Learning About Learning Communities


“The instructors in the learning community along with my peers have pushed me to do the best that I can as well as become stronger in my employability skills.” –NWTC First Year Student

Learning communities (LC) are a high impact practice that “generally involve a group of students taking two or more linked classes together as a cohort, ideally with the instructors of those classes coordinating course outlines and assignments as well as jointly reviewing student progress. Learning communities build a sense of academic and social community and increase engagement among students and faculty, all of which lead to a variety of positive outcomes” (Achieving the Dream, 2015).

Research, including in-depth studies from MDRC and colleges across the United States, found these positive outcomes to include everything from increased satisfaction and greater use of support services to improved retention.

In fall of 2014, NWTC piloted two different learning communities. One linked English Composition with Introduction to Diversity, and the other linked English Composition with Introduction to Psychology. The experience has been an eye opener for all of us involved, but the results have been really exciting, particularly in terms of student engagement.

Based on a week 11 survey, week 15 focus groups, and an informal in-class assessment:

  • 5% of students viewed in class interaction as higher in LC classes than other courses.
  • Of those with previous college experience, 61.1% viewed the quality of learning higher in LC courses than others.
  • 1% viewed writing assignments as beneficial in learning the content of the Psych/Diversity course.

Likewise, all three instructors involved discovered higher attendance rates in the learning community sections compared to non-learning community sections running that same term.

Truly, it’s the engagement—both with students and among instructors—that sets learning communities apart from just team teaching and/or contextualization of a class (though a learning community does both.) Student cohorts are together for three hours of class in the morning, share a one hour lunch break that corresponds with both instructors’ office hours, and then share three hours of class together in the afternoon. They are accountable, they are involved, and they are learning the material more deeply with these connections. Likewise, the sharing of activities and assessment alone makes this a win/win for those teaching a linked course. Though it’s a lot of work to collaborate so intimately with a peer, the overall teaching experience is enhanced.

Interested in hearing more? Want to see the data in detail? Considering a learning community in your area? Invite us to come to a team meeting or contact us individually. Learning communities are a nationally recognized student success initiative, and they play a role in Dr. Rafn’s Future 2018 Strategic Directions. Most importantly, though, they are a great opportunity for NWTC student and faculty engagement.

–Desi Franks (Psychology Instructor), Paul Schnorr (Sociology Instructor), Melissa Wilke (Communication Skills Instructor)

2 thoughts on “Learning About Learning Communities

  1. In the latest publication of Faculty Focus, the following essay appeared — I do not know if it complements your essay relative to cohort groups and teaching.

    Cohort Groups Can Present Special Challenges
    By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

    Many of us have encountered cohort groups in our teaching, and by that I mean those groups of students that proceed together through a program, typically a professional one. They take all or most of their courses together, often in lock step. Cohort teaching happens to some degree in most courses. Students in a major at smaller institutions often end up taking many of their courses together. Sometimes there are cohort groups within a class, say a group of commuter students who went to the same high school, or students who live on campus in the same residence hall, or a group of adults taking a work-related course.

    When students take all, most, or even a lot of their courses together, that student group bonds, often in a significant way. They get to know each other well—friendships develop, alliances are formed, sometimes there are cliques. Cohort groups have leaders, followers, and those who are in the group but not really a part of it. Cohorts develop “personalities.” Haven’t we all had those groups that pretty much whine about everything, or an uptight bunch that dithers about every detail? Some cohort groups (fewer than we’d like) are great, and are full of students who work hard and collaborate willingly.

    Cohort groups can present teachers with special challenges. In every course, there’s the student group and then there’s the teacher, but in cohort groups, the teacher’s outsider position is accentuated, especially when the group has been together for some time. The cohort has a history, a shared set of experiences, and usually a collection of inside jokes. Add to that the virtual certainty that the group has “discussed” the teacher of the current course, probably at length. The teacher has a reputation, but so does the cohort. Even though a teacher may aspire to meet the group with an open mind, she has definitely heard things about its members. Teachers and students come to every course with expectations, but they are more fixed when cohorts are involved.

    It often feels as though teachers have more to prove with these groups. Respect can’t be earned one student at a time. It’s awarded or withheld by the group. Adversarial relationships develop more easily. The teacher announces a decision and the class is unified in its opposition. Few are willing to agree with the teacher if that calls into question their allegiance to the group. Cohort groups can make teachers feel very lonely.

    If the teacher implements an instructional strategy not used by others teaching in the program, say she has students working in groups, does not share copies of her PowerPoint slides, or includes short-answer questions on multiple-choice tests, the cohort group resists. And they share that displeasure openly. To prevent whole group objections or to respond to them, teachers need to explain, without being defensive, the educational rationale that justifies use of the strategy. The objective is to select those instructional approaches that most effectively promote learning; whether students “like” them is a secondary issue.

    So how do teachers forge relationships in courses taken by cohort groups? I’d say they do it by listening to the group and by not seeing every objection as a challenge to their authority. It also helps to be flexible and willing to make adjustments (which is not the same as caving in to demands). If students would rather get the teacher’s notes than take notes themselves, is some sort of compromise possible? Could they post a set of class notes on the course website that the teacher responds to with questions, clarifications, and elaborations? Constructive relationships are forged when teachers are authentic and genuine, comfortable with who they are and how they teach. Teachers need to find that professional space in which they’re less concerned about being “liked” by the group and more concerned with providing quality learning experiences.

    Over the past several days I’ve been perusing my large article resource collection and I haven’t found one article that addresses the issues of cohort teaching. That’s a bit surprising. But I am quite certain that among the blog’s readers are any number of faculty who deal with cohort groups. I invite (indeed encourage) you to share your wisdom. What have you learned? Any good resources you could direct us to?

  2. This is an interesting point of view regarding cohorts, Roger, and I do agree with certain parts. In our last pilots, our students were mostly relatively young, and some of the few “older” students commented on the clique-y nature that took place. Interestingly, though, this author’s perspective of the instructor as outsider doesn’t really apply. Not only would I (and likely Paul and Desi, too) argue that we were more included with our students on a personal level, many students even commented that they felt more comfortable with us instructors because of the cohort nature.

    I will say this though–learning communities, like any high impact practice or new initiative, do create their own challenges. The good news is that this term, on our second round of LC pilots, we’re finding exciting ways to turn these challenges into learning opportunities.

    Thanks for sharing!

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