Recommendations for practitioners and advocates of residential learning communities (part 1 of 2)
by Peter Felten, Jessie L. Moore, and Jon Dooley
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. To learn more about the think tank, our participants, and their recommendations for new research, see our earlier post. For a quick overview of learning communities, see the CEL resource on the topic.
The group collaborated to identify recommendations for practitioners who design and implement residential learning communities, and for advocates who seek to champion this important facet of undergraduate education. This is the first of two blog posts summarizing those recommendations.
This post will focus on three essential questions about residential learning communities.
The literature in this field describes such a wide variety of practices and structures that it is difficult to articulate what precisely we are talking about when we are talking about residential learning communities (to borrow a phrase from the writer Raymond Carver).
Different institutions will define residential learning communities differently, based on their own particular context and goals. Still, practitioners and advocates would benefit (both in their individual work and in the national conversation about higher education) if we could develop a shared understanding of the fundamental components of a residential learning community. This inventory of key characteristics should go deeper than the marketing-style program descriptions that commonly exist to recruit students and to distinguish learning communities from other residential options on college campuses.
Institutions have a variety of rationales for implementing residential living communities, but those goals are not always articulated for all the people participating in the programs. Effective academic-residential partnerships can lead to student engagement with integrated academic topics and can foster communities of practice among participants. Programs need to be explicit about their intended learning outcomes, though, and they need to develop those outcomes in partnership – with faculty, student affairs personnel, and even student participants working together to identify the purpose(s) for each community.
Of course, program coordinators also must be able to articulate those goals and demonstrate corresponding learning outcomes for stakeholders beyond the community. Why go to the expense and trouble of RLCs? What do we know about their outcomes, and how can we best explain those outcomes to different stakeholders within and beyond our institutions? Being able to advocate for RLCs using clear evidence of their added value for students will help coordinators make successful cases for funding and continue to recruit to the communities.
As institutions consider the goals for learning communities, they also need to examine access. Who are RLCs for? How can institutions scale-up access to make RLCs accessible to a wide range of students who could benefit from? What key components of student-faculty-staff partnerships need to be maintained in order to scale-up successfully and retain the experiences that make RLCs high-impact educational practices?
Even as these discussions forefront student learning experiences, RLC initiatives need bridge-building and faculty/staff development to help all participating stakeholders understand institutional structures, partnership goals, and the challenges/opportunities unique to each group. Taking time to think about which faculty and staff should be at the table, what they need to learn about each other, and how they all can contribute to explicit shared goals will better enable RLCs to achieve their student learning outcomes.
Part two of this post will focus on the need to develop new frameworks and models of excellence for residential learning communities.
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.
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.
Jon Dooley (@jondooley) is Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Campus Life at Elon University.