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