Learning Communities Matter in Times of Crisis
Editor’s Note: This statement was crafted by the National Learning Community Collaborative (representatives listed below) and is shared with their permission. Several members of the collaborative participated in the Center’s 2017-2019 research seminar on Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice and contributed to the Elon Statement on Residential Learning Communities.
As campuses across the nation wrap up the academic year, we are faced with the unprecedented challenge of considering not one or two, but up to 15 possible options for offering higher education in the fall (Malony & Kim, 2020). Campus leaders are considering the challenges ahead – economic, health and safety, enrollment, reputational, and disruptions to both learning and community. Presidents, provosts, and finance managers are faced with difficult decisions that require cutting budgets while simultaneously convincing new students that coming to college this fall will be a quality experience regardless of whether campuses reopen to offer face-to-face instruction. In a moment where decision-making must occur quickly, institutional leadership might feel compelled to reduce or eliminate high impact practices, such as learning communities, because of a false assumption that they are only effective if offered in a traditional learning setting. Yet, experience and evidence suggest that learning communities are uniquely positioned to facilitate student engagement and a sense of belonging during a crisis. They are not only worth preserving during a time of cuts, but their operating principles should be considered in the design of future learning experiences.
As we approach the possibility of an academic year that will be partially or fully online, investing in and engaging students in learning communities – integrated learning experiences involving a cohort of students in a cluster of courses or living together in themed housing – is more important now than ever. Here are three reasons why:
1. Learning communities provide a coherent, interdisciplinary space for confronting “wicked” problems
Learning communities – in the form of living-learning communities, non-residential learning communities, and residential colleges – create a space for students to examine and integrate themes or concepts they are learning both in and outside of the classroom (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990) and to do so alongside faculty, staff, and peers in ways that amplify community. If we consider the words “learning” and “communities” and their pairing, their critical importance to higher education becomes obvious, particularly in our time of global crisis. Crises are interdisciplinary, the kinds of “wicked” problems that require multiple perspectives and collective thought and action. Learning communities provide just such a context for students, faculty, and staff to explore and address these interdisciplinary challenges and think critically about the crisis. The “learning” element of learning communities tends to be focused on our students who learn from their faculty, from the staff, and from each other. But learning occurs for all members of the community – faculty, staff, and students – who each learn from one another. Bringing these individuals together around a coherent topic, idea, or within a prescribed structure offers a learning space, whether it is face-to-face or virtual, where each person recognizes that they belong to this group.
2. Learning communities already have intact partnerships among faculty, staff, and students to provide academic, social, and personal support.
Learning communities already have intact partnerships between faculty, staff, and students. Students themselves provide needed support in several different forms, such as learning community peers, peer mentors, peer tutors, or resident advisors (in living learning communities), each of whom offer a common connection point for all of these individuals.
In any of the myriad scenarios planned for fall, students will need significant academic, social, and personal support in overcoming many negative impacts of the pandemic. The learning community focuses on a specific group of students, connects them to one another and to faculty in meaningful ways to offer that support, ensuring students are not isolated as they engage in a non-traditional semester or academic year. Additionally, learning communities provide this same support to groups of students joined together by the commonality of their learning community involvement. These groupings might also aid faculty and staff by giving them a focused group for whom to provide primary support instead of the overwhelming feeling of “How do we support all of our students?” The cherished traditions that solidify a sense of community on campus can be offered online in innovative ways that maintain a high quality learning community experience that engages students through curriculum, co-curriculum, residential and service learning, and community partnerships.
3. Learning communities provide a shared sense of community for their constituents that can be facilitated as early as this summer.
One goal of campuses reopening is bringing people together – the very foundation of learning communities. Through the already existing collaboration between faculty, staff, and students, learning communities can strengthen the connections among participants, thereby increasing a student’s investment in and sense of belonging to their institution. Because of their identifiable shared purpose, participants of learning communities have a foundation to initiate community building virtually in the summer before programs begin. This early outreach can help students (and parents) feel comfortable committing to the institution and moving forward regardless of whether their fall experience will be virtual, face to face, or hybrid; thus, learning communities can mitigate melt and improve retention. This connection will send messages of both support and continuation – that the learning and the college experience will not only continue, but continue with quality and distinction despite our current world-wide crisis.
How can we plan for our new reality?
As campuses turn their attention to building high-impact learning communities this fall, there are several places to turn for help and support. The Learning Communities Association (LCA) and the Residential College Society have and will continue to host virtual events with topical foci. Individuals who are part of the National Learning Communities Collaborative (see below) can serve as “consultants” to colleagues to sort through ideas and plan. The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education offers coaching support, and professional mentors from the LCA can support faculty and staff. As we hear from each other, we can collect and share information in our own form of learning community.
As we reflect on their inclusion in the list of High Impact Practices (Kuh, 2008), learning communities need to be designed with attention to what makes educational practices “high impact,” namely the following:
HIPs demand considerable time and effort on purposeful tasks.
- How are students engaged in studying issues that matter? What are the community and social issues addressed in their learning?
HIPs demand engagement with faculty and peers about substantive matters – over extended periods of time.
- How are we facilitating opportunities for students to meet one-on-one or in small groups with faculty to explore issues that matter?
HIPs offer increased likelihood students will experience diversity through contact with people who are different from themselves.
- How are the rich identities and experiences that students carry being lifted up in a learning environment where stories could get lost?
HIPs include frequent feedback about performance.
- How is feedback shared with students? What opportunities do students have to respond to feedback to improve their performance? What tools can faculty use to facilitate frequent feedback to students?
HIPs allow students to see how what they are learning works in different settings, on and off campus.
- What opportunities do students have to translate learning to new contexts? How can students put learning into practice in a distance learning environment? How might they use what they are learning in their local community while learning from home?
Despite the current unpredictability of the upcoming academic year, one thing about the fall is certain. The way in which we move through this moment as a society will test our resilience. Learning communities provide a “lived” example in building the characteristics of resilience.
The National Learning Community Collaborative is a cohort of learning community (LC) practitioners and researchers (names listed below) representing a multitude of organizations whose efforts are directly related or contribute to advocacy of and/or research/scholarship within learning communities theory and practice. This cohort has been engaging in ongoing dialogue to explore the current state and future direction of learning communities. The organizations represented in these discussions include the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, the Learning Communities Association (LCA), the ACUHO-I Academic Initiatives Conference, the National Learning Community Consortium (NLCC), the Residential College Society (RCS), the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the National Resource Center on the First-Year Experience and Students In Transition (NRC).
Mimi Benjamin, PhD – Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Richie Gebauer, EdD – Cabrini University
Jeff Godowski, MEd – Cornell University
Janine Graziano, PhD – Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
Jean M. Henscheid, PhD – University of South Carolina
Jody Jessup-Anger, PhD – Marquette University
Jillian Kinzie, PhD – Indiana University, National Survey of Student Engagement
Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, PhD – University of Virginia
Shannon Lundeen, PhD – Elon University
Julia Metzker, PhD – Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education
Rita Sperry, PhD – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Gabelnick, F., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R.S., Smith, B.L. (1990). Learning communities: Creating connections among students, faculty, and disciplines in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 41. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kuh, G.D (2008). High impact educational practices: What are they, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges & Universities.
Maloney, E.J., & Kim, J. (2020, Apr 22). 15 fall scenarios. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/learning-innovation/15-fall-scenarios