Learning Communities

What is a learning community?

From students’ points of view, the most obvious dimension of a learning community are the courses they sign up for.  Consequently, deciding which courses to group together in a learning community is critical: the courses need to make sense in terms of student enrollment patterns and curricular pathways.

Educators who design learning communities are inventive; there is no orthodoxy about which curricular models work best so long as it works for students on a particular campus.

Classic learning community models

Linked or paired classes

Linked or paired courses are the most common type of learning community offering today. Students are enrolled as a cohort into two courses. Teachers are assigned to their individual courses—they are not team-teaching. However, faculty typically get support (stipends, planning time) for designing two or more integrative assignments aimed at helping students make explicit connections between the two courses.  The learning community counts as a single course for each teacher. To strengthen connections between the courses, some campuses schedule the classes back-to-back, or with a short study break between them; some campuses offer the two courses in the same time blocks but on alternate days. Co-curricular programming is often a component as well.

First-year programs

In first year programs involving learning communities, students usually take a first year seminar course, another small introductory course like English, and enroll as a subset within a larger lecture course. While the faculty team designs integrative assignments drawing on the content of all three courses, the actual integrative assignment work usually takes place in the smaller courses where all the students are LC students. This model works well on campuses that have large lecture courses for first year students in addition to other smaller courses. First-year programs typically involve a robust set of co-curricular activities that complement the LC. 

Coordinated studies

In coordinated studies models, faculty team-teach, and usually the capacity of the course is doubled to compensate for the presence of both teachers. For instance, in a coordinated studies LC involving English, math, and philosophy, the total number of students in the LC would equal the number that would sign up for the English course plus the number that would sign up the math course plus the number that would sign up for the philosophy course. All three teachers would be present for the all three courses, making it possible to engage in a wider range of activities, including field trips, than would normally be possible. This is the least common model used on campuses today.

Living-learning communities

Living learning communities take a variety of forms. Typically, a cohort of students lives together in a residence hall and enrolls in at least one course together. Many LLCs are designed to support student success in particular majors—for instance, STEM programs.

For a thorough discussion of learning community typologies in the existing literature, see Inkelas, K.K. & Soldner, M. (2011). “Undergraduate Living Learning Programs and Student Outcomes” in Smart, J.C. & Paulsen, M.B. (eds.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 26.

Further reading

  • Lardner, E., & Malnarich, G. (January 01, 2008). A new era in learning-community work: Why the pedagogy of intentional integration matters. Change, 40, 4, 30.
    • This article addresses the question of how do we create high-quality learning experiences for ALL students.
  • Patrick Hill. The Rationale for Learning Communities. (A speech given by former Academic VP of Evergreen.)
    • Transcribed from a speech given by Patrick Hill, Academic Vice President at The Evergreen State College, on October 22, 1985 at the Inaugural Conference on Learning Communities of The Washington Center for Undergraduate Education
  • Vincent Tinto. Building Learning Communities for New College Students.
    • This project, the first longitudinal study of learning communities, examined the experiences of new college students at two community colleges and one research university. The study showed that participating in a first-year learning community helped students develop a network of supportive peers, make connections between their academic and social experiences, and develop a deeper appreciation for the many ways knowledge is constructed. 
  • Engstrom and Tinto. (2003). Learning Better Together.
    • This article describes the major findings from a longitudinal study of the impact of learning communities on the success of academically under-prepared, low-income students in 13 community colleges across the country.
  • Lardner and Malnarich. (2008). Sustaining Learning Communities: Moving from Curricular to Educational Reform.
  • Graziano, Schlesinger, Kahn, and Singer. (2016). A Workbook for Designing, Building, and Sustaining Learning Communities.
    • This workbook walks instructors through the collaborative process of creating and sustaining successful links and focuses on what we believe is the heart of learning community work—transparency, relationship building, integration, assessment, and reflection. It both emerged from and encourages a backward design approach—starting with student learning outcomes and working backward to provide the collaboration, integration, and knowledge-construction that define learning communities and make the learning outcomes achievable. It further reflects the ongoing and cyclic nature of the collaborative process necessary for strong learning communities (Graziano & Kahn, 2013), taking collaborators from initial meetings through the development of deep and sustained integration, to assessment, reflection, and redesign. This workbook has been central in campus-wide efforts at Kingsborough to maintain philosophical and pedagogical integrity while intentionally developing and scaling learning communities; it is presented here as a resource that may be adapted to help serve the professional development needs of programs and instructors at other campuses.
  • Taylor, Moore, MacGregor, Lindbald. (2003). Learning Community Research and Assessment: What We Know Now.
    • The research team—Kathe Taylor, William S. Moore, Jean MacGregor, and Jerri Linblad—studied every program assessment, institutional research report, thesis, dissertation, and national study they could find. At the time of their report, learning communities had spread to diverse campuses across the country including two- and four-year institutions, both public and independent. Their findings highlighted what many educators knew about their own campus learning community program but on a far broader scale.