Overcoming Obstacles: Implementing Learning Communities at Your Institution

In my last blog post, I focused on the different ways of linking courses in order to make the case, as Shapiro and Levine do, that the more we customize our learning communities to meet the specific needs of our students, the greater the positive effects on the institution. However, as we begin to scale up, we begin to face obstacles that are not necessarily of a pedagogical nature, obstacles that must be overcome in order to assure the survival of our linked courses. Having linked courses, unfortunately, does not assure students will take those classes. There are lessons to be learned from previous institutions that have already gone through this kind of overhaul. For example, Shapiro and Levine explain that “[o]ther campuses have found that offering learning communities does not guarantee participation, particularly among a freshman population often skeptical to try something new or different” (Creating Learning Communities). I know that at Truman we had some issues with low enrollment early on due, I am sure, to the difficulties that often arise when a new pedagogical model requires serious alterations in scheduling, registration, advising and student expectations.

Getting the Word Out:

Interestingly, one of the greatest challenges to implementing learning communities is simply informing students, parents and faculty about what they are and what advantages they provide. Shapiro and Levine describe very simple and effective strategies for raising awareness about learning communities. For students, she focuses on developing program literature that answers the following questions:

1. What is a learning community?

2. Why should I enroll?

3. What can learning communities offer me?

4. How do I enroll?

They argue that this information should be included in all recruitment materials, applications, brochures, and videos; it should also be prominently displayed on the college website and be presented to incoming freshman at orientation. Our authors also believe that students who have already participated in linked courses should, if at all possible, be a part of orientation to further reassure students about the value of linked courses and get them excited for the upcoming year. At the very least, claim our authors, “Program literature should include quotations from former participants.”

For faculty, Shapiro and Levine obviously focus on professional development activities. They argue, “In the same way that the campus needs to prepare students with new expectations for their college experience by building in a transition . . . it needs to acknowledge the importance of orienting faculty to the new rules expected of them.” Shapiro and Levine feel workshops should be led by faculty who have already participated in learning communities because “much of the development of the sense of community comes from faculty exploring with each other and defining together their own expectations.” They feel that learning communities cannot be successful if they are not “owned” by the faculty/departments that are offering them. And because so many learning communities are paired with a writing class, our authors point out that it might be a good idea to have experienced faculty demonstrate that “write-to-learn” does not necessarily mean more grading, nor does it require a teacher in a discipline outside of English to have expertise assessing writing. Initially, learning communities will require more work in terms of planning and collaboration, but much of that can be alleviated over time as instructors develop reusable curriculum and through shared assignments and shared grading.

 Technical Issues:

Another challenge to implementing learning communities happens at registration. Registration can sometimes be an obstacle when it comes to student success, and it can really hurt learning communities if not handled with care and forethought. If the individuals registering students (which are the faculty at Truman) don’t know about the existence of learning communities, the result, obviously, is low enrollment, but, more importantly, if registering for learning communities is too complicated or confusing, that too can affect enrollment numbers. Our authors favor having students register for learning communities during orientation, assuming the institution has the ability to register all those students at that time. Shapiro and Levine also suggest listing learning communities separately in the catalogue from conventional classes because they fear it will be confusing to the students. The issue, as far as I see it, is that if learning communities are listed separately, they may be perceived as optional, and students will be much less likely to sign up for them. As my students often tell me, “We don’t do optional.” Our authors do feel, however, that students not enrolled fully in a learning community should be able to register for linked and stand-alone courses in the same place and at the same time. Similarly, institutions must decide if signing up for one class will automatically enroll the student in the paired class. This will most likely also involve a discussion with IT. One way to deal with this issue is to implement block scheduling on a large scale.  Block scheduling simply means having linked courses meet back-to-back. Blocking should reduce scheduling issues that arise when students need both linked and stand-alone courses. Block scheduling has the added advantage of “provid[ing] faculty and students with more time to plan and engage in collaborative learning and community-building activities.” In order to further encourage student participation, Shapiro and Levine suggest scheduling learning communities during peak times.

Other Incentives:

Besides making sure there are few obstacles impeding the implementation of learning communities, some institutions provide further incentives to students who participate in learning communities by “creat[ing] a special citation” on their transcripts. One institution went so far as to create an alternative orientation for their learning communities students and had them go around campus testing water for pollutants. Parents reported in a survey that their children came back from this orientation very excited about the upcoming semester. Finally, our authors suggest developing “a name for the program, a logo, and an event T-shirt . . . to foster community identification, which makes it that much easier to build authentic community.”  For example, Kingsborough Community College’s program has the catchy moniker, “Opening Doors.” These are only a few creative ways of generating student excitement and fostering lasting community.

As always, I invite comments and questions. Large-scale collaboration is going to be essential for making our transition a smooth one. As fall 2014 approaches, we need to make sure the information about learning communities is in the hands of students, their families, faculty, and staff.  We also need to be as proactive about addressing any technical concerns as we are about pedagogical ones. And finally, faculty and staff must communicate between departments and between campuses to discuss setbacks and successes, solutions and best practices so our learning communities are fully enrolled, blocked and integrated.

– Timothy Matos, Reinvention7 team member, faculty at Truman College

Choosing the Right Learning Community by Timothy Matos

In my previous post on March 17th, I briefly discussed how learning communities benefit students and faculty (and, by extension, institutions) by improving success and retention rates and by fostering interdisciplinarity and integrated learning. This week I’d like to explore the different types of learning communities since, as many experts have pointed out, one of the biggest advantages of this model is its modifiability. Nancy S. Shapiro and Jodi H. Levine, in their book, Creating Learning Communities, “do not recommend that campuses [simply] replicate another campus’s learning communities.” No two institutions are exactly alike, of course, which makes the flexibility of this model one of its chief strengths and something that must be taken into careful consideration if we are to maximize the impact of our linked courses. “Customizing learning communities to fit the culture of a campus,” argue Shapiro and Levine, “means dedicating time and resources to build learning communities that are the right fit for the institution.”

According to our authors, there are four general types of learning community: paired or clustered courses, cohorts in large classes, team-taught programs and residence-based programs. (Given the nature of City Colleges, we can ignore the last of these.) Clearly, we need not accept these four categories as definitive, but I think they provide a good starting point for considering the many options available to us as we continue to develop and, more importantly, scale-up these course offerings.

At Truman, our linked courses tend to be of the paired or clustered variety.  These are individually taught courses that also tend to be blocked. There are essentially two ways of handling paired courses. One kind of pairing focuses on the integration of basic skills while the other type is organized by theme. The first type is most common for institutions that make learning communities the center of the first-year experience in order “to introduce students to what it means to be a college student.” This model is often used in conjunction with “developmental programs that provide at-risk students with a support network of faculty, peers, and counselors.” These classes might pair a developmental reading and/or writing class with a college success class. The goal of these blocks tends to be to reinforce skills between the classes. For example, College Success instructor may assign students an article about the first-generation college experience. The reading teacher, then, can use the article to teach active reading techniques while the writing teacher can have the students write an essay based on the same article. The second variety is linked by theme and tends to include classes in the disciplines. The professors may decide, for instance, to do a unit on Chicago neighborhoods and then align their assignments to the theme rather than the development of specific skills. Clusters, which are composed of three or four courses centered on a common theme, are simply expansions of the latter approach. Instructors have the added benefit of being able to take advantage of the block scheduling to do cocurricular activities like field trips, film screenings, guest speakers, and social gatherings.

The second type of learning community is the cohorts in large classes model—sometimes referred to as FIGs (Freshman Interest Groups). These are designed to make the freshman experience at large universities more manageable by providing the students with smaller cohorts within large freshman lecture classes. Although we do not have giant freshman seminars at the City Colleges, we are enrolling all of our new students in cohorts for similar reasons. Although they will not get the same benefits of a thematically-linked cluster, they will get the substantial social benefits that come from taking a number of classes with the same people.

Finally, in team-taught programs, students are enrolled “in two or more courses organized around an interdisciplinary theme.” Faculty often grade together but students receive individual grades. “These programs,” our authors caution, “are the most complex in terms of curricular integration and faculty role.” They are also the most intensive of the models when it comes to professional development, but they are likely to be the most rewarding as well. Chandler Gilbert Community College in Arizona, for example, is one institution that takes advantage of this model for their reading and writing classes. The teachers have a large block of class time with no clear distinction between when writing class ends and reading class begins, which allows for a great deal of instructional flexibility since both instructors are present in the classroom at the same time, taking turns leading the class and supporting the students.  If “success in college is directly connected to student-faculty interaction, student involvement in cocurricular activities, and, most important, peer influences and interaction,” then team-taught programs, ideally at least, have the best chance of reaching these goals.

As I said earlier, one need not take this taxonomy too literally since the lines between these different models is sometimes fuzzy and opportunities for combining these various approaches seem to be myriad. The authors themselves conclude that it is becoming increasingly common to make use of multiple models on a campus, which makes practical sense for a model whose greatest strength is targeted customization.

As always, I invite readers to post comments or questions. If you’ve read a recent article on learning communities, please feel free to post a link.  If you know of any other models or initiatives relevant to our discussion, please share.

     – Timothy Matos, Reinvention7 team member, faculty at Truman College

Latina/o Ethnography and the Anthropological Toolkit by Sergio Lemus

Reinvention task force member Sergio Lemus is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has conducted ethnographic research among Mexican lawn care service workers in the City of Chicago. Lemus uses border theory to explore how color hierarchies, borders, capitalism, and the body produce and reproduce a Mexican culture in the United States.  Sergio recently contributed a blog to Anthropology News, the official site of the American Anthropological Association. It’s an interesting read.  Take a look…

     – Scott Martyn, Center for Operational Excellence

Your Chance to Reinvent City Colleges

If you are a member of CCC Faculty or Staff or a current CCC student, now’s your chance to join a Reinvention team for the fall semester 2014.  We have opportunities both at the district office (Reinvention) and at the colleges (Reinvention7) to work with your colleagues to be a part of the change that’s moving City Colleges of Chicago forward.  The projects that we will be working on during the fall semester fall into the following categories;

  • Placement and Remediation – This work includes research and additional development of the most effective ways to move students to college readiness. Topics to be addressed include placement methods, learning communities and co-requisites, embedded tutoring, and work on alignment of curriculum to college readiness.
  • Enrollment Management – Here we’ll explore all aspects of student intake, supports and completion. Our focus will include admissions, registration, first year experience, caseload management approaches to student support and models for group and faculty advising.
  • Pathways – Work on the continual improvements of the new semester-by-semester program maps, education plans and other enhancements to our student pathways and the new “Student GPS.”  Aspects of this work include 15 to finish, ensuring program relevance, block scheduling and whole program enrollment and all of the communications and training needed to implement these changes.

All of this work builds on the reform efforts of faculty, staff and students from all seven colleges who have been on Reinvention teams over the past three years. To learn more about Reinvention’s work during that time, visit www.ccc.edu/reinvention or if you have specific questions, email us at reinvention@ccc.edu.

Interested in joining a Reinvention or Reinvention7 team for the fall 2014 semester? Applications are now being accepted from all interested City College faculty, staff and students. Apply today—the deadline is Friday, April 11th.

To apply, send an email to reinvention@ccc.edu. Identify your top areas of interest from the list above and include the following in your email;

  • A brief biography or résumé describing your skill set as it pertains to your preferred projects.
  • Five ideas to address the challenges within your preferred projects.
  • Your contact information (phone and email) so that we can follow up with you.

We look forward to working with you in the fall!

     – Scott Martyn, Center for Operational Excellence

Reinvention7 Learning Communities: Update

The numbers are consistent across the country, and they are sobering: about 45 percent of community college students fail to complete a degree or enroll in another institution or academic program. Over the last couple of decades, researchers have speculated that factors outside the classroom might account for the high attrition rates at the post-secondary level. Many researchers believe the key to student persistence is the first year experience. College Success courses, improved student orientations, aggressive advising, streamlined registration are only a few of the changes that have emerged from this increased interest in the students’ initial interactions with the institution as a whole, not just as a place where they take classes. Vince Tinto (a professor at Syracuse University and a specialist in student retention and learning communities) states, “[S]imply put, the more students are involved in the social and academic life of an institution, the more likely they are to learn and persist” (Learning Communities and the Reconstruction of Remedial Education in Higher Learning). Tinto’s notion is that the more quickly a student connects with peers, professors and advisors, the more likely they are to continue their education and to overcome obstacles. His ideas have been instrumental in the shaping and implementing of clustered and/or linked courses, which we now call Learning Communities. The advantage of this model is that it brings “curricular coherence; integrative, high-quality learning; collaborative knowledge-construction; and skills and knowledge relevant to living in a complex, messy, diverse world” (A New Era in Learning-Community Work: Why The Pedagogy of Intentional Integration Matters).

Kingsborough Community College’s Opening Doors Learning Communities program, for example, links two or more individually taught courses that students take together as a cohort. These courses are also blocked, which means that they meet one after the other. Their Learning Communities are often unified by theme, which has the added advantage of providing the professors with the opportunity to create interdisciplinary assignments and to reinforce skills between classes. The latter is incredibly important because when “a campus gets it right, enriched integrative learning is the result. When a campus doesn’t, retention data improves, at least in the short run, but the substantive, multi-faceted, and deep learning that learning communities can engender too often remains underdeveloped”( A New Era in Learning-Community Work: Why The Pedagogy of Intentional Integration Matters). A study was done in 2005 to evaluate the efficacy of the Kingsborough program, and the data is overwhelmingly positive:
• Opening Doors students substantially outperformed control group students during their first semester at Kingsborough, achieving higher course pass rates, particularly in English.
• One year after enrollment, Opening Doors students were more likely to have completed their remedial English requirements. (Building Learning Communities: Early Results from the Opening Doors Demonstration at Kingsborough Community College)

At Truman College, we have been linking classes in this manner for a few years and our internal numbers echo those of Kingsborough. Students in our Learning Communities outperform their peers in terms of course completion and retention, especially in the developmental sections. It’s a flexible, exciting model that allows faculty new opportunities for developing integrated, cross-disciplinary curricula and provides the students with an immediate, built-in community of peers and professors. As we move forward at the City Colleges of Chicago, Learning Communities and blocked classes are going to play a key role in the success of our students.

If you’d like to know more about the various ins and outs of Learning Communities, please leave a comment or any questions you might still have. For those of you with experience teaching Learning Communities, please share your successes and challenges—great themes, projects, assignments, etc. And, most importantly, it’s not too soon (or too late depending on how you look at it) to get more directly involved in the planning and implementation of Learning Communities by interacting with or becoming a part of your local Reinvention 7 team.

     – Carlo Matos, Reinvention7, Truman College

Now’s your chance to join a Reinvention team for the spring semester 2014

We have opportunities both at the district office (Reinvention) and at the colleges (Reinvention7) for CCC faculty, staff and students to work with your colleagues and be a part of the change that’s moving City Colleges of Chicago forward!  Examples of the projects that we will be working on during the spring semester include;

  • Advising – Development of student caseload management approaches and models for group and faculty advising.
  • Civic Collaboration – Working with the city, CPS and a number of four-year institutions in support of our students’ ability to effectively transition between institutions in a more seamless manner.
  • Data Management – Working on ways to increase the adoption of OpenBook through development of training materials, modules and videos and through working with faculty and administration across the district to define additional data and reporting needs.
  • Developmental Education – This work includes research and additional development of learning communities and co-requisites, embedded tutoring, and work on alignment of developmental curriculum and program outcomes.
  • Online Learning – Help define the best application of online learning methodologies and technology for CCC students.  This includes the best approach for assessing student readiness in online and hybrid environments and how MOOCs and other new delivery methods should be addressed by CCC.
  • Operations – Get involved with the strategic planning process, Campus Solutions upgrade and other activities to enhance the operational activities needed to support out colleges and our students.
  • Pathways – Work on the continual improvements of the new semester-by-semester program maps and other enhancements to our student pathways and the new Student GPS.  Aspects of this work includes college success, block scheduling and program enrollment.
  • Placement – We’re working to improve the accuracy and efficiency by which our students are placed into their initial classes at CCC. This includes the application cognitive and non-cognitive assessments and the processes, procedures and policies in support of the best placement decisions.

All of this work builds on the reform efforts of faculty, staff and students from all seven colleges who have served on Reinvention teams over the past three years. To learn more about Reinvention’s work during that time, visit www.ccc.edu/reinvention or if you have specific questions, email us at reinvention@ccc.edu.

Interested in joining a Reinvention or Reinvention7 team for the spring 2014 semester? Applications are now being accepted from all interested City College faculty, staff and students. Apply today—the deadline is Wednesday, November 27th.

To apply, send an email to reinvention@ccc.edu. Identify your top two project areas of interest from the list above and include the following in your email;

  • A brief biography or résumé describing your skill set as it pertains to your preferred project areas.
  • Five ideas to address the challenges within your preferred project areas.
  • Your contact information (phone and email) so that we can follow up with you.


Semester-by-Semester Program Maps going live across CCC

Beginning on Friday, November 1st, semester-by-semester program maps designed to assist students and advisors in getting students on the right pathway earlier in their academic careers, started going live. “Pathways” is a concept that you may be familiar with as it is one that we’ve been embracing as key to the College-to-Careers initiative and now have expanded across the rest of our programs. Each pathway is a series of one or more stackable programs leading toward a given career. In some cases the pathway is a single program (e.g., an AA where there are no basic or advanced certificates to be earned along the way). In other cases, the pathway may offer a student the opportunity to earn multiple credentials along the way (e.g., a Basic Certificate that leads to an Advanced Certificate that leads to an AAS).

Semester-by-Semester Maps (often referred to simply as Semester Maps) are the physical manifestation of the pathways. Each Semester Map provides an example of what a full-time student’s semester-by-semester route along a given pathway might look like. The map is not intended to replace an education plan but rather to assist both the student and advisor in understanding what’s required to complete a pathway. The map will be used by the advisor in working with the student to customize an education plan.

A sample semester-by-semester program map.

A sample semester-by-semester program map.

All of the Pathways have been categorized into ten Focus Areas. The purpose of the Focus Areas is to allow a student to declare an area of interest at a broad level (meta-major) as early as possible so that they can begin taking courses with far less risk of taking courses that won’t work toward their future program. The ten Focus Areas are: Advanced Manufacturing; Business and Professional Services; Construction Technology and Drafting; Culinary Arts and Hospitality; Healthcare; Information Technology; Life and Physical Sciences; Liberal Arts; Public and Human Services; and Transportation, Distribution and Logistics (TDL).

The Ten Focus Areas for City Colleges of Chicago Pathways

The Ten Focus Areas for City Colleges of Chicago Pathways

For each Focus Area we have developed a Focus Area overview and education plan template, a starter plan that includes space for the advisor to plan the first two semesters at most. We’ve also developed a new standardized Education Plan for use by advisors and students across the district. The new format is being developed by advisors (based on the various versions currently in use) to provide better clarity and accuracy of the plans.

So, how will it all work together?

The first choice a student makes is which of the ten Focus Areas they are interested in. This is a much easier choice than trying to decided between hundreds of specific programs. However, if the student isn’t ready to make the choice yet, and are undecided, the default is Liberal Arts. Based on their focus area choice, the advisor helps them develop a Focus Area Education Plan to get them started in the right direction. During his or her first semester the student engages in career exploration (through enhanced College Success and other means) and meets with their advisor to consider specific pathways. Once the student chooses a pathway they review the Semester Map for the suggested course sequence and work with their advisor to develop an Education Plan that customizes the pathway represented in the map based on the student’s starting point and preferred credit load.

These pathways and the maps that guide students along them are the culmination of a great deal of work by too many people to thank individually here but I want to thank everyone that’s been involved.  Your dedication serves our students well!

     – Scott Martyn, Associate Vice Chancellor, Strategy