by Peter Felten, Jon Dooley, and Jessie L. Moore
In July 2015, Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning hosted a three-day think tank on residential learning communities that brought together a dozen scholars and practitioners (participants are listed below).
Learning communities have been defined in a wide variety of ways in higher education (for a quick overview, see the CEL resource on learning communities). Most broadly, a learning community is an “intentionally developed community that exists to promote and maximize the individual and shared learning of its members” (Lenning, et al., 2013, p. 7).
CEL’s think tank focused on a particularly high-impact form of higher education learning communities – residential colleges and other academic-residential partnerships.
The group collaborated to identify a number of gaps in the literature and opportunities for new research on residential learning communities. The group did not always come to consensus; for instance, participants varied in their orientation toward quantitative methodologies, the centrality of experimental design, and the importance of control or comparison groups in such studies.
Despite, or perhaps because of, our differences, we developed a list of five broad categories of research that would advance the study and practice of residential learning communities in higher education:

  1. Institutional and multi-institutional research: What are the key characteristics and goals of residential learning communities at institutions that have committed to such programs for most or all of their undergraduate students? Studies like this might explore policy, program, and leadership questions linked to supporting residential learning communities at an institution-wide scale. Such research might also employ methods like social network analysis to compare the campus-wide impact of residential learning communities at more than one institution.
  2. Community and sub-community research: In addition to institution-level studies, new research could focus on parts of programs or communities, particularly those that have been identified as being effective at achieving certain outcomes or having shared characteristics. For example, if a specific residential learning community enjoys very high student engagement in public service, what are the facets of that program that fosters that high engagement?
  3. Student-focused research: New research in this area might include qualitative and quantitative studies that interrogate student development, students’ lived experiences with residential learning communities, and the outcomes of these initiatives for students who serve as leaders or peer mentors in residential learning communities. For example, a longitudinal study might examine the process by which learning unfolds, integration happens, and programs influence learning. Or, research could explore the differences between student experiences in programs that are selective and those that reach entire campus populations.
  4. Faculty- or staff-focused research: Student learning and success is often the focus of this research, but studies are also needed to explore the impact of participation in residential learning communities and residential colleges on faculty and staff members. How do these experiences affect teaching, mentoring/advising, and intellectual agency? How does participation broaden faculty understanding of the student experience? How does the involvement of student affairs staff affect their own perceptions of their role in the educational enterprise?
  5. Translational research: Finally, additional work is recommended to translate new and existing research on residential learning communities and residential colleges for multiple audiences and stakeholders. For instance, how might we share with administrators and trustees what makes a practice a high-quality experience, what the value added is for students, and why it’s worth funding as part of an annual budget? Similarly, scholars in this area might benefit from translating research from other research fields to apply to work on resididential learning communities. How might scholarship on related topics (including communities of practice, mentoring, and teaching and learning in higher education) contribute frameworks or findings to the scholarship on and practice of residential learning communities?

Because residential learning communities are a central but expensive part of undergraduate education, research in these areas is urgently needed not only to inform practice at institutions with residential learning communities but also to influence broader debates about the future of higher education.
Two additional CEL blog posts will synthesize the think tank’s recommendations on advocacy for and the practice/design/implementation of residential learning communities and residential colleges.

Think tank participants: Mimi Benjamin (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Coker (Elon University), Karen Inkelas (University of Virginia), Jody Jessup-Anger (Marquette University), Jillian Kinzie (NSSE, Indiana University), Jill Stratton (Washington University in St. Louis) William Sullivan (Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, Wabash College), Frank Wcislo (Vanderbilt University), Lori White (Washington University in St. Louis), Jon Dooley (Elon University), Jessie L. Moore (Elon University), and Peter Felten (Elon University)

Peter Felten (@pfeltenNC) is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and professor of history.
Jon Dooley (@jondooley) is Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Campus Life at Elon University.
Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.

How to cite this post:

Felten, Peter, Jon Dooley, and Jessie L. Moore. 2015, August 11. Recommendations for new research on residential colleges, learning communities, and other academic-residential partnerships. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from