Should My College Student Consider a “Learning Community”?


Has your college student told you that she is signing up for a Learning Community at college?  Perhaps you’re confused.  Isn’t college just one big learning community?  The answer is yes – and no.  Of course, in one sense when you go to college you join one big learning community.  College is about learning, after all.  But a “Learning Community” as your college student is using the term, is more specialized. 

What is a Learning Community?

Not all colleges or universities have Learning Communities.  And Learning Communities may look very different at different institutions.  Essentially, a Learning Community often refers to a situation in which the same students are registered for two or more courses that are, in some way, linked.  This linkage may be very loose, with little or no coordination between instructors, or it may be quite extended, with instructors teaching parallel units or even occasionally changing or swapping classes.  Sometimes, linked courses may deliberately be scheduled back-to-back to facilitate extended assignments. 

Linked courses in a Learning Community may be from different departments (such as Psychology and Communication, Biology and Composition, or Philosophy and Music) but be linked by an interdisciplinary theme.  Faculty members may give common assignments, or assignments that somehow relate to both classes.  Learning Communities are often especially arranged for first-year students.  Some Learning Communities may even be designated Living and Learning Communities, with students assigned to the same residence hall.

What are the advantages of a Learning Community?

Studies suggest that students who participate in Learning Communities, in whatever form, are often more engaged and satisfied with their college experience and are more likely to remain in school. (Obviously, for most of us, these are important goals for our college students.) These students make connections.  Connections are intellectual – understanding the correlation between classes, and are social – making close friends.  At larger schools, Learning Communities can help to shrink the psychological size of the campus by helping to facilitate contact between students.  They see each other in multiple classes, walk to and from class together, get to know others as individuals, and have a sense of shared interests.

The list of advantages for students in Learning Communities is substantial. Students involved in Learning Communities show greater academic achievement, greater involvement on campus, more motivation, greater intellectual development and increased retention.  They are often more intellectually mature and responsible for their own learning.  On a more practical level, enrolling in Learning Communities often gives students a scheduling advantage, helps them make friends, provides greater connections with faculty members, allows them more interesting subjects, more creative and invested instructors, and more manageable assignments because assignments may be coordinated.

Are there disadvantages of a Learning Community?

There are, of course, both advantages and disadvantages to any program.  Although for most students, the advantages of a Learning Community will probably outweigh the disadvantages, there are some things students should consider before choosing a Learning Community. 

One of the outcomes of this type of program is the stronger sense of community created by having students spend more time, and find more connections, with each other.  However, whenever students spend more time working and socializing together personalities become a factor.  Students may “oversocialize” and spend more energy on their social activities than their academics.  Cliques may form. This may be especially true in a Living/Learning Community where students also live together as well as study together.

Learning Communities may offer less scheduling flexibility and students with shorter attention spans may have difficulty with longer blocks of time.  Learning in this type of program may be less straightforward as students work to find common themes and connections.  Being a member of a Learning Community involves a greater commitment on the part of the student.  Students who are not ready to be focused and committed may have difficulty.

College students, and their parents, should think carefully about whether a Learning Community is right for them.  Although, for most students, the advantages may seem to outweigh the disadvantages, this type of learning may not be right for every student.  It is important that college parents talk to their students and help them consider whether this is the right learning environment.  Learning Communities can offer exciting possibilities and provide significant rewards for students who enter them understanding what the realities of such a program are and what will be expected of those participating.  Parents can help students understand the realities of Learning Communities so that they may make an informed decision.

Read more about Learning Communities here.

(Photo: torres21)

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