A Report to the General Education Review Task Force
and the UNCA Community
1. A national trend:
"Among the most visible and significant national trends in higher education today is the development of academic learning communities: thematically linked or clustered courses that enroll a common cohort of students. Marked by the recognition that the production of knowledge is a social process, learning communities are collaborative, interdisciplinary and learning-centered. And many foster civic engagement, either with a direct link to service learning or through an explicit focus on a social theme… The broad appeal of learning communities is easily understood from the research, which presents evidence of their positive impact on student retention, achievement, and involvement."
David Tritelli, editor, Peer Review, Summer/Fall 2001 vol 3, no. 4/vol 4, no. 1 www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-fa01editor.cfm
2. The UNCA experience
a. phase 1: In 1996, the Center for Teaching and learning sponsored three faculty for a site visit to Evergreen State College and Grays Harbor College in Washington state. The fruits of this visit included: 1) a two day workshop at UNCA led by Gary Murrell; 2) an occasional paper published by CTL on the merits of learning communities; and 3) pilot learning communities introduced at UNCA in 1997, 1998 and 1999, one per year. Because these pilots lacked sufficient institutional support, they did not evolve into a regular program. They were not without success, however, as the students and faculty who participated in them will heartily avow.
b. phase 2: Barbara Leigh Smith of Evergreen State College, a national and pioneering leader in the learning communities movement, and member of the SACS team, said in her remarks to the GERTF in March, 2002 that UNCA could benefit from an "economy of scale." Learning communities would enable us to more efficiently accomplish our curricular goals for student learning while effectively coordinating efforts in student affairs and diversity and minority affairs to retain students and enhance their learning experience.
c. phase 3: The GERTF considers learning communities as part of its revision of general education.
LEARNING COMMUNITIES PROMOTE:
1. greater intellectual interaction
2. curricular coherence—reinforcement and/or integration of ideas
3. understanding of issues which cross subject matter boundaries
4. active and collaborative learning
5. exploration, appreciation of diverse perspectives
6. student retention
7. faculty development
8. economy of scale
TYPES OF LEARNING COMMUNITIES:
1. Linked courses—a discreet cohort of students takes 2 or more classes together; often a skill and content course are paired; little coordinated planning by faculty
2. Federated Learning Communities—linked courses coordinated by faculty around central theme; may includes integrative seminar or "master learner" (peer or faculty tutor who co-enrolls with the students)
i. Freshmen interest groups (FIGS)
ii. senior capstone
iii. embedded in major
3. Coordinated studies—team-taught courses, organized around a central theme, in which faculty and students participate as co-learners; members usually commit most or all of their course load to the community
4. Residential "living and learning" communities—combines any of the above with extra-curricular programming for a discreet cohort of students residing in the same dormitory.
Note: Over 130 institutions have listed their communities with the Washington Center at Evergreen; there are doubtless many other communities who have not listed. Thus , this sampling of models is selective, based on appropriateness for adaptability at UNCA:
1. Wagner College: http://www.wagner.edu/wagnerplan/ : The Wagner Plan includes learning communities based on the federated learning communities model at all levels of the student’s experience. Students must complete a learning community their first year, another during the "intermediate" years (sophomore, junior), and a third in the senior year, embedded in the major. Their website is therefore a useful place to see a variety of possible ways to incorporate learning communities into the curriculum.
2. Portland State University: http://www.oirp.pdx.edu/portfolio/threads/learning_goals.html : PSU’s ambitious overhaul of its General Education program resulted in University Studies, which includes a learning communities component. View this page to see how they relate learning communities to broad learning goals.
3. Middle Tennessee State University: http://www.mtsu.edu/~housing/livelearn.htm : MTSU offers living/learning opportunities in a number of its residence halls. Some are designated for freshmen, some for honors students, and others for areas of shared interest. (If this page is hard to access, go to the MTSU homepage, and look up Housing, and click on Living Learning Communities.)
4. UNC-Greensboro: http://www.uncg.edu/rli/admin/fyi/fyi_halls.html : UNCG incorporates the first year experience into residential learning communities.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR UNCA
1. improved student retention, especially minority students
2. coordination of existing resources (FYE, Service Learning, student life, general education)
3. a new "distinctive" which will enhance our reputation
4. intentional restructuring of courseloads for faculty and students
5. institutional commitment at all levels
1. The National Learning Communities Project: www.evergreen.edu/washcenter
2. The Residential Learning Communities International Clearinghouse: www.bgsu.edu/colleges/as/clc/rlcch
3. Gablenick, Macgregor, Mathews, and Smith. Learning Communities: Creating Connections among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines. Josey Bass, 1990. The foundational work.
4. Electronic Learning Communities: www.cc.gatech.edu/elc
5. California coordination of k-12, community college, and four year college efforts: www.learningcommunity.org