accumulation overall, it had a slight positive impact on credits earned by new transfer students. Circumstances particular to this program may have affected the results. These include: start-up issues related to this being a new program, and the fact that Kingsborough offers augmented support services for all students, whether they are in a learning community or not. Also, the study did not assess students' integrative understanding and mastery of higher-order cognitive skills, both of which the program emphasized.

A Good Start: Two-Year Effects of a Freshman Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College
Susan Scrivener, Dan Bloom, Allen LeBlanc, Christina Paxson, Cecilia Elena Rouse, and Colleen Sommo. MDRC. 2008.
This study of a freshman learning community program at Kingsborough Community College assessed the academic outcomes of 1,534 first-year students, half of whom were randomly selected and assigned to a learning learning community and half of whom received standard courses and services. Students in the learning community took three class together during their first semester: an English class (3/4 of these were developmental English classes; 1/4 were college-level), an academic course, and a one-credit orientation course. The program also included enhanced counseling and tutoring. The learning communities in this program varied in class size and the degree to which faculty integrated their courses.

The study found that students in the learning communities had a higher level of engagement than students in the control group. They moved more quickly through developmental English requirements and had improved educational outcomes during the program, though performance diminished in subsequent semesters. At the end of the two-year follow-up period, persistence rates for learning community participants were slightly higher than those for the control group.

Developmental Education

Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Math: Impact Studies at Queensborough and Houston Community Colleges
Evan Weissman, Kristin F. Butcher, Emily Schneider, Jedediah Teres, Herbert Collado, and David Greenberg, with Rashida Welbeck. MDRC. 2011.
New programs at both colleges enrolled students in a one-semester developmental math learning community. At Queensborough, developmental math classes were linked with college-level courses. At Houston Community College, developmental math classes were linked with a student success course. At both colleges learning community students passed their math classes at higher rates than students who were not enrolled in learning communities. However, over time, there was no difference between students' academic progress in mathematics or their overall persistence.

Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Reading: An Impact Study at Hillsborough Community College
Michael J. Weiss, Mary G. Visher, and Heather Wathington with Jedediah Teres and Emily Schneider. MDRC. 2011.
In this study, Hillsborough Community College started a pilot learning community program linking developmental reading and a college success course, which ran for three semesters. For the full term of the study, the learning community program did not have a meaningful impact on students' academic success. However, there is evidence that the program had positive impacts on student success for the third cohort of students. These results may be correlated to the maturation of the program over time.

Underprepared, Ethnically Diverse Community College Students: Factors Contributing to Persistence
Peter Barbatis. Journal of Developmental Education 33:3. Spring 2010.
This study followed the experiences of 22 students in a first-year learning community at Broward College, a community college in Florida with a diverse student body; one-third of entering freshmen test into developmental courses in all three areas—reading, English, and mathematics. Of the 22 students in the program, 18 succeeded and continued with their college studies; 6 of these students graduated. Key factors for retention included high levels of faculty-student interaction, integration of academic and social activities, cultural and social support, and use of campus resources and student services.

Promoting Partnerships for Student Success: Lessons from the SSPIRE Initiative
Evan Weissman, Oscar Cerna, Christian Geckeler, Emily Schneider, Derek V. Price, and Thomas J. Smith. MDRC. July 2009.
The Student Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education (SSPIRE) initiative, conducted from 2006 to 2009, focused on increasing the success of low-income, academically underpreprared community college students by helping nine selected California community colleges strengthen their support services and better integrate them with academic instruction. Learning communities were the most popular approach for doing this. Chapter 2 highlights programs at five community colleges that infused student services into their learning communities.

Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on the Persistence of Low-Income Students
Cathy McHugh Engstrom and Vincent Tinto. Opportunity Matters. 1. 2008.
Research continues to show that learning communities can make a difference in student persistence and achievement rates.This article describes the  findings from a study of learning communities at 13 community colleges aims at academically underprepared students. A quantitative longitudinal study, utilizing a modified version of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CSSE), was measured learning community students at each of the colleges against a control group that was not enrolled in a learning community. In addition, qualitative case studies were conducted at three institutions: Cerritos College, DeAnza College, and LaGuardia Community College.

Students in learning communities reported higher levels of engagement, more positive experiences at college, and higher assessments of their intellectual gains. They also had higher persistence rates than the control group. This article includes conclusions and recommendations for institutional and classroom practices to improve student success.

Complete list of resources