Residential Learning Communities in the Higher Education Environment

written by admin on December 6, 2017 in Doing EL and Engaged Learning and Learning Communities and Studying EL with no comments

by Cara McFadden

A growing body of scholarship, particularly theories about student learning and development, helps us understand the rich potential for residential learning communities as a space for that integration – and helps us identify gaps for further study. As students transition into the college environment it is imperative that we critically think about the intentionality of campus life experiences that enhance interactions for students in a variety of campus learning environments. George Kuh encourages the practice of learning communities as a high-impact educational practice to integrate learning for students beyond the walls of the classroom.

Ecology models (Renn & Arnold, 2003, Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010) and transition theory (Schlossberg, 1981 ) assist us in understanding how student development and learning occurs in a campus setting. As Evans et al. note:

 “Too often practitioners think only of programming when they ponder ways to use theory in practice. While programming is important, theory is also extremely helpful when advising or counseling students, advising student organizations, designing classroom instruction and training initiatives, and formulating policy.” (Evans et al., 2010, p. 369)

To enhance student learning in residential environments, administrators and practitioners will need to determine theoretical foundations for this important work. For example, student development theories are typically grouped into the following four categories; psychosocial, cognitive, typology and person-environment theories (Evans et al., 2010). Also, it is vital to understand how students may interpret their learning experiences based on their readiness to develop in varying campus environments (Sanford, 1966). Students may distinguish these experiences in different ways, “(1) reinterpret their experience in ways that allow them to maintain their current lens, or (2) change to a new lens that better explains the new experience” (Wagner, 2011, p.86). As students evolve between the different ways, Wagner (2011) explains that students may experience disequilibrium due to the transition between developmental stages. This imbalance and new way of thinking progresses students through to their next stage of development and is referred to as readiness (Wagner, 2011). Students will strive in environments when they exhibit readiness and are provided appropriate levels of challenge and support.

Practitioners designing student residential learning environments will need to determine the developmental stages of students to provide a balance between challenge and support. To provide challenge for students, students must first be in a state of readiness (Sanford, 1966) to progress to a new way of thinking. University administrators, faculty and staff will need to create intentional learning experiences that are sequenced by developmental stages.  With Residential Learning Communities (RLCs), understanding the differences of first-year students’ and seniors’ needs in living environments will lead to significantly different RLC designs. This is only one example of student living experiences that differ from one another.

With this in mind, the study of RLC’s impact on student learning and development and how the environment contributes to students’ overall growth is imperative. Studying these outcomes will allow administrators to modify living and learning programs and environments to best support students in their development during their time at the university. To begin the study of RLCs, it is important to review recent literature relevant to living learning communities.

Inkelas, Jessup-Anger, Benjamin, and Wawrzynski (in press) are working on a book titled, Living-Learning Communities that Work: A Research-Based Model for Design, Delivery, and Assessment. The book concentrates on the reclaimed interest in Living Learning Communities (LLCs) and the lack of resources available to researchers and practitioners. The authors are writing the book to offer an empirically-based framework to guide the design, delivery, and assessment of LLCs. They emphasize using best practices from research to illustrate each element of the framework.  The book serves as a guide for practitioners, researchers, and institutional leaders to more effectively allocate resources to create and sustain successful LLCs. Inkelas’s Living Learning Program (LLP) best practices model, included in the book, offers four areas (infrastructure, academic environment, co-curricular environment, and “icing”), presented in a pyramid structure, to guide design and resource allocation decisions (Inkelas,, in press).  National Study of Living-Learning Programs (NSLLP) and Assessment of Collegiate Residential Environments and Outcomes (ACREO) studies offer additional research.

To extend this prior scholarship, 2017-2019 CEL Research Seminar on RLCs launched over the summer and brought participants from around North America to Elon University for a week. During the summer session, the seminar participants began their journey to develop a community of practice to share goals, interests, and values related to RLC work. The groups will address gaps in the literature by collaborating on multi-institutional research and will contribute to a better understanding of the richness of RLCS as a space for integrating student learning and development. Further inspiring questions will address integrative learning, collaboration, identity and inclusion, and thriving. Watch for future updates about their topics, research, and results.


  • Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (n.d.). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from
  • Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Inkelas, K. K., Jessup-Anger, J., Benjamin, M., & Wawrzynski, M. (in press). Living-Learning communities that work: A Research-based model for design, delivery, and assessment.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus.
  • Renn, K. A. & Arnold, K. D. (2003). Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291
  • Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society. New York, NY: Atherton Press.
  • Wagner, W. (2011). Considerations of student development in leadership. In S. R. Komives, J. P. Dugan, J. E. Owen, C. Slack, & W. Wagner (Eds.), The handbook for student leadership development (pp. 85–107). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Cara McFadden is Assistant Professor of Sport and Event Management at Elon University. At Elon, Cara served two years as a faculty-in-residence as the Faculty Director for one of the seven residential neighborhoods, collaborating with the residence life Community Director to create academic and social experiences in the neighborhood.  Cara is a seminar leader for the 2017-2019 research seminar on Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice