Researching residential learning communities
by Shannon Lundeen and Cara McFadden
Residential learning communities (RLCs) vary widely in objectives, structure, resources, selection criteria, accessibility, curricular content, and co-curricular programs, not only from one institution to the next, but even among RLCs in the same institution. Over the past two summers, the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) at Elon University has convened scholars and practitioners from a variety of colleges and universities to share their knowledge and experiences of residential learning communities as a high impact practice in higher education.
In July 2015, a think tank was formed on academic-residential partnerships. During this session, participants discussed research on residential learning communities, characteristics of effective practice for academic-residential partnerships, and potential gaps and opportunities related to assessing these programs. Think tank members discussed current scholarship on learning communities and identified potential directions for future research about residential learning communities.
Because there is a clear need for more extensive multi-institutional research on RLCs, CEL will focus on Residential Learning Communities as High Impact Practice for the 2017-2019 CEL research seminar. To refine the framing for this future research seminar, CEL hosted a seminar planning forum in the summer of 2016 with select faculty and staff. Those in attendance were:
- Mimi Benjamin, Assistant Professor of Student Affairs in Higher Education, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
- Peter Felten, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Professor of History, Elon University
- Jody Jessup-Anger, Associate Professor of Educational and Policy Leadership, Marquette University
- Emily Lardner, Director of the Washington Center, The National Resource Center for Learning Communities, The Evergreen State College
- Shannon Lundeen, Director of Academic Initiatives for the Residential Campus, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Elon University
- Cara McFadden, Assistant Professor of Sport and Event Management, Elon University
- Jessie Moore, Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, Associate Professor of English, Elon University
- Jill Stratton, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Residential Learning, Washington University in St. Louis
- Bradley Zakarin, Director of Residential Academic Initiatives, Northwestern University
Our planning forum discussion began by attempting to identify the central characteristics of residential learning communities so that we could use this to target the appropriate audience and describe the object of study in the seminar’s call for proposals. Since learning communities are defined and described in multiple and various ways, our initial list of RLC features was quite long. However, as we began to test some items from this list on self-reported RLCs, we realized that this ostensibly comprehensive set of key characteristics could exclude several RLCs from consideration. Worried that a long list of key characteristics would have the unintended effect of narrowing the submission pool, we decided to boil down our list of key characteristics to the least common denominator: RLCs with a residential component.
Once we established this criterion, the planning forum participants moved on to examining the scholarship of RLCs and we centered our discussion around four particular areas: 1) student learning and development; 2) institutional context; 3) intellectual climate; and 4) faculty & staff development. Through this discussion we identified gaps in the research and we anticipate being able to narrow some of these gaps through the upcoming CEL seminar.
One understudied area we focused on in our planning forum—one we hope to explore further through the CEL seminar—is RLC outcomes. We discussed outcome articulation and assessment and raised the following questions:
- What is the variation among RLCs in the degree of coherence between the stated outcomes and the actual experiences of students in an RLC and how does this impact an RLC’s evaluation as a high impact practice or pedagogy in undergraduate education?
- What are the most effective ways to facilitate cohesion between expected and actual RLC outcomes?
- What are the best, most accurate, and/or most commonly employed modes of RLC outcome assessment?
- Given that many RLCs aim to enhance the intellectual climate of the university community or a sub-environment within the larger community, how can we empirically measure or gauge such enhancement?
While the National Survey of Student Engagement has helped us identify learning communities as a High Impact Practice (Kuh, 2008), we still do not have a clear understanding of how and under what conditions some communities have a much greater influence on student learning, persistence, retention, and engagement, than others. We anticipate that a multi-year, multi-institutional, mixed methods approach to studying RLCs will help us begin to understand this and will yield evidence-based criteria for evaluating RLCs as a high impact practice.
Watch for the call for applications for the 2017-2019 research seminar on Residential Learning Communities as High-Impact Practice to be released later this month.
Shannon Lundeen is Director of Academic Initiatives for the Residential Campus and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Elon University. Cara McFadden is Assistant Professor of Sport and Event Management at Elon University.