Learning Communities


Learning communities emphasize collaborative partnerships between students, faculty, and staff, and attempt to restructure the university curriculum to address structural barriers to educational excellence.

In their 1990 publication Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines, Faith Gabelnick, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Barbara Leigh Smith describe a learning community as “any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses – or actually restructure the curricular material entirely – so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise” (1990, p. 19). The authors promote the idea that learning communities can “purposefully restructure the curriculum to link together courses or course work so that students find greater coherence in what they are learning as well as increased intellectual interaction with faculty and fellow students” and that they “can address some of the structural features of the modern university that undermine effective teaching and learning” (1990, p.5).  As a necessarily collaborative enterprise, learning communities usually incorporate “collaborative and active approaches to learning, some form of team teaching, and interdisciplinary themes” (Gabelnick, et al., 1990, p. 5).

Nancy Shapiro and Jodi Levine (1999) cite Alexander Astin’s  (1985, p. 161) view of learning communities:

“Such communities can be organized along curricular lines, common career interests, avocational interests, residential living areas, and so on. These can be used to build a sense of group identity, cohesiveness, and uniqueness; to encourage continuity and the integration of diverse curricular and co-curricular experiences; and to counteract the isolation that many students feel.”

They expand on Astin’s definition to assert basic characteristics that learning communities share:

  • Organizing students and faculty into smaller groups
  • Encouraging integration of the curriculum
  • Helping students establish academic and social support networks
  • Providing a setting for students to be socialized to the expectations of college
  • Bringing faculty together in more meaningful ways
  • Focusing faculty and students on learning outcomes
  • Providing a setting for community-based delivery of academic support programs
  • Offering a critical lens for examining the first-year experience (Shapiro & Levine, 1999, p. 3).

Finally, Lenning et.al. (2013) define a learning community as an “intentionally developed community that exists to promote and maximize the individual and shared learning of its members. There is ongoing interaction, interplay, and collaboration among the community’s members as they strive for specified common learning goals” (Lenning, et al., 2013, p. 7).

More broadly, Kuh (1996) describes any educationally purposeful activity, such a learning communities, as “undergraduate activities, events, and experiences that are congruent with the institution’s educational purposes and a student’s own educational aspirations.” In a later study he and his co-author describe a learning community as “a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together, [that] may or may not have a residential component.” (Zhao and Kuh, 2004, p. 119). They cite four generic forms of learning communities: curricular, classroom, residential, and student-type (p. 116).

In the 2008 publication “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter,” George Kuh states the key goals for learning communities are “to encourage integration of learning across courses, and to involve students with ‘big questions’ that matter beyond the classroom. Students take two or more linked courses as a group and work closely with one another and with their professors. Many learning communities explore a common topic and/or common readings through the lens of different disciplines. Some intentionally link ‘liberal arts’ and ‘professional courses’; others feature service learning” (p. 10).

What makes it a high-impact practice?

High-impact educational activities, such as learning communities, share common characteristics that make them especially effective with students. In Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement, Chun-Mei Zhao and George D. Kuh (2004, p. 124) enumerate the benefits of participating in learning communities in particular. Specifically, participating in learning communities is uniformly and positively linked with:

  • Student academic performance
  • Engagement in educationally fruitful activities (e.g., academic integration, active and collaborative learning, interaction with faculty members)
  • Gains associated with college attendance
  • Overall satisfaction with the college experience.

Pulling from multiple sources, Lenning and Ebbers (1999, p. 51-52) cite the numerous benefits for college students participating in learning communities. Well-designed learning communities emphasizing collaborative learning result in improved GPAs, and higher retention and satisfaction for undergraduate students. In addition, various studies have verified other significant benefits:

  • The number of students on academic probation;
  • Amount and quality of learning;
  • Validation of learning;
  • Academic skills;
  • Self-esteem;
  • Satisfaction with the institution, involvement in college, and educational experiences;
  • Increased opportunity to write and speak;
  • Greater engagement in learning;
  • The ability to meet academic and social needs;
  • Greater intellectual richness;
  • Intellectual empowerment;
  • More complex thinking, a more complex world view, and a greater openness to ideas different from one’s own;
  • Increased quality and quantity of learning;
  • The ability to bridge academic and social environments; and
  • Improved involvement and connectedness within the social and academic realms.

Good practices in high-impact Learning Communities

In looking at high-impact educationally purposeful activities, Kuh (2008, p. 19-20) strongly recommends that institutions “make it possible for every student to participate in at least two high-impact activities during his or her undergraduate program, one in the first year, and one taken later in relation to the major field. The obvious choices for incoming students are first-year seminars, learning communities, and service learning… Ideally, institutions would structure the curriculum and other learning opportunities so that one high-impact activity is available to every student every year” (Kuh, 2008, p. 19-20).

Schroeder and Mable (1994, p. 183) offer six specific principles or themes that should be incorporated in the development of learning communities. Themes one through three are characteristic of both residential-group communities and learning communities. Themes four through six apply only to residential learning communities.

  1. Learning communities are generally small, unique, and cohesive units characterized by a common sense of purpose and powerful peer influences.
  2. Student interaction within learning communities should be characterized by the four I’s – involvement, investment, influence, and identity.
  3. Learning communities involve bounded territory that provides easy access to and control of group space that supports ongoing interaction and social stability.
  4. Learning communities should be primarily student centered, not staff centered, if they are to promote student learning. Staff must assume that students are capable and responsible young adults who are primarily responsible for the quality and extent of their learning.
  5. Effective learning communities should be the result of collaborative partnerships between faculty, students, and residence hall staff. Learning communities should not be created in a vacuum; they are designed to intentionally achieve specific educational outcomes.
  6. Learning communities should exhibit a clear set of values and normative expectations for active participation. The normative peer cultures of learning communities enhance student learning and development in specific ways.

Gabelnick, et al. (1990, p. 51) also offers guidelines for how to create learning communities that achieve the best possible results for learners:

  • Broad support from both faculty and staff is essential — collaboration must be present from the inception of the learning community development process.
  • Stable leadership and an administrative “home” will ensure a greater chance for long-term stability and success.
  • Selection of an appropriate design and theme to appeal to students’ academic and personal goals is important. Learning communities should utilize required general courses or pre-major courses, such as pre-law, pre-health, and pre-engineering.
  • Choose a faculty team with complementary skills and roles.
  • Properly manage enrollment expectations and faculty load.
  • Develop effective strategies for recruitment, marketing, and registration.
  • Ensure appropriate funding, space, and teaching resources.

Golde & Pribbenow (2000) investigated the experiences of faculty members in residential learning communities, from which they formulated recommendations for navigating the sometimes dicey waters that separate faculty from administrative staff. Some of their recommendations included:

  • Faculty hold a deep concern for undergraduate education, and wish to know students better. However, some were surprised about the desire of students to be more personal than faculty had expected (p. 32, 36).
  • Faculty were enticed by the idea of participating in interdisciplinary and innovative education (p. 32).
  • They were also both excited and concerned with being accepted into the learning community, both by students and veteran faculty members (p. 32, 33)

Some barriers to faculty participation in learning communities included familiar challenges:

  • Time — faculty reward system must be addressed and taken into account when expecting faculty participation in learning communities (p. 32)
  • Faculty had little awareness of, and in some cases little respect for, the work of student affairs professionals on their campus. Similarly, student affairs staff held a limited view of how faculty might contribute in a residential setting (p. 35).

Golde and Pribbenow conclude that faculty are the best recruiters of other faculty into learning community participation, and that it is important to both include faculty in planning efforts, but also to give them well-defined roles within the community (p. 37-38).

The National Resource Center for Learning Communities website, hosted by the Washington Center at The Evergreen State College, identifies three essential components of effective learning communities:

  • “A strategically-defined cohort of students taking courses together which have been identified through a review of institutional data
  • “Robust, collaborative partnerships between academic affairs and student affairs
  • “Explicitly designed opportunities to practice integrative and interdisciplinary learning”

The National Resource Center also emphasizes that Learning Communities should be designed with attention to an institution’s unique goals and priorities.

Embedded and Emerging Questions for Research, Practice, and Theory

In their exhaustive review of previous learning community assessment studies, Learning Community Research and Assessment: What We Know Now, Taylor et al. (2003) indicated four key future directions for learning community research and assessment:

  • Identifying and assessing a broader scope of learning community outcomes – for students, faculty, and institutions;
  • Exploring the specific pedagogical and structural characteristics that lead to positive outcomes;
  • Pursuing longitudinal inquiry to examine the long-term impact of learning communities – for students, faculty, and institutions; and
  • Improving presentations and publications about learning community research. Taylor et al. (2003, pp. 65-66) note that studies should describe the learning communities program, its institutional context, and its participants; identify inquiry questions and methods; clearly communicate results and corresponding recommendations; exhibit critical self-reflection; and be accessible to readers.

Lenning & Ebbers (1999, p. 88) offer ideas about further areas of study, given that evidence at the time suggested some learning communities are more effective than others, but existing studies were not clear cut in their evidence and were not intended as comparative studies:

  • Which student learning communities and combinations thereof are most effective?
  • How do we optimize the performance and effectiveness of student learning communities of different kinds?
  • How do we motivate faculty to participate fully in student learning communities?
  • What do we know about the characteristics of students who do not participate, and how to motivate them?

The allocation of resources also raises concerns for the success of learning communities on campus, if universities continue to be evaluated on the kinds of students they admit, rather than the kinds of leaders they graduate. The current definition of quality in higher education preferences schools that accept excellent high school students with excellent ratings. However, there is no value placed on what happens during college. A school could accept excellent high school students and teach them nothing and receive high ratings, while another school may accept mediocre students and teach them a great deal. In the current valuation system, a campus that wants to increase its prestige shifts resources to competitive admissions, not practices to improve learning. These criteria of excellence do little to encourage schools to create supportive learning environments for the diverse groups now in college (Greater Expectations, 2002, p. 17).

Key Scholarship

Benjamin, Mimi  (Eds.). (2015). Learning communities from start to finish: New directions for student services, Number 149. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This edited collection provides theoretical foundations for learning communities and recent research on institutional structures that foster success in implementing, maintaining, and assessing learning communities. Chapters include:

  • “A history of learning communities within American higher education” by John e. Fink and Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas
  • “Theoretical foundations of learning communities” by Jody E. Jessup-Anger
  • “With educational benefits for all: Campus inclusion through learning communities designed for underserved student populations” by John E. Fink and Mary L. Hummel
  • “Aligning needs, expectations, and learning outcomes to sustain self-efficacy through transfer learning community programs” by Jennifer R. Leptien
  • “Utilizing online learning communities in student affairs” by Daniel W. Calhoun and Lucy Santos Green
  • “Utilizing peer mentor roles in learning communities” by Laura Jo Rieske and Mimi Benjamin
  • “Assessing the ‘learning’ in learning communities” by Ann M. Gansemer-Topf and Kari Tietjen
  • “Learning community literature: Annotated bibliography” by Sarah Conte

Gabelnick, Faith MacGregor, Jean Matthews, Roberta S Smith, Barbara L  (Eds.). (1990). Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, #41. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

In this early comprehensive look at learning communities, the authors draw from the foundational work of Dewey, Meiklejohn, and Tussman and present five basic models of learning communities: linked courses, learning clusters, freshman interest groups, federated learning communities, and coordinated studies. Learning communities are defined as “any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses, or restructure the curricular material entirely, so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning process.” They assert that students should experience a learning community at least once and early in their college career, and that membership in at least one such supportive community may be enough to ensure a student’s persistence. They offer a practical checklist for issues of implementation and sustainability, and address strategies and difficulties related to teaching in learning communities through collaborative design and planning. Two chapters of the book address student and faculty experiences and responses to learning communities, and the final chapter looks ahead to the future of learning communities and curricular reform. There is also a section of resources provided.

Kuh, George D (1996). Guiding Principles for Creating Learning Environments for Undergraduates. Journal of College Student Development, 37(2), 135-148.

The author presents six principles “to guide institutional efforts to enhance student learning and personal development by more purposefully integrating curricular goals and outcomes with students’ experiences outside the classroom.” Based on existing research, the author shares ten conditions that foster student learning and personal development that when implemented together represent an institution with a seamless learning environment, that is, an environment that takes once separate parts of the academic experience (e.g., in-class and out-of-class, academic and non-academic, curricular and co-curricular, on- and off-campus experiences) and blends them into a whole and continuous experience. The six principles reflect the broad scope of activities that must be implemented to move toward an ethos of learning: generate enthusiasm for institutional renewal; create a common vision for learning; develop a common language; foster collaboration and cross-functional dialogue; examine the influence of student cultures on student learning; and focus on systemic change. Some institutions may require additional interventions not described in the six principles. The principles are also not presented as a “hierarchy of activities” – an institution may begin with any one of the activities to move toward an ethos of learning, though all must be addressed.

Schroeder, Charles C Mable, Phyllis  (Eds.). (1994). Realizing the Educational Potential of Residence Halls. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The integration of the residence hall environment into the college experience is the focus of this book by Charles Schroeder, Phyllis Mable and other well-respected student development scholars. The authors emphasize the integration of “students’ formal academic experiences with their informal out-of-class experiences through collaborative efforts between educators in academic affairs and student affairs.” The book is organized into three sections that focus on different aspects of the residence hall as a learning environment. Part 1 explores the role of residence halls in educating students, which includes a historical overview, review of relevant research, six elements of the successful implementation of residential programs, methods for linking residence halls to curricular practices, and the need for intentional design. Part 2 looks at how to promote learning in the residence halls through the creation of learner-centered environments, the integration of curricular goals, the maximization of peer influences, and the promotion of diversity and civic leadership. Part 3, entitled Strengthening the Educational Impacts of Residence Life, looks at assessment of the residential experience, extracts five themes from the book, and makes fifteen recommendations for implementing a residence hall curriculum.

Shapiro, Nancy S Levine, Jodi H  (1999). Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change, and Implementing Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shapiro and Levine present a comprehensive handbook for the implementation of learning communities on college campuses. In the first two chapters they define and describe the characteristics of learning communities, highlight historical influences and contemporary settings, and describe current models and approaches to learning communities. The next three chapters articulate the types of transformative changes that need to occur for learning communities to take root and flourish in higher education environments, which includes practical advice on human and fiscal resources, curricular implications, and the importance of changing faculty roles and reward structures. Chapters six and seven deal in the practical aspects of administrative partnerships and logistics – planning, registration, marketing, and community building. Following that are two chapters devoted to evaluation and assessment, with the final chapter offering helpful lessons and advice.

Zhao, Chun-Mei Kuh, George D (2004). Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45(2), 115-138.

This study was conducted in order to determine whether student success can be linked to participation in a learning community, success being defined as student engagement in educationally purposeful activities, self-reported gains in a variety of outcomes, and overall satisfaction with the college experience. For the purposes of the study, a learning community was defined as a formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together, that may or may not have a residential component. The study used the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE), an annual survey of first-year and senior students, that measures the degree to which students participate in educational practices linked to the desired outcomes of college. The survey sample was 80,479 randomly selected first-year and senior students from 365 4-year colleges and universities who completed the survey in the spring of 2002. The results support the assertion that participating in learning communities is “uniformly and positively linked with student academic performance, engagement in educationally fruitful activities, gains associated with college attendance, and overall satisfaction with the college experience.” The article goes on to describe these effects in detail.

Limitations of the study include the wording of the question (it is impossible to determine if students had already participated in a learning community or if they were planning to do so); inability to distinguish between the different types of learning communities in which students had participated; the reliability of some of the scales employed in the study; and the measures are based on self-reported data. The study does, however, provide evidence that learning communities do warrant classification as a high-impact educational practice, and based on this the authors recommend two actions: 1) every campus should evaluate how many and what kinds of learning communities exist on campus and the numbers of different groups of students who are participating in them; 2) efforts should be focused on creating additional learning communities and attracting underrepresented students to participate them, such as male students, transfer students, and part-time students as these are the groups least likely to participate in learning communities before graduation.

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