Faculty Focus


Learning Communities: Key Elements for Sustainability

Tuesday’s post discussed the goals and core practices of effective learning communities. Today we outline elements of sustainable learning communities as well as some of the challenges of learning community development.

Does your program have all the key elements for sustainability?
Site visits to nearly 100 campuses participating in the National Learning Community Project from 1998 to 2004 indicated a recurring pattern of key elements in sustaining successful learning community programs. These elements are:

  1. Clear and well-understood mission, vision, and goals
  2. Committed leadership, wide connections, and solid volunteer workforce
  3. Purposeful and well-implemented curriculum, pedagogy, and structure
  4. Appropriate and ubiquitous assessment
  5. Ongoing, well-subscribed formal and informal instructional development for both faculty and staff
  6. Staff and faculty rewards and incentives commensurate with the valuable contribution learning communities make to student learning and success, faculty and staff development, and institutional transformation
  7. Continual cross-divisional attention to implementation issues, e.g., recruitment, marketing, advising, registration, student assignment into residential learning communities
  8. Sustained and adequate mixture of resources to enable the above

Can the impact of the program be enhanced simply by fine-tuning what you’re already doing? Where are the key leverage points? Who are the crucial players?

For example, a good faculty learning community is an essential element of a strong student learning community program. So when I’m asked to assess a program, I always ask, “What support is there for faculty to learn about learning community theory and practice? What is faculty understanding about this? Are there common understandings among faculty about learning community goals and core practices?”

Maintenance of consistent quality in a program requires a comprehensive, ongoing faculty development effort, so I would certainly want to know what you are doing to acculturate new faculty to learning community theory and practice and what issues they face. This is especially important now, with large-scale programs and high faculty turnover.

What challenges are emerging at your current stage of development?
Learning-community programs go through some predictable stages of development. At first, the emphasis is usually on technical issues about startup: recruiting and registering students, getting the support of key players for the new innovation, designing the curriculum. Later on, questions turn to more complex issues about program setting, design, and impact.

Most of the lone established learning communities now face the classic challenges of second-stage reform efforts. Faculty retirement and succession are key challenges since many of the early leaders are now retiring.

Size is an important consideration. Too many innovations never become scalable in terms of reaching a large number of students. While some learning-community programs reach a substantial proportion of all first-year students, many successful efforts remain very small and never reach their potential for addressing institutional needs. There are many reasons why this might be the case, but the consequence is an obvious ceiling on their aspirations. And this leads us ask to the question of institutional goals.

Other issues include developing cost-effective approaches in a time of limited services and offering programs that genuinely promote deep learning.

The bottom line here is this: You should expect new challenges to emerge as your program develops. This is normal. And it’s important to be open to new ways to address these challenges.

Does your assessment program lead to improvements?
Perhaps it is an understatement to say that assessment is critical. You have to know where you are to figure out what to do next. Taking a hard look at student learning outcomes is an important first step. Few institutions use assessment as well as they could, and there are now many good tools available. Really, any number of assessment tools – home grown and/or off the shelf – can be used to raise questions about the impact of your learning community.

An increasing number of campuses are embracing focused assessment and data-driven planning to situate, design, and evaluate their learning communities.

A new monograph appearing in early October 2007, co-published by NASPA and the Washington Center, is titled Learning Communities and Student Affairs: Partnering for Powerful Learning.
Barbara Leigh Smith, Kimberly Eby, Robin Jeffers, Judy Kjellman, Godon Koestler, Toska Olson, Rita Smilkstein, and Karen Spear, “Emerging Trends in Learning Community Development.” The Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education’s News, winter 2006.

Barbara Leigh Smith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick. Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education. Jossey Bass, 2004.

Barbara Leigh Smith is a senior scholar at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, an emeritus member of the faculty, and a former provost and vice president for academic affairs at The Evergreen State College. Smith and Jean MacGregor are founders of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, which has led learning community development for 20 years.

Excerpted from How to Take a Fresh Look at Your Learning Community, Student Affairs Leader, December 15, 2007.