Learning Communities: Experiment I+

Eureka!  It works…better anyway.

It must have been a very affirming experience when Thomas Edison found that carbonized cotton was a good filament for a light bulb.  According to biographers he had tested several thousand plant fibers in his attempt to find a carbonized substance with sufficient durability to generate light, and this after testing a variety of other substances.  The cotton filament glowed for about 15 hours before burning out.  More experimentation discovered other types of filaments capable of glowing for hundreds of hours. The age of electric lighting was born.

For the past few years, my colleagues and I have been experimenting with a variety of different learning community strategies trying to hit on a model workable for us. My next few posts intend to document aspects of some of the experiments in learning communities we’ve been trying recently.

Most of us knew instinctively what the research suggests…that learning communities are power tools to promote student learning, enhance faculty development and bond participants together around a common cause.  We had been doing this quite successfully in our adult degree completion programs, athletic teams, and majors with sufficient incoming freshman students to make viable cohorts for years.  We even experimented with a couple of varieties of paired General Education courses, successes in which should have been assessed and documented better (for if they had been we might have gotten off to a better start sooner).

In 2007, we designed a freshman advising strategy that would automatically enroll incoming freshman into fundamental general education classes with goal of forming cohorts of students who shared something academically in common…their intended major.  The courses selected were composition, speech, computing, and Biblical literature.  Students had to take them; they were best taken in the freshman year; it made sense to short-circuit the “customer is always right” mentality of too many academic advisors who sometimes let students who expressed reservations about taking Comp I (because they might take in summer school at the JUCO next summer) off the hook for it.

There were several issues that made the process a little tricky.  The first was that we had a very decentralized course scheduling process.  Department chairs were responsible for scheduling faculty members in their department in a way that accommodated departmental needs, faculty life issues, and provided a sufficient number of general education student seats.  The notion was to create sufficient spread to accommodate lots of different student schedule needs.  The result was courses spread throughout the day.  This worked ok, but when one added cohorting students into shared sections, it got confusing quickly.  Since I believe in shared governance as much as is possible, I kicked off the process by meeting with Department Chairs. I handed out the section schedule for those classes, and asked them to identify the sections that didn’t conflict with classes necessary for freshmen in their major. Then staff in the Registrar’s Office worked out a set of schedules by major.  We took historical data for three years and got an idea of how many students we could expect in each major.  This helped us add a section here and there of composition or speech at a needed time.

When students became ready to enroll for Fall 2008, a Registrar’s Office staffer created an initial enrollment for the student that included a section of Composition, a section of Intro to Speech, and a computing class in the first semester.  In order to accommodate the restrictions of the number of sections that could be offered related to faculty staffing, we split the incoming students into three groups, provisionally admitted students, which we will call track I, who had a set of remedial courses, students who needed to take Composition I, who we will call track II, and students who for some reason waived out of Composition I (AP, high ACT score, etc) who we will call, you guessed it, track III.  Track II students would be enrolled in Comp I, Intro to Speech and computing. They would enroll in Composition II and Biblical Literature in the Spring. Track III students, who recall didn’t need Comp I, were enrolled in the second composition course and the Biblical Literature.  They would enroll in Intro to Speech and computing in the spring. Additionally, the Registrar’s Office enrolled the track II students into major courses identified by the department chair as must haves.  That typically resulted in a full-time enrollment schedule.  Track III students, because they were often bring in some AP credit, etc, were called and enrolled by advisers from the department in major courses.

From the outset, there were some known issues with which we decided we would just live.  We knew, for instance, that most sections would not fill with students in just one major.  Unfortunately, the decentralized schedule creation scheme under which we traditionally worked meant that we could not find a way to get anything like affiliate majors together in the same sections without more work than it was probably worth for an experiment.  So we lived with business and art majors in the same section of Comp I and Speech.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean that we couldn’t really leverage the power of common interest at a scale that would result in critical mass. We knew we had about 25% of an incoming class who declared themselves to be undeclared majors.  We we decided to filter them into sections with available space since we didn’t have a very good way of determining, through admissions contacts or otherwise, what might be appropriate sections to help them explore their potential interests and we didn’t have enough faculty to efficiently staff sections especially for undeclared students.

We told faculty teaching sections of courses grouped together that the students in their classes represented a subset of majors, that they were also all enrolled in another class together depending on their track, and so these faculty could, if the so chose, allude to what every else the students should be learning in the other class. They could, if they so chose, visit with the other faculty member(s) associated with there students to talk about what they were teaching, explore some common strategies or assignments, or share about student issues.  All that happened in a few cases.

There were not a few concerns expressed throughout the campus community about the potential negative effects.  Some faculty expressed concern over what this would do to faculty load balances and overall department scheduling. We also had to assure faculty in the Education and Nursing programs that this would not negatively impact the degree checksheet advising plans that their tightly prescribed programs of study required to be followed. Those interested in recruitment and student satisfaction, at the highest levels, expressed fear that restricting student choice and requiring students to enroll in particular sections of a course (even if they might have a preference for taking classes later in the morning or with a particular instructor) would have a deleterious effect on recruiting.  We also had difficulty with communicating to recruiting personnel how to explain to prospect what we were trying to do with incoming students.  That was in part due to the fact that while we had good intuitions and some research finding from other places backing us, we didn’t have the authentic anecdotal data that admission personnel have learned compel prospect interest.  Nor was what we thought we might accomplish with this capable of being phrased succinctly enough.

Toward the end of the first semester, we did a quick survey asking students in these groups how they felt about the cohorting, which, recall, was more or less just allowing students take a few classes with the same classmates, some of whom also shared similar occupational goals. Overall, students reported that they liked the social connectedness that they felt and that they saw that things they were learning in one course were related to things that they were learning in the associated courses.  Conversations with faculty suggested that students seemed more engaged, including to one faculty members dismay, that in one section, in which the students all shared the same major, the students were so familiar and bonded with one another that they disconcertingly violated the norms of freshman-level class behavior. Ah, how interesting.

Also interesting was that retention data for track I and track II students, the most heavily cohorted groups of students, showed an uptick in second to third semester retention.  That was not unpredictable based on the previous research, which suggested that learning communities helped less prepared students become more academically successful and thus more likely to stay in school.

Helpful to the overall project was the new VP for Student Affairs, who had been part of a student affairs staff that had been part of university-wide thematic learning communities.  He was tasked with chairing the Retention Task Force, and led the effort to getting the president’s cabinet to support piloting a more sophisticated thematic learning community, which could more intensively cohort freshmen around a common interest.  It took recognition of a retention “crisis” and some new blood at the VP level to get sufficient momentum on implementing this powerful concept for the traditional programs at college-wide levels to ramp up a proof of concept test. This project became the recipient of a small grant from a local foundation interested in the arts, and the planning process for an integrated curriculum began in the spring.  I’ll tell that story in a soon to be written subsequent post.