Studying Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice
by Shannon Lundeen
During our first summer seminar meeting of the 2017-2019 research seminar on Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice, the room was brimming with excitement and anticipation as scholars and practitioners from across the U.S. and Canada wondered who they would ultimately team up with and what research questions about residential learning communities (RLCs) they would pursue as a multi-institutional team. Jessie L. Moore, Director of the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), welcomed participants and kicked off the seminar by providing an overview of multi-institutional research on engaged learning and high-impact educational practices.
The seminar leaders (Mimi Benjamin, Jody Jessup-Anger, Shannon Lundeen, and Cara McFadden) then presented a summary of what we currently know about residential learning communities based on available research and pointed to the gaps in knowledge on this topic. Many of the early studies on RLCs focused on students and student learning outcomes and were limited to a single institution. And, these earlier studies tended to rely on self-reported gains of students. The existing scholarship presents a mixed review of the effects of RLCs on students and student learning. For example, Pike (1999) shows that RLCs have indirect effects including involvement and peer interaction that are correlated with general education gains. Pike, Schroeder and Berry (1996), however, found that students who participated in RLCs showed no academic gains in math, science, or communication compared to peers not involved in an RLC. And, more recently, Mayhew, Dahl, Youngerman, and Duran (2016) found there were few gains reported in subject matter outcomes for students involved in academic subject-related RLCs. Other recent studies on RLCs, including the National Study of Living Learning Programs (Inkelas & Associates 2004; 2008), demonstrate that in general, students who participate in these programs have smoother academic and social transitions to college, apply critical thinking skills more frequently, and are more committed to civic engagement.
For faculty and staff who participate in RLCs, the research has shown increased cross-departmental and interdisciplinary collaboration (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000; Jessup-Anger, Wawrzynski & Yao, 2011; Williams, 2006), enhanced opportunities to get to know students in meaningful ways outside of the classroom (Haynes & Janosik, 2012; Kennedy & Townsend, 2008), and the chance to participate in research on RLCs (Haynes & Janosik, 2012).
Studies of RLCs have corroborated what many of us know anecdotally about the challenges of faculty participating in RLCs:
- lack of time (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000; Kennedy & Townsend, 2008),
- discomfort with the level of personal sharing by students (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000; Kennedy & Townsend, 2008),
- lack of understanding of the work and value of the work of student affairs practitioners (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000),
- absence of a structured role for faculty to step into (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000; Kennedy & Townsend, 2008), and
- lack of incentive, reward and/or professional recognition for faculty (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000; Williams, 2006).
But, again, the majority of these studies are single institution studies or case studies that are not efforts designed to examine various factors related to faculty and staff participation in RLCs across institutions.
So the seminar leaders directed participants’ attention to the gaps in our knowledge about RLCs and emphasized the need for multi-institutional studies that can help narrow these gaps. Some of the RLC research needs include:
- examining students who typically participate in RLCs across institutions in order to combat self-selection bias in RLC vs. non-RLC studies;
- studying RLC students’ educational gains, using objectively observable measures and data to assess the gains and their connection to RLCs;
- conducting research on subject-matter specific academic learning outcomes in RLCs across institutions;
- understanding variables in environment and structure of RLCs across institutions as well as factors related to programmatic and institutional structures of RLCs at different institutions; and
- investigating what kinds of RLCs and the conditions under which RLCs become high impact practices in undergraduate education.
After the seminar leaders provided this overview of the landscape of current scholarship and potential future research on RLCs, the participants had a chance to get into their preliminary groups (assigned in advance by the seminar leaders based on shared interests) and share their own ideas for questions to pursue, topics of interest, along with their expertise and the resources available to them at their home institutions. Research participants were encouraged to move around and visit other groups if their own interests and institutional resources were not a good fit with their preliminary group. As a result of this movement between groups, new questions were posed and new ideas considered that worked to sharpen each group’s research question(s) while also opening the horizon of possibility for each group as new participants offered their perspectives.
The vibrant discussions among participants in the first two days of the first summer meeting yielded important questions ripe for multi-institutional exploration. The questions raised include:
- What is the connection between RLCs and quantifiable academic outcomes like GPA, retention, and graduation rates?
- Do discipline specific RLCs contribute to new majority students’ sense of belonging and community in their undergraduate institution?
- When the discipline(s) represented by a given RLC has not been successful at recruiting or retaining non-majority students in their field(s), do discipline(s)-specific RLCs contribute to non-majority students’ persistence in the field(s) represented?
- Do RLCs encourage the development or demonstration of psychosocial characteristics that ultimately lead students to thrive in college?
- Do RLCs afford a space for students to have reflective, meaningful interactions with peers, faculty, and staff that “deepens learning and one’s values and beliefs into awareness,” which would be a sign of a high impact practice (Kuh 2008, 17)?
- What institutional infrastructures and partnerships between academic and student affairs across institutions enable/lead to high-impact RLCs?
- What RLCs or what characteristics of RLCs foster students’ integrative learning and how can we assess this across institutions?
Ultimately, five research groups emerged from among our participants. Each distinct group is taking up these questions and others as they begin their first year of research on RLCs as a high impact practice. We look forward to sharing more as their studies progress.
- Golde. C. M., & Pribbenow. D. A. (2000). Understanding faculty involvement in residential learning communities. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 27-40.
- Haynes, C. and S. Janosik. (2012). Faculty and Staff Member Benefits from Involvement in Living-Learning Programs. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 38(2), 32-45.
- Inkelas, K. K., & Associates. (2004). National Study of Living-Learning Programs: 2004 report of findings. Retrieved July 9, 2016, from National Study of Living-Learning Programs website: http://www.livelearnstudy.net/images/NSLLP_2004_Final_Report.pdf
- Inkelas, K. K. & Associates. (2008). National Study of Living-Learning Programs: 2007 report of findings. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from National Study of Living-Learning Programs website: http://www.livelearnstudy.net/images/2007_NSLLP_Final_Report.pdf
- Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.
- Kennedy, K., & Townsend, B. K. (2005, November). Understanding tenured/tenure-track faculty participation in residential learning communities at research-extensive universities. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Philadelphia, PA.
- Jessup-Anger, J.E., Wawrzynski, M.R., Yao, C.W. (2011). Enhancing undergraduate education: Examining faculty experiences during their first year in a residential college and exploring the implications for student affairs professionals. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 38(1), 56-69.
- Mayhew, M., Dahl, L., Youngerman, E. & Duran, A. (2016). Study of Integrated Living Learning Programs: Full Report. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from Study of Living Learning Programs website: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/588b8364579fb3ba0282970e/t/58d42f38b8a79b27eb3681aa/1490300730725/2016+SILLP+Report.pdf
- Pike, G. R. (1999). The effects of residential learning communities and traditional residential living arrangements on educational gains during the first year of college. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 269–284.
- Pike, G.R. & Kuh, G.D. (2005). A Typology of Student Engagement for American Colleges and Universities. Research in Higher Education, 46, 185-209.
- Pike, G., Schroeder, c., & Berry, T. (1997). Enhancing the educational impact of residence halls: The relationship between residential learning communities and first-year college experiences and persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 38, 609-621.
- Williams, J.A. (2006). A Study of Faculty Participation and Involvement in Residential Learning Communities at Four Comprehensive Universities (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
Shannon B. Lundeen, Director of Academic Initiatives for the Residential Campus and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Elon University, is a seminar leader for the 2017-2019 research seminar on Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice. Shannon also serves as co-Chair of the newly founded Residential College Society, which seeks to transform higher education by providing a learning network for faculty and student affairs educators to share knowledge, build community, and advance scholarship about the residential college experience.