Scaling Up Learning Communities
The Experience of Six Community Colleges
Community college leaders are using many strategies to improve their students’ ability to complete their studies, particularly their academically underprepared students. In recent years, these strategies have included adaptations of an approach long used in four-year colleges known as “learning communities,” in which groups of students enroll together in two or more courses. Learning communities often feature thematically linked courses and offer an integrated curriculum that helps students to see connections between disciplines. Increasingly, colleges use learning communities to help academically underprepared students progress more quickly toward successful completion of their studies by linking a developmental course with a college-level course. Proponents of learning communities believe that linking courses in this way helps students get to know each other better or more quickly, enables them to see connections between disciplines, encourages them to engage more deeply with learning, and fosters stronger relationships with faculty. These experiences are expected to engage students and to ultimately improve their academic outcomes, including passing courses, persisting to the following semester, and earning a degree or certificate.
The Learning Communities Demonstration is a large-scale, random assignment evaluation of learning community programs at six community colleges being conducted by the National Center for Postsecondary Research and MDRC. During the first year of the demonstration, all six colleges expanded their learning community programs and, in the process, faced similar challenges in selecting courses to link, recruiting and supporting faculty, filling the learning communities with eligible students, and helping faculty use instructional strategies such as curricular integration to enhance learning. By spring 2009, the colleges operated more than 130 learning communities serving around 3,000 students. This report describes the strategies the colleges used to scale up their programs while working to improve their quality, and the many complex challenges that are likely to be faced by any community college intent on scaling up effective learning communities — including scheduling, faculty engagement with and approach to teaching, and balancing developmental courses with traditional college-level courses. Key findings from the implementation study include:
- A paid coordinator and committed leaders were essential to managing and scaling up learning communities.
- As coordinators clarified expectations and offered support, faculty responded by changing their teaching practices.
- Curricular integration remained difficult to implement widely and deeply.
- Student cohorts led to strong relationships among students, creating both personal and academic support networks.