Learning Communities. ERIC Digest.
by Kellogg, Karen
During the last two decades, higher education has focused on providing
learning environments conducive to students participating in their own
learning. Institutions have tried to find ways for students to actively
participate with faculty members and to encourage them to build a support
network, form friendships and connect with their institutions. Learning
communities, in their various forms, have assisted higher education in
providing these experiences.
WHAT ARE LEARNING COMMUNITIES
The origin of learning communities dates back to 1927 when Alexander
Meiklejohn formed the two-year Experimental College at the University of
Wisconsin. Students and faculty read and discussed classic Greek literature
the first year and compared it to the contemporary American literature
in the second-year. Students were required to connect these ideas and write
a paper during the summer between the first and second years. Although
this first attempt at a learning community was short-lived--only six years--it
provided the foundation for the learning communities we know today.
Although learning communities in their basic form have existed in one
form or another for over seventy years, their recent resurgence has expanded
to include many different models. Learning communities intentionally restructure
the curriculum to connect students and faculty in common courses, often
including seminars or a peer advising component. According to Gabelnick,
MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith (1990, p. 19), "A learning community is
any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several
existing courses--or actually restructure the curricular material entirely--so
that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and integration
of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another
and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise."
Learning communities help students link their academic work with active
and increased intellectual interaction with each other and with faculty.
Learning communities also promote coherence among students and create a
sense of common purpose and community. Alexander Astin (1985, p. 161) in
Schroeder & Mable (1994, p. 167) defines learning communities as "small
subgroups of students. . .characterized by a common sense of purpose. .
.that can be used to build a sense of group identity, cohesiveness, and
uniqueness that encourage continuity and the integration of diverse curricular
and co-curricular experiences."
Currently, there are five major learning community models in existence.
Many institutions find that choosing a single model is not as beneficial
as using bits and pieces from two or three models. Each institution has
its own mission and can design the learning communities that best fit that
"Linked Courses" - This model links a cohort of students with two common
courses. One course is typically content-based (science, math) and the
other is an application course (writing, speech). The faculty of each course
may teach independently or together and coordinate syllabi and assignments
so that the classes compliment each other. The Linked Courses Model provides
a shared experience for students that focuses on a content-based course
that is actively supported by a skills course.
The University of Washington has a nationally recognized Interdisciplinary
Writing Program in which students take an expository writing course that
is linked with a general education lecture course. Students can choose
up to 27 different general education courses. Instructors work together
to generate ideas for assignments in the writing class based on the general
education course. The community is formed in the small writing classes
and students share a common identity and purpose while in the general education
"Learning Clusters" - The Learning Cluster Model is similar to the Linked
Course Model except that instead of linking two courses together, three
or four courses are linked with one cohort, often serving as the students'
entire course load. However, in Learning Clusters, the courses are usually
based on a theme, historical periods, issues, or problems. The degree to
which the three or four faculty work together depends on the institution
but can vary from common syllabi, joint assignments to team teaching. Often,
Learning Clusters have a seminar component in which the students meet weekly
or bi-weekly to discuss class work and shared experiences. Students in
Learning Clusters may also have planned social events, field trips, or
At Western Michigan University, the Honors College Program has at least
four Learning Clusters each semester. Some examples have included: Human
Nature (Introduction to Biomedical Sciences, Thought and Writing, and General
Psychology); Thought and Politics (Thought and Writing, Principles of Sociology,
and Introduction to Political Science); and Information Processing (Informational
Writing, Finite Mathematics with Applications, and Principles of Sociology).
"Freshman Interest Groups" (FIGs) - The Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs)
are similar to Linked Courses in that they link three freshmen courses
together by theme; this is especially suited for large universities because
many FIGs can be offered simultaneously. FIGs are linked around academic
majors and include a peer advising component where freshman can discuss
course work and problems adjusting to college. Because of the weekly seminars,
led by a peer advisor, faculty play a lesser role, but may be active in
the FIGs by attending social events or the occasional weekly seminar.
The University of Oregon originated the FIG model out of need for academic
advising assistance and building a community among freshmen in each major.
Courses selected for FIGs are often foundation courses for a major and
a smaller writing or communications course. Students are invited to join
a FIG the summer before they start college. Some FIGs at the University
of Oregon include: Pre-Law (American Government, Introduction to Philosophy:
Ethics and Fundamentals of Public Speaking); Journalism-Communications:
(Comparative Literature, Technology and Society, and Fundamentals of Speech
Communication); Art and Architecture (Survey of the Visual Arts, Landscape,
Environment and Culture, and English Composition); and Pre-Health Sciences
(Biology lecture and lab, Psychology, and English Composition).
"Federated Learning Communities" - This model is the most complex Learning
Community Model because a cohort of students takes three theme-based courses
in addition to a three credit seminar taught by a Master Learner. The Master
Learner is a professor from a different discipline who takes the courses
and fulfills all the requirements of the classes along with the students.
He or she then leads the seminar and assists students in synthesizing and
exploring the opinions and points of view of students from the three courses.
Faculty in Federated Learning Communities are relieved of their other teaching
SUNY at Stony Brook has a Federated Learning Community for upper level
students majoring in psychology or biology that includes courses titled
General Genetics, The Healer and the Witch in History, Philosophy and Medicine
and a three-credit seminar, Social and Ethical Issues in the Life Sciences.
Coordinated Studies - In Coordinated Studies, faculty and students participate
in full-time active learning based on an interdisciplinary theme. This
curriculum can last an entire year and the faculty have the opportunity
to redesign the entire curriculum, providing extensive professional development
for faculty. Coordinated Studies provide 16 credits per semester and are
team taught by several faculty members in set blocks each week. These Learning
Communities are thematic and can be broad or narrow in scope. This model
is most closely tied to the Meiklejohn Model.
Evergreen State College uses the Coordinated Studies Model and has themes
such as: Quests (credit is given for anthropology and developmental writing);
Reflections of Nature (credit is received in the visual arts, physics,
biology, literature and computer science); and Science Shakes the Foundations:
Dickens, Darwin, Marx, and You (classes in English composition, physical
anthropology, the history of science and economics are given credits in
The benefits of learning communities to students are numerous but extend
beyond students to faculty and the entire institution. Students involved
in learning communities show an increase in academic achievement, retention,
motivation, intellectual development, learning, and involvement and community.
Learning communities also reinforce positive views of the institution.
Faculty that teach in learning communities reveal that they become re-energized
and feel empowered. They feel as if their opinions are valued; and the
rich teaching experience allows them to be creative and increases their
commitment to the institution. Institutions report that learning communities
draw diverse elements together toward a common goal, which improves the
overall campus climate. Learning communities have proved to be a practical
solution to long-standing, complex educational issues.
Gabelnick, F., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R. S., & Smith, B. L.(1990).
Learning communities: Creating connections among students, faculty, and
disciplines. New Directions for Teaching And Learning, 41. San Francisco:
Matthews, R. S., Smith, B. L., MacGregor, J., & Gabelnick, F. (1997).
"Creating learning communities." In J. G. Gaff, J. L. Ratcliff, & Associates
(Eds.), Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide
to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change.. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
Schroeder, C. C., Mable, P., & Associates. (1994). Realizing the
educational potential of residence halls. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Smith, B. L. (1991). Taking structure seriously: The learning community
model. Liberal Education, 77(2), 42-48.
Smith, B. L. (1993). Creating learning communities. Liberal Education,