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Learning Communities: More to It Than Just Pairing Courses

Since 1996, Valencia College has experimented with several versions of learning communities — two courses “linked” together that enroll the same cohort of students, are taught collaboratively by faculty of the two different disciplines, and include a minimum of three integrated lessons. A success coach (usually an academic adviser or counselor) is part of the course delivery team and supports the linked courses with regular visits to the classroom coupled with small presentations throughout the term. Through the national movement, Achieving the Dream, or AtD, an initiative to improve student success and equality, the college proposed to expand the learning communities program called Learning in Community, or LinC, to close the performance gaps in student achievement. The definition of Valencia’s learning communities is provided because many colleges have learning communities; however, when institutions are asked to elaborate, definitions and descriptions of these communities are extremely diverse.

The AtD LinC program was implemented in the fall of 2006 with the assumption that participating in the paired course formats would help improve students’ success in a course or courses known to be challenging. The goal of the LinC program is to provide students with a shared experience in which they learn more about each other and the curriculum as a cohort. The premise was that getting to know one another quickly and intimately helps the student get involved in school, both socially and intellectually. This process promotes cognitive development as well as an appreciation of a learner’s ability to enhance his learning.

Valencia’s community believed that the benefits, in terms of students’ success, would be worth the cost and detailed planning. The experience with learning communities demonstrates the need for many institutional champions to help remove logistical and monetary barriers that made it difficult to implement this program. These champions included administrators, institutional research personnel, faculty, student services personnel, staff, and students. College-wide organization and a plan for growth of LinC pairs was necessary in order to design a comprehensive strategic plan to prepare for faculty recruitment and pairing, coordination with academic deans and scheduling, faculty and staff development, student promotion and registration, program support during the course and overall program evaluation.

The cost to implement learning communities varies by institution and whether a college is in the beginning stages of forming learning communities or has years of experience. Increasing the number of LinC courses offered will continue to be a challenge with institutional budget cuts. In searching for resourceful ways to cut costs, Valencia has created a hybrid professional development course that compensates faculty with professional development hours for completing the course design. In addition, the course is partially taught through an online platform, making it more accessible throughout the calendar year and allows for synchronous and asynchronous faculty and staff interaction.

An important part of any innovation is to study its overall effectiveness. Some may study the success of learning communities by counting the number of pairs they offered and their increase over time. Is that really what makes learning communities successful? Of course, scaling the program is important, but so is collecting the data about the program’s effectiveness in terms of the goals and outcomes defined by each institution. Valencia uses the term “meaningful improvement” to guide the study of the innovation. The definition of meaningful improvement includes a balance of statistically significant improvement in target quantitative measures, significant improvement relative to a comparative group and economic efficiency in relationship to difficulty of improving the success of students.

Valencia College has continued to use LinC courses and expand the offerings because the data continues to show LinC courses as an important strategy to increase student course success (course success defined as earning a grade of “C” or better), particularly for Hispanic and African-American students. Other quantitative measures include students in LinC courses had lower course withdrawal rates indicating that more students completed the course, even if they weren’t successful.

Unfortunately, the added commitments that go along with teaching in a learning community tend to discourage some faculty from becoming involved. It is important for the institution to highlight the LinC programs’ strengths and the benefits that faculty receive from teaching in learning communities. This includes (but is not limited to) faculty development, peer observations, strong ties to student affairs and increased student success rates.

As educators, we know that building a strong foundation for innovation is necessary to make changes in the lives of our students. At Valencia, learning communities are successful because the college continuously studies and analyzes the innovation’s “meaningful improvement.”

— Robyn Brighton is college-wide learning communities coordinator at Valencia College. Dr. Julie M. Phelps is a professor of mathematics and a former project director of Achieving the Dream at Valencia College. The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development at the University of Texas at Austin.

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