Published in the Australian Journal Quality Assurance in Education. 2009. Won High Commendation
Award for articles published in that year.
Learning Communities and the Quest for Quality
By Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor, The Evergreen State College, Washington State, USA
Purpose: In the United States, as elsewhere, there is an ongoing need to improve quality in higher
education. Quality improvement models from business have not been widely embraced, and many
other approaches to accountability seem to induce minimal compliance. This article contends that
learning communities represent a viable alternative in the quest for quality. By restructuring the
curriculum and promoting creative collaboration, learning communities have become a major reform
effort in American colleges.
Methodology: This article provides an overview of learning community theory and core practices and
four original case studies of institutions that have made learning communities a long term focus of
their quality improvement efforts.
Findings/originality: Educators will draw rich lessons from this concise overview of learning
community theory and practice and the story of these successful institutions including the following:
1) effective learning communities are clearly positioned, aimed at large arenas and issues and are
central to the organization’s mission, 2) learner-centered leadership is a key component of effective
programs, 3) learning communities offer a high leverage point for pursuing quality, 4) effective
learning communities meet faculty where they are, 5) successful initiatives create new organizational
structures, roles and processes, 6) successful programs attract and reward competent people and build
arenas for learning from one another, and 7) successful programs have a living mission and a lived
educational philosophy reaching constantly toward more effective practices.
Can quality be dramatically enhanced in higher education? In the United States, as elsewhere, there is
now a constant drumbeat for improving educational performance. While the United States has led the
world in access to higher education, it is increasingly clear that access is not the same as academic
success or educational effectiveness. The range of criticism points to many concerns – a growing
ethnic and socio-economic divide in college attendance rates, a widespread lack of college readiness,
disappointing rates of student retention and graduation, unsatisfactory skill attainment levels of college
graduates, and spiraling costs.
At the same time, American higher education is at a critical juncture. Between now and 2030, the
school-age population will be at its most diverse in U.S. history; however, the rate at which these
students are participating in higher education has remained relatively flat (National Center for Public
Policy and Higher Education, 2006). Critics warn that unless participation and success rates climb
significantly, there will be a widening economic gap between those with postsecondary education and
those left behind, a trend that threatens future economic, social and cultural development (Davies,
2006) Comparisons show the United States, once the clear leader, is falling behind on numerous
international comparisons of access, cost, and student learning (Wagner, 2006)
Higher education is widely seen as unresponsive and resistant to the needs of a changing world, and
many approaches to quality enhancement have yet to realize measurable success. Quality-improvement
models prevalent in the business world have not been widely embraced in American higher education.
Some argue that other approaches, closer to home, such as program review and accreditation are not
more successful, and often received as intrusions on faculty and institutional autonomy that lead to
minimal compliance rather than stimuli for institutional change.1
At the same time, the past twenty years have produced important research on what fosters effective
teaching and learning (Bransford, 1999; Boyer, 1990; Ewell, 2002; Astin, 1993; Pascarella and
Terenzini, 1991) and a variety of promising pedagogical approaches –sometimes called “powerful
pedagogies”- have become more widespread (see Tagg, 2003 and Smith, MacGregor, et. al., 3-23,
2004 ). These pedagogies have a common focus on student engagement and active learning, often in
real world settings. Service learning, cooperative and collaborative learning and various forms of
problem-based and inquiry-based learning are examples of these powerful pedagogies.
Curricular learning communities represent one of the larger scale approaches to improving higher
education. They are an effort to reform both the structure of the curriculum and the pedagogy in the
classroom. Carried out with a strong commitment to faculty and staff collaboration, learning
communities can become a highly effective approach to improving quality that is both scaleable and
congruent with the culture of higher education. While learning communities will not necessarily
become a broad-based quality initiative, they have become that in a number of institutions, and useful
lessons can be drawn from these success stories. In the following pages, we explain what curricular
learning communities are and the theory behind this approach. We will describe what they look like in
practice in several different institutions that have made them a centerpiece of their quality
enhancement efforts. Finally, we will identify key elements that can make them an enduring stimulant
for institutional improvement.
Learning Communities – A Structural Intervention
In postsecondary education, improvement and reform efforts have variously focused on faculty
development, graduate education and the preparation of future faculty, discipline-based course or
curriculum enhancement initiatives, or the identification and assessment of student learning outcomes.
However, few initiatives have tackled the educational structure itself, that is, the reality that a student’s
academic life is divided among collections of courses that compete for attention and often bear little to
no relationship to one another. The dividing of teaching and learning experiences into multiple small
packages of learning called “courses” may have been effective in the paradigm of the last century
when most students lived in residence halls and few had other demands on their time. But today, most
students commute to campus from time-consuming jobs or family obligations. Large numbers attend
college part-time and a growing number take courses at multiple institutions and stop in and out of
The curricular learning community approach is a structural attempt to address this immense
fragmentation and increase both learning and community for students. Because the term “learning
community” is now broadly used with reference a variety of learning environments, such as single
classrooms, residence halls, on-line course offerings, and workplaces, it is important to clarify what we
mean by this term. As we define them, “curricular learning communities” refer to a variety of
curricular approaches that intentionally link two or more courses, often around an interdisciplinary
theme or question, and enroll a common cohort of students. By restructuring a student’s time, credit,
and learning experiences, learning communities aim to bring more coherence to the curriculum,
increase student engagement, and help build social and academic community (Smith, MacGregor, et.
1 It should be noted that accreditation approaches in the United States have changed substantially in the last decade,
allowing for much more creative, forwarding-looking ways of working on institutional improvement. While regional
accreditation associations have become increasingly adamant about assessment of student learning, they are also focusing
more on institutional plans to increase effectiveness and continuous improvement rather than simply compliance with
standards. This has empowered many institutions to think more broadly and to search for new and different solutions.
al., 2004, pp. 67). Learning communities rearrange students’ otherwise piecemeal academic
experiences to bring focus, coherence, and community to their learning.
Learning community program structures vary greatly, from a simple pairing of two courses to highly
complex learning communities involving a constellation of courses that compose a year or more of
student work. Institutions often give their learning community programs special names, such as
“Freshman Interest Groups,” “First-Year Communities,” or “Coordinated Studies Programs.”
Individual learning community offerings usually have their own titles that present the theme or
question around which the coursework is organized. The following examples provide a glimpse of the
disciplines and courses that might be brought together around a learning community theme.
“What is the American Character?” English Composition; American History from the Civil War to
the Present; Introduction to Film.
“Greening the Business World.” Microeconomics; Introduction to Environmental Science; Business
Writing; Internet Research.
“CheMath.” A developmental learning community linking Introduction to Chemistry and
Intermediate Algebra. This program improves student course-completion and success in first-year
“The U.S. Minority Experience.” English - Multicultural Literature in America; History of
Minorities in America; Sociology of Race and Ethnicity; Integrative Seminar.
How the curriculum and learning activities are brought together in learning communities varies.
Figure 1,“Levels of Integration in Linked or Clustered Classes,” portrays the degrees to which faculty
members might collaborate to create linkages, curriculum integration, and community in their learning
community classes. For example, the “The U.S. Minority Experience” might be taught at the lower
end of Figure 1, with the courses entirely unmodified, but with an integrative seminar in which one
faculty member presents integrative assignments. Or, the teaching faculty might work at the upper end
of Figure 1, to align their syllabi around several key concepts and joint assignments. The choice of
curricular architecture and the degrees of curriculum integration are a function of the goals for the
learning community initiative, the individuals teaching in the program, and the campus’s mission,
culture, and structures.
Insert Figure 1 about here
In the past 25 years, learning communities have become widespread in colleges and universities in the
United States. Growing from a small-scale effort at a few colleges and universities in the early 1980s,
these initiatives are now found in more than 800 American colleges and universities, at both two and
four-year institutions and in both public and private colleges. The learning community movement
continues to grow and evolve, but the scale and focus of specific learning community programs varies
considerably. In some universities, learning communities enroll a majority of first-year students; in
other institutions, they are a small endeavor organized by a few faculty members for a small targeted
audience, such as an Honors Program or an intake port for a specific major. Some institutions,
described in this paper, have made learning communities a centerpiece of their drive for educational
Because learning community courses can be put together in many different ways, these programs have
been adopted and adapted at hundreds of institutions. Colleges can offer learning communities at
relatively low cost. Teaching teams can be comprised only of faculty members, or they might include
a librarian, an instructional technology professional, an academic advisor or residence hall advisor, or a
specialist in reading or writing. Learning communities can also provide a larger platform for
implementing other reforms such as service learning and community-based research, the use of
electronic technology, writing or speaking across-the-curriculum, diversity, and interdisciplinary
Learning communities can be situated in almost any part of the curriculum but they are most frequently
designed for first year students. Many efforts focus on the first year because this is such a critical
transition point for students, and attrition rates are generally high. The first college year is also the
most formative for acculturating students to college life and for accelerating student intellectual
development. Furthermore, study habits and academic expectations established in the first year of
college tend to endure for subsequent years (Schilling & Schilling, 1999). Thus, learning community
initiatives meet both important needs and opportunities. Other generative curricular arenas for learning
▫ basic studies and developmental education – to foster student progress through developmental
classes; to reduce attrition in courses with high rates of withdrawal and failure; to teach reading,
mathematics, and writing in the context of a disciplinary class with stimulating subject matter;
▫ general education – to provide interdisciplinary coherence and connections among general
education classes; to provide a disciplinary context for the teaching of writing, speech
communications, or critical thinking;
▫ the major – to provide an introduction to the major with two or three linked classes that act as
platforms and important community-building moments; to provide an integrated capstone or
capstone/service learning experience.
▫ programs for special populations (honors students, provisionally admitted students, student
athletes, students of color, returning women students, etc.) – to provide special academic support,
academic enrichment, or specialized content.
While learning communities have now become widespread, the crucial step in making this a scaleable
reform effort is to move beyond a few early adopters and courses to thinking about mobilizing larger
numbers of people and areas of the curriculum. Tying them to the larger institutional agendas around
quality improvement is an essential step for this to occur.
Learning Communities and the Quest for Quality
Learning community leaders, like other higher education leaders, define quality and indicators of
educational effectiveness in multi-dimensional ways. In our several decades of learning community
work and through hundreds of conversations with learning community leaders, we have assembled a
list of outcomes and indicators of success for learning community initiatives, which are portrayed in
Figure 2, Dimensions of Quality and Learning Community Goals.
Insert Figure 2 about here
These outcomes, specified as goals for students, faculty members and other learning community
teachers, and the institution, could relate to the intentions of many quality initiatives on a campus.
Although these outcomes are depicted as steps on a staircase, we are not suggesting that one outcome
leads to another. Rather, the more concrete and easily measured goals are shown as the first stairs, and
more ambitious and more ineffable goals are presented on the higher steps. We present all these goals
to demonstrate that institutions have multiple and often ambitious goals for their learning community
programs, and that multiple outcomes are in play simultaneously—for students, faculty members and
others in teaching roles, and for the institution as a whole.
With these kinds of ambitious goals in mind, strong learning community initiatives restructure the
curriculum and the learning experience of students and the teaching lives of faculty members. Not
only do they reconfigure classes to invite linkages among topics, ideas, and skills. They also create a
synergistic opportunity for teachers to collaboratively create a different kind of learning environment
that can embody the best practices in college teaching and learning. Figure 3, Core Practices in
Learning Communities, presents an intertwined set of practices that characterize effective learning
community teaching and learning.
Insert Figure 3 about here
We portray these practices as interlocking circles because we believe these key learning community
elements are interrelated and complementary. In the past three decades, the theory and practice of
higher education has recognized these practices as important to quality in learning. Learning
community teaching faculty—and students—repeatedly mention these elements as critical to learning
community quality and success (Engstrom & Tinto, 2007) These core practices are essential for
realizing the full potential of learning communities. As Lardner and Malnarich point out in their recent
research, “learning- community work done well thus requires the skillful balancing of two moves: one
structural, the other pedagogical and cross disciplinary” to yield maximal results (Lardner and
Malnarich, 2008. 32).
An abundance of findings from educational researchers and cognitive scientists support the value of
these practices for student engagement, learning and intellectual development. These practices often
appear on lists of best practices or menus of promising pedagogies but they are seldom applied
systematically. Deep competence with these practices across a wide range of faculty is still the
exception in most institutions. Making a collective commitment to these core practices requires a clear
educational philosophy reinforced by the hiring and reward systems, and a long term commitment to
faculty and staff development.
What distinguishes learning communities as a quality initiative is that shared curriculum planning for a
common cohort of students in connected courses puts the quest for quality directly into faculty
members’ hands and into daily classroom practice. Quality is not an abstract exercise of outcomes
definition by a committee or reporting of measures of achievement to a distant authority, but rather a
lived reality of shared purposes and pedagogical strategies, shared students, shared syllabi, and shared
problem-solving. A very different kind of accountability emerges when faculty members take
collective responsibility for the learning and the success of a group of students they hold in common.
Teaching teams share responsibility for integrated learning. They alert one another when a student is
missing class or in academic difficulty. They reorient the syllabus or assignments to take advantage of
teachable moments. They collaborate on standards for what constitutes good work and on providing
feedback to students. They share their teaching strategies and help each hone them or reinforce them.
These kinds of relationships add up to a dramatically different teaching reality than what is typical of
college and university teaching –the solo teacher in his or her classroom. The quest for quality emerges
in each teaching team’s planning discussions and in the classroom, laboratory, and community where
the teaching and learning unfold.
Some might respond, accurately, that all of this is well and good: effective teaching practices are
happening already in many classrooms. Good teachers have already embraced these practices. At
every institution, small groups of faculty members and enterprising departments lead the way. But
what is different with what the learning communities have done as an institutional improvement effort
is how the effort to pursue quality through learning communities is framed and carried out. It is no
longer simply an issue of finding more good teachers, doing good things. It is the purposeful building
of the collective capacity that matters. It moves beyond the individualism of exemplary teachers and
random curriculum tinkering that has characterized so many of the past efforts at educational reform.
Using Learning Communities as Levers for Change: Exemplary Programs
The past twenty years clearly demonstrate that learning communities are effective and can be
substantial levers for institutional change and improvement (Taylor, Moore, et. al. 2003). However,
while many learning community programs are of very high quality, they are not always framed as a
critical element of large-scale institutional effectiveness endeavors. Making learning communities the
center of an ambitious institutional quality initiative requires strategic thinking and planning, a long-
term commitment to faculty involvement and faculty development, and the creation of organizational
structures and processes to sustain and scale up the effort to the entire institution. In this section we
describe a number of institutions that have made learning communities a focus for quality over the
long term, and the factors that contribute to their success.
The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College was one of the most radical new institutions founded in the United States
in the late 1960s. A state funded, predominantly undergraduate four-year college, Evergreen’s
founders took advantage of a state legislator’s brief but liberating admonition to not duplicate what
already existed, but rather to be a “college that can be as modern fifty years from now as at the
present.” In various studies and on national surveys such as the National Survey of Student
Engagement, Evergreen is frequently cited as a high performing institution (Kuh, 2002). The college
has also become a national resource center for the successful ongoing movement to adapt its central
structural innovation -- learning communities-- to traditional institutions. An Evergreen public service
center, the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education
(www.evergreen.edu/washcenter), supports the national learning community movement.
Evergreen’s organizational and curriculum design drew its inspiration from the work of Alexander
Meiklejohn, an educational pioneer at the University of Wisconsin in the early part of the 20th century.2
Meiklejohn was concerned about the growing dominance of the research university and its academic
departments. He believed that the division of the curriculum into small discipline-based courses would
undermine coherence and the larger purposes of the college experience. For Meiklejohn, education was
all about building the skills and habits of mind to support democratic citizenship. His alternative to the
social and intellectual fragmentation of unrelated courses was a fully integrated year-long curriculum:
it would be team taught, interdisciplinary, and organized around important issues in the modern world.
This approach, he contended, would do what no bureaucratic curriculum committee could do: it would
support deep engagement of students and faculty and empower the faculty to re-imagine the
curriculum and continue to learn from one another. This curricular vision took shape as Meiklejohn’s
Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin: it was offered as an alternative first two years of
college. For a variety of political and financial reasons, the Experimental College was short-lived, but
many years later, Meiklejohn’s ideas have gained traction.
The Evergreen State College resurrected the Meiklejohn legacy. Taken with his structural insight about
the power of restructuring the curriculum around programs rather than courses, Evergreen’s founders
organized the institution’s curriculum around team-taught, interdisciplinary coordinated studies
2 See Smith, MacGregor, et.al. (2004). Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education, chapter 2 for a
history of the idea of learning communities and the connection to Alexander Meiklejohn.
programs which could deeply engage faculty and students in sustained study over extended periods of
time. The first year learning community programs, called “core programs,” generally involve three
faculty members teaching an interdisciplinary theme-based program that lasts two quarters. Recent
core program titles include “Columbia River: Origins, Salmon and Culture,” “The History and
Evolution of Disease,” and “Seeds of Change: Food, Culture and Work.” More advanced offerings are
also team taught and usually run for two quarters or a full year. These advanced offerings are
organized through interdisciplinary planning units which include Environmental Studies; Culture Text
and Language; Scientific Inquiry; and the Expressive Arts. In general, Evergreen’s faculty members
teach with different teaching partners every year. While some of the curriculum (especially in high
sequence disciplines) remains the same from year to year, a large number of programs are invented
When Evergreen began, its curricular philosophy represented a different path than what was being
pursued by other alternative colleges more oriented to individualized approaches to education.
Evergreen’s approach has proven to be cost effective, scalable, and adaptable to a wide range of
academic topics and disciplines and the faculty continue to believe that the expansive curricular space
is a key element in supporting robust learning experiences.
Unlike most institutions, Evergreen has built organizational processes and structures closely aligned
with its educational philosophy with has made its innovations and learning community structure
effective and sustainable. The explicitly stated principles that guide Evergreen’s programs are 1)
interdisciplinary study, 2) collaborative learning, 3) the linking of theory and practice, 4) personal
authority and engagement, and 5) learning across significant differences and diversity. Various
structures and practices support and give life to these values, and many years of research indicate that
faculty alignment around these key values remains high.
Faculty are hired for their promise and fit with Evergreen’s educational approach. An imaginative
hiring process asks candidates to write an educational philosophy, teach an actual class, and describe
an imaginary, ideal interdisciplinary program. Evergreen’s faculty handbook and reappointment
criteria make it clear that teaching is the number one priority and that team-teaching and
interdisciplinary curriculum development is required of all members of the faculty.
Contending that team teaching required faculty equity, the college’s founders created only one faculty
rank and a uniform salary system based on years of experience. To underscore the primacy of
teaching, teaching portfolios became a formal part of the faculty evaluation process. Instead of grades
for student work, the founders instituted narrative student evaluations as a more nuanced way to
describe and assess student learning and promote collaboration rather than competition. Further, the
student’s own self-evaluation is part of their transcript. These practices represented substantial
departures from conventional practices. While other “experimental” institutions established in the
1960s and 1970s toyed with some of these reform practices, Evergreen was relatively unique in
adopting these innovations wholesale. The result was a coherent set of structures and practices
supportive of interdisciplinary education and team teaching.
Evergreen’s Provost Don Bantz has an almost paradoxical view of the quest for quality. “At the same
time that we have been working internally, external bodies have also been pushing quality since
Washington State became one of the first states to embrace assessment and accountability.
Policymakers have oscillated between approaches---with periods of well funded experimentation and
then forays into standardized testing, performance-based budgeting, system-wide learning outcomes
and efficiency measures, national scorecards, and, more recently, performance contracts and total
quality management. Higher education is sometimes swept into efforts to improve state government
and certain fads tend to come up. It is very hard to interest faculty in this. Many of the indicators are
not useful since we have no control over many of the variables. So while we certainly must meet state
requirements, we’ve acted on the premise that the quest for quality really needs to occur at home and
in ways that support what we do,” says Bantz.
Clearly, the quest for quality is a long-term, ongoing process of experimentation and accommodation
that is both internal and external. It is a process influenced by many different factors. Evergreen has
had to continually navigate the critical tension between freedom and structure as it has greatly
diversified its student body and curriculum and grown from a college of 1000 students to 5000. Any
visitor will note that the institution is more fluid in its structures and expectations than most colleges,
but the overall faculty culture is definitely still tilted towards innovation and change. Low boundaries
and fluid structures such as the tradition of faculty members rotating into administrative roles as deans,
the practice of recreating much of the curriculum each year, the hiring of broadly trained faculty, and
the presence of curricular planning units that have no budgetary or hiring authority ensure that the
institution will not revert to traditional forms. The fact that the curriculum changes frequently and is
team taught creates a yeasty environment for ongoing innovation and learning. The daily practice of
team teaching creates an environment of continuous learning for everyone and for acculturating new
members of the community.
The institution has become more sophisticated in the ways it builds and supports its culture, a
necessary step as the institution has become larger. With the retirement of the founding faculty, a much
more comprehensive faculty hiring and faculty development process became essential for community-
and capacity-building. Since the mid-1990s, summer faculty institutes have become an important
venue for faculty to plan and share their approaches. At the same time, various structures and processes
for continuity and quality enhancement have been established to maintain a culture which is
collaborative and student-centered.
Evergreen is the easiest example of an institution restructured for quality around learning communities
because critical decisions were made at the outset about the curricular architecture that results in a
strong culture with a clear educational philosophy and coherent organizational structures and practices.
Other established institutions have had to build their restructuring around existing, often traditional,
structures and processes. Yet, as the following examples show, their success demonstrates that the idea
of learning communities has broad applicability.
Wagner College, a liberal arts college at the mouth of New York’s Hudson River, embraced learning
communities as the structural mainstay of its general education program, inaugurating a new general
education program called The Wagner Plan in 1998. This program not only reconfigured liberal arts
courses in creative ways to enhance student learning, it also publicly embraced core practices of
interdisciplinary studies, collaborative work, experiential learning, civic engagement, and reflection as
defining features of a Wagner education. These bold moves propelled Wagner from relatively
unknown status beyond its New York regional locale to a nationally recognized innovator in higher
In 1997, when Richard Guarasci was being recruited for the position of academic vice president, the
college was in the doldrums, searching for a new identity and a fresh approach to undergraduate
education. Plans for reinventing the curriculum with a service-learning focus were already in play.
Guarasci brought critical experience from leadership positions at Hobart William Smith College and
Saint Lawrence University, where he had helped create a strong, interdisciplinary learning community
program for freshman. After serving as academic vice president for six years, Guarasci became
Wagner’s President in 2003. Guarasci observes, “When I arrived it was immediately apparent to me
that this was a beautiful college with a spectacular view of Manhattan. From here, we can see not only
the city but sense its importance, the sweep of its human history, all that has shaped this region. It was
obvious that this need not be just a view—but a viewpoint, a mission. Learning and location had to be
linked; this location and its distinctive liberal arts mission in this place could become Wagner’s
institutional signature. The college was poised to do something significant. We had all the resources
right here, all we needed to do was sew it together more tightly and explain to the outside what an
exciting and relevant approach we had.”
What emerged was the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts, a comprehensive reorganization of
the undergraduate curriculum that put interdisciplinary and experiential learning at the center. The Plan
draws on the educational values of Meiklejohn and John Dewey in striving to prepare students for
responsible civic engagement through carefully sequenced encounters that integrate disciplinary
classroom learning with experiential encounters and reflective discussion and writing. The program is
designed to put students into their surrounding environment and to understand the practical
applications of their learning throughout their Wagner experience.
The required general education program features learning communities at three levels –first year,
intermediate level and senior level. All entering students choose a First Year Program, a small learning
community of 24-28 students taught by two faculty members in different disciplines. For example, the
“Politics, Literature, and Citizenship” program links a Politics and Government class with a World
Literature class. The learning community includes a 30-hour service-learning component and a
reflective tutorial (team-taught by the faculty of the courses) that uses reflection, writing, and
discussion to bring together the students’ coursework and field experiences. The intermediate level
learning community can be taken any time between freshman and senior year. This learning
community offering is either an interdisciplinary class team taught by faculty from different disciplines
or two classes linked by a theme. The intention is to enable students to identify social and intellectual
linkages among diverse perspectives. Examples include “Economics and the Environment” (biology
and economics classes), Asian History, Politics and Film (politics/history and film), and “Marketing
and Advertising Campaigns (marketing and graphic design). The Senior Program, the students’ final
general education experience at Wagner, is directed by each student’s major department. The
equivalent of two or three classes, this experience involves an integrative field-based research or
practicum experience of at least 100 hours, linked to a senior seminar or reflective tutorial, which
results in a written thesis and thesis presentation. Again, experiential learning, practical experience,
reflection and synthesis are hallmarks.
In a fashion that parallels Evergreen, Wagner’s faculty hiring and faculty development programs
underpin the ongoing development of the Wagner Plan. Expectations of teaching in learning
communities are part of the faculty recruitment process, and almost every new faculty member teaches
in the Freshman Year Program the year they start teaching. Wagner asks the faculty members teaching
in the Freshman Year Program to make a three-year commitment to ensure continuity and strengthen
the quality of offerings. Tenure and promotion decisions now relate both to teaching in the Wagner
Plan and producing scholarly work about those experiences. All faculty members teaching in The
Freshman Year Program meet monthly as a group to reflect on their work, celebrate their successes,
and talk through difficulties. They also meet for a two-day retreat each spring.
Over time, committees have been established to oversee each component of the Wagner Plan, so there
are faculty teams working on the Freshman Year Program, the Intermediate Level offerings, and the
Senior Program. These faculty groups elect their own chair; the committees with a learning
community program director to help with overall curriculum planning, set standards, plan program
assessment, and address problems. Julie Barchitta, Dean of Learning Communities and Experiential
Education, and Anne Love, the Dean of Academic and Career Development, both agree that the
teamwork involved in learning community curriculum planning and teaching and in these committees
are essential contributors to quality at Wagner. As Julie puts it, “At this point we are ten years into this
initiative. Over 90% of the Wagner faculty have taught in the learning communities. The meetings
and the collaborative work have broken down departmental silos that were substantial here even
though we are a small college. The atmosphere of collaborative learning on the part of the faculty has
begun to create a common language and shared understandings, and a sense that ‘We are all in it
together.’ Team-teaching makes faculty members much more accountable to each other and to the
students.” Anne Love adds, “This intensive faculty collaboration fosters the same thing for faculty that
it does for students: collegial relationships and community, together with high standards and
Devorah Lieberman, academic vice president, observes that faculty members are “creating their own
language to discuss their teaching and their aspirations for the curriculum. This work continues to be
remarkably generative.” Lieberman explains that scholarship of teaching and learning is now
emerging from faculty members’ experiences, and in the process, Wagner faculty are becoming even
more intentional and reflective in their teaching.
By all accounts, the Wagner Plan has been immensely successful with dramatic improvements in
student enrollment and retention as well as its financial health. In recent years, faculty salaries have
been increased and faculty course workloads reduced to encourage more flexibility for scholarship and
for time-intensive teaching approaches. This institutional transformation is especially notable because
it was undertaken without external grant money through the redeployment of existing funds and the
reinvestment of savings realized when student retention began to increase. Absolutely key to the
process was faculty engagement and ownership at every step. Looking back, Richard Guarasci
recently wrote, “Real reform is rooted in reestablishing the integrity and mutuality of academic work,
that is, our shared obligations for teaching and learning founded on inquiry, discovery, and creativity in
intellectual work.” (Guarasci, 2006)
Community Colleges and the Quest for Quality
Community colleges were greatly expanded in the late 1960s and 1970s and have now become
widespread feature of the American higher educational landscape. A substantial majority of all
students now attend a community college as part of their path toward a baccalaureate degree.
Community colleges are therefore important players in any effort to improve higher education. In his
important book Honored but Invisible: An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges (1999), W.
Norton Grubb paints a vivid portrait of highly uneven teaching and improvement practices in
American community colleges and suggests a pressing need for more focus on quality enhancement.
Inter-institutional articulation efforts between community colleges and baccalaureate institutions have
probably gone further in the United States than anywhere else but articulation is still hampered by a
long history of institutional autonomy and status differences among two- and four-year institutions.
Many community colleges have embraced learning communities to increase course completion and
retention for commuting students, to foster curricular coherence and integration, and to provide strong
entry-pathways to certain majors. Some of the most energetic learning community development in
community colleges has focused on the under-prepared college learner: an impressive variety of
learning community programs link developmental skill classes with introductory classes in the
disciplines and involve teaching partnerships of faculty, reading and writing specialists, and academic
advisors. Substantial research, funded by the Hewlett and Lumina Foundations, has provided
substantial validation for the learning community approach for developmental students. According to
the research team, Catherine Engstrom and Vincent Tinto, “Learning communities and use of
collaborative pedagogies that require students to learn together in a coherent interdependent manner
leads to higher levels of academic and social engagement, greater rates of course completion, and
higher rates of persistence” (Engstrom and Tinto, 2007).
LaGuardia Community College in New York City and Skagit Valley College in rural Washington State
provide examples of institutions using learning communities as a key strategy of their quality
LaGuardia Community College
Created in the early 1970s as the part of the massive expansion of American community colleges,
LaGuardia Community College immediately attracted an ethnically diverse student body which is a
defining feature of the college. In 2007, over 60% of the student body was foreign born; these students
represent 163 countries of origin and speak 119 native languages. The majority of students are first
generation college students. In its start-up years, LaGuardia also attracted an energetic young faculty.
The first president, Joseph Shenker, encouraged a climate of experimentation and excitement about
both curriculum and teaching. LaGuardia also became distinguished as a “coop school,” where
students could build work experiences into their degree programs. Over the years, the college has
grown to over 14,000 students and a full-time teaching faculty of 275, and the culture of innovation
has been sustained.
In LaGuardia’s first decade, Roberta Matthews, an English instructor (later a dean) introduced the idea
of creating course clusters as a strategy to develop students’ writing skills and to bring coherence to the
liberal arts course offerings. Fully team-taught learning community models were not financially viable,
so Matthews and her colleagues developed clusters of three liberal arts courses that would enroll about
26 students and would provide a learning experience integrated around central themes, shared
readings, and shared assignments. Many of the Liberal Arts Cluster themes spoke to the college’s
immigrant population and its work-related mission by addressing issues of freedom, work, and
diversity. Equivalent to a full-time course load for students, the cluster offered a unique immersion
experience in writing and speaking about liberal arts ideas in the context of contemporary issues.
Faculty teaching in these clusters immediately noticed two promising outcomes: course completion
rates in the clusters were consistently high and student writing was strong, generally better than writing
achievement in discrete classes. For many writing teachers at LaGuardia, it simply made sense to
situate required writing classes in the larger interplay of ideas that course clusters offered. Since 1978,
all full-time daytime-enrolled liberal arts students at LaGuardia have been required to take their writing
and research paper classes in what is now called a “Liberal Arts and Sciences Cluster.” Each
semester, students have several clusters to choose from, whose themes embrace such topics as city
history, the media and the Internet, moral thinking, the world of work, the opportunities and challenges
of immigration, international studies, and gender issues.
LaGuardia’s thirty-year experience with learning communities includes additional learning community
programs that have been developed to meet other student needs. For over a decade, the New Student
House learning community offered a cluster of classes of developmental coursework and an advising
component linked to one college transfer course. This program was recently reorganized into a set of
First Year Academies, which cluster developmental skills classes in writing or oral communication, a
freshman seminar class and an introductory course in a field of study such as Allied Health, Business
and Technology, or Liberal Arts. Shortly after the New Student House program was established,
LaGuardia added an English-as-a-Second-Language New Student House and began offering ESL
classes linked to college reading, business, computers, accounting. These ESL learning communities
have demonstrated consistently strong retention data and have become a substantial mainstay of
LaGuardia’s overall ESL program.
The faculty members who have made a deep commitment to teaching in learning communities
repeatedly say that the quality of student learning is dramatically different in these programs. As
faculty member Phyllis van Slyck put it in an interview about how La Guardia has pursued quality , “I
would say the single most important qualitative different that learning communities make is that they
change students’ ideas about learning, about themselves, about their goals. In some case, goals
become transformed into much more sophisticated aspirations. This happens because the learning
community experience opens so many intellectual doors for students. It stimulates students to
reconceptualize what learning is about. Now presumably this could happen with any stand-alone
course that was well taught and influenced student thinking. However, I think the added component of
the learning community enhances the quality of this response because it occurs in community.”
Van Slyck’s LaGuardia colleagues agree with this perspective. They believe that the multidisciplinary
learning setting, with its expectations that student analyze material and formulate their own ideas,
inherently fosters greater student development. They also notice that, for urban commuter students
who are pulled in many directions by competing obligations, the learning community offers a highly
focused experience where community, intellectual connection-making, and citizenship are taken
seriously. Faculty members also observed that the learning communities has a more enduring impact:
for many students, their relationship to the college deepens, and they become active in student
government and service projects. (Personal interview, December 2007.)
At LaGuardia, a longstanding commitment to faculty and staff development co-evolved with learning
community development. About a decade into the institution’s learning community work, Roberta
Matthews organized a set of professional development workshops for faculty members, counselors,
and advisors in the coop program. These seminars immersed faculty and staff from different sectors of
the college in theories of student development and learning styles, pedagogies of active and
collaborative learning, learning community theory and practice, and other innovative approaches.
Faculty and student affairs professionals began to acquire a common vocabulary about issues of
teaching and learning and student development.
When senior faculty members look back on LaGuardia’s three decades of innovative initiatives, they
remark that the different types of innovative work have grown organically from preceding ones. At the
outset, LaGuardia’s first leaders established a climate of curricular and pedagogical innovation. In the
years that followed, even with turnover of leadership at the top, the early-established values and
collaborative practices continued to develop and evolve. The learning community initiative and the
faculty development projects that closely followed it brought together faculty from different college
units and disciplines to reflect and learn together and to help shape each new initiative. Evelyn Burg, a
communications skills teacher observes, “LaGuardia has a faculty that is hungry for conversations
about teaching and learning.”
LaGuardia’s present leaders agree. Paul Arcario, Dean for Academic Affairs, said, “We want to give
faculty room to be creative, to give them space to take risk, try new things, and literally shape the
effort. Conversations across departmental lines are absolutely essential to quality and to faculty
learning. They enable faculty to establish broader perspectives, learn from one another, and feel that
they are part of a larger community. This kind of important work cannot be carried out as another
“add-on” to faculty members’ already busy lives. We need to create ways for faculty to work together
within the regular time and space of their work.” Gail Mellow, LaGuardia’s president adds, “We knew
the broad directions we wanted to head in. We could sketch out the rationale and the frame for an
initiative but we know that any initiative is, in the end, successful to the degree that it is owned by the
Skagit Valley College
Skagit Valley College (SVC) was an early adopter of learning communities in 1986. Located in a rural
agricultural community in Northwest Washington, the college enrolls about 7,000 students (4,000
FTE). About 42% of the Skagit Valley students report that their goal is to obtain a degree for transfer
to a four-year institution. The initial results of learning community offerings were positive, especially
with regard to faculty engagement and creative curricular ideas in general education offerings. In
1993, the college made learning communities a centerpiece of their general education program by
requiring that both of the college-level composition courses and at least one course from each of the
general education course distribution areas be taken in a learning community. The institution’s goal
for the learning community requirement was to increase support for the development of students’
academic writing skills and to help students understand connections among disciplines (Dunlap &
Pettitt, 2008, 138).
Learning communities quickly became an important lever for change at the personal level for faculty,
according to Lynn Dunlap, an early faculty leader of the learning community initiative. “Teaching in
learning communities had a significant impact on faculty in terms of the recommitment they fostered
among faculty to their disciple and for working at the college. They also really changed the way we
teach. Learning communities created a sharing culture among faculty that goes over decades. We
became very clear about what we wanted. Since so many faculty members teach in learning
communities now, the spillover effect is also large even when faculty members teach their stand-alone
courses. Learning communities also dramatically changed the classroom and student expectations.
Now when I say I will assign a paper, students respond very differently and the college has become
known among the students for certain things. For instance, they point out that they can’t avoid doing
group work in numerous classes, and as one transfer student said, ‘You run into critical thinking
everywhere.’” (Personal interview, March 2007)
For nearly two decades now, Skagit Valley has used learning communities as an incubator for
institutional improvement. The institution has invested heavily in both ongoing assessment and faculty
development to support the initiative. After learning communities became a required part of the
general education program, the initiative also produced change at the institutional level, with a growing
commitment made to hire new faculty with interest and skill in learning community teaching.
Over the years, the assessment and organizational development efforts have produced an ongoing
institutional change effort rich in information that can be and is utilized. A key factor has been locating
organizational sites for the work, providing ongoing cycles of information and feedback, and ensuring
accountability. The decision to establish a committee to oversee the ongoing assessment of General
Education outcomes has been crucial. Faculty members report “great presidential leadership” with
extensive work on alignment to ensure that the institution stays on track with its goals. A recent
“monitoring report” on student satisfaction and success to the Board of Trustees is just one example of
powerful assessment and feedback systems to the community about strategic institutional goals. The
Office of Institutional Research is often cited as a major positive factor in supporting change. As one
faculty member observed, “the institutional research office is always reinforcing the work and
communicating to others. Its director is a real asset.” (Personal interview, March 2007)
The assessment effort has moved from small studies and simple measures of effectiveness (i.e.
retention, participation, and satisfaction measures) to large-scale, complex studies aimed at
understanding the impact of learning communities on college learning outcomes. The college has
increasingly used this information to make decisions about where to situate learning communities in
new areas such as developmental education. The college is also increasingly looking at the long-term
effects of learning communities by studying, among others things, the performance of their students
after they transfer to a four-year university. One recent study of transfer students concluded that
students who had taken two or more learning communities had higher grade point averages than
students from other transfer institutions. Other recent assessment work probes the differences between
learning communities and stand alone courses in terms of satisfaction, persistence and completion
An important aspect of Skagit’s continuing commitment to quality improvement through learning
communities has been through its participation in external studies. Skagit was an early participant in
the work of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education which has
led the learning community effort in Washington state and nationally. That strong relationship
continues as both the Washington Center and Skagit Valley (along with 22 other colleges and
universities) are now involved in a complex assessment project aimed at developing a rigorous
methodology for assessing integrative learning in both stand-alone courses and learning communities.
Skagit Valley has also participated in the National Community College Survey of Student Engagement
(CCSSE) in 2003, 2005, and 2007 with relatively consistent results. “The most dramatic results are
those that indicate that students who took learning communities were significantly more likely to
engage in activities that increase their time on task…as well as to assume responsibility for their
learning” …Of particular interest to the General Education Task Force was the pervasiveness and
impact of the active and collaborative learning activities that characterize the Learning Community
Program at Skagit” (Dunlap and Pettitt, 2008, 143). As a result of its high scores for Active and
Collaborative Learning and Student/Faculty Interaction, Skagit has been designated as a CCSSE
Like other institutions committed to quality, Skagit Valley has developed a faculty culture that
continues to ask questions and push harder. In 2002-03 Skagit Valley reviewed its general education
outcomes and developed a new learning outcome called Integration and Application which focused on
enabling students to attain higher levels of intellectual development. In addition, new, clearer
definitions of learning communities were developed that stress the level of integration. Over the years,
Dunlap, says “we’ve come to see more meaningful and deeper ways of promoting student learning and
institutional change” (personal interview, 2007).
How Learning Communities Work as Levers for Change
The Evergreen State College, Wagner College, La Guardia Community College and Skagit Valley
College are examples of institutions that have made learning communities a central part of their long-
term pursuit of quality. Recognizing the potential, they made a series of decisions to make the effort
strong and central to their institution’s overall quest for quality. What do they have in common that
can be generalized to other quality efforts through learning communities? Why does a learning
community initiative seem to work as an effective lever for change? There are a number of factors that
appear to make a difference.
Learning Communities are clearly positioned, aimed at large arenas and issues, and are central
to the organization’s mission. All of these institutions have made learning communities a scaleable
and stable part of their academic programs. At The Evergreen State College, learning communities are
the primary way of organizing the curriculum, and the entire organization has been configured to
support them. At Wagner, La Guardia, and Skagit Valley, learning communities play a foundational
role in the curricular architecture through their placement in critical, required parts of the curriculum,
i.e., the general education program. As a result of their critical placement in these institutions, the
approach is not peripheral. Instead, it has a large impact on many faculty members and students.
Learner-centered leadership is a key component of effective learning communities. With a clear
focus on the learner, these four institutions have purposely created an ongoing grass-roots revolution.
Effective practices such as team teaching and collaborative planning support the on-going process of
learning. There is synergistic collaboration at the learning interfaces which breaks barriers and
transcends the usual power relations (i.e. teacher-student, teacher-teacher, teacher-administrator,
between academic units, with the external community, academic-student affairs, within the institution).
Leadership roles focus on building and supporting a learning-centered culture and that overcomes the
usual two evils of managerialism and cloisterism.
While not the only “quality strategy,” learning community initiatives offer a high leverage point
for the pursuit of quality. For faculty members, learning communities can make the pursuit of
quality a lived daily reality of which they have ownership, rather than an academic exercise imposed
from the outside. In addition, learning community initiatives offer a broad platform—a kind of
convergence zone—for bringing together many other approaches to quality. In learning communities,
faculty are often collaborating on integrative assignments, collaborative learning, writing and speaking
across the curriculum, service-learning, problem-based learning, intensive assessment occasions, and
other strategies related to curricular improvement. Narrower reform efforts in discrete classes or
majors often fail to scale up and become significant interventions simply because their audience and
reach is small and too specialized.
Learning communities meet faculty where they are. Learning community initiatives immerse
faculty members and student affairs professionals in the joy of teaching, and many programs engage
teaching teams with more expansive notions of what that can be, engendering new and exciting
conversations about curriculum, teaching and learning, and students. As a result of meeting faculty
members where they are and asking them to invent a program together, learning communities are more
compatible with the collegiate culture than many other approaches to quality. These kinds of team-
planning and team-teaching approaches both allow and support faculty members to shape the learning
community offerings and the overall enterprise that goes considerably beyond redesigning an
individual course alone. The overall result is to promote change by deeply engaging faculty members’
imagination and creative energy. Learning community initiatives are not based on a deficit models of
quality improvement which too often begin with what is the matter or what should be fixed, making
people defensive. Instead, they engage faculty and administrators alike in the exciting work of creating
something new and building a vibrant sense of community and invention within the workplace. They
bring people together who love to learn—that is why they were drawn to college teaching in the first
place—but are often lonely and cut off from the stimulation that can come from co-planning and co-
teaching with colleagues.
Successful institutions have created new organizational structures, roles, and processes and
appropriate resource investments to support their learning community programs. Each of these
institutions has developed new organizational roles and processes and made appropriate resource
investments to support their learning community initiatives. They have invested in formal positions or
released time for learning community directors or coordinators, faculty hiring procedures, reward
systems, faculty/staff development, curriculum planning, and program assessment. These institutions’
leaders think of their program in terms of long-term and continuous improvement rather than simply as
an interesting short-term innovation. Learning community leaders report that this front-end investment
in quality pays off in the long run. At La Guardia some learning community programs were initially
run with slightly lower class sizes than regular discrete classes, but student course completion and
persistence improved to such an extent that this shift of resources paid off. Similarly, Evergreen invests
front-end financial resources to run first year programs with lower student-faculty ratios, since the first
year is so critical to student completion of a degree.
Successful programs attract and reward competent people and create a context to build a sense
of community and learn from each other. In recent years, all of these institutions have been facing
major turnover in personnel with the large-scale faculty retirements. Nonetheless, the focus on
continuous improvement and building a learning organization is firmly grounded in the institution’s
practices and culture and survives despite substantial turnover in administrative and faculty leadership.
All of the institutions have a variety of cultural practices and traditions for welcoming new faculty and
for encouraging, acknowledging, and sharing good work. All strive to build a professional community
of practice within their institutions.
Successful programs have a living mission and a lived educational philosophy of reaching toward
more effective practices. Successful learning communities have created a living mission that is well
aligned with their educational philosophy, but this is constantly being revisited. In his recent book,
Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, George Kuh and his colleagues noted
that highly effective institutions create and actively nurture an ethic of positive restlessness which
orients their faculty and staff toward continuous improvement. While leaders at these institutions
describe this kind of striving to do better in different words, it is clear that each institution has a
coherent educational philosophy and works hard to “walk the talk.” Self-reflection and continuous
improvement are lived realities in learning community teaching and in the committees and task forces
supporting these programs.
The Future of Learning Communities
Our experience indicates that learning communities can serve as an exciting and enduring vehicle for
large-scale institutional improvement and sustained organizational learning. These initiatives can also
help address a number of the dilemmas within higher education by providing a platform for other
reforms, by bringing coherence to institutions increasingly beset by student mobility and seemingly
endless choice, and by serving as a cornerstone for ongoing invention and curricular problem-solving.
Learning communities can engage faculty, other academic staff, and student affairs professionals in
reinvesting their energies and imaginations in general education, the first year of college and the basic
skills curriculum, critical curricular arenas that need ongoing attention and improvement.
Hundreds of campuses across North America have created learning community programs to strengthen
these curricular arenas, but only a small number have invested deeply in learning community teaching-
and-learning in the ways that Evergreen, Wagner, LaGuardia, and Skagit Valley have. It remains to be
seen whether learning communities will be taken to scale, involving large segments of the curriculum
and large numbers of students. It also remains to be seen whether institutions will recognize the
transformative potential of investing in learning community teaching teams. Yet, the lessons of these
learning community leaders indicate that the ongoing quest for quality is within reach, if we put it
directly into teachers’ hands while simultaneously building the collective capacity of the institution to
be a true learning community.
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Levels of Integration in Linked or Clustered Classes
Degrees of teaching team
A common syllabus for all courses and
activities (requires a pure cohort of students
in all learning community courses.)
All aspects of the program jointly planned
Assignments and projects are jointly
developed and jointly graded.
Assignments/research paper or project
Co-curricular events are planned
Field trips, conferences away from campus
On-campus play or exhibit
Service learning or community-based
Regular meetings and communication occur
Active learning, cooperative/collaborative
learning, student self-assessment, Classroom
There is collaborative planning around
themes, topics, concepts, and student
Some common learning outcomes
There is a collaborative effort to reach out
to students in difficulty.
Some common themes and topics
Calendar, tests, and assignment due-dates
There is exchange of syllabi and cursory
Created by: Jean MacGregor, Will Koolsbergen, and Phyllis van Slyck
Source: Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education’s National
Resources Center on Learning Communities
Dimensions of Quality & Learning Community Goals
New or reaffirmed values, aspirations, commitment
Enhanced leadership skills
Increased intellectual development, cognitive complexity
Academic maturity, self-confidence and motivation
Deepened diversity and citizenship understandings and skills
demonstration of learning outcomes; (related to courses, lc program, gen ed, study in major/minor)
Achievement (grades, overall gpa, entry into majors, pass-rates for proficiency tests, licensing exams)
Retention, progress to degree, grad rates - (course completion, persistence, completion of requirements, grad rates)
Increased interaction with other students, faculty, student affairs professionals
General response - level of satisfaction, perceived benefits or challenges
Participation and enrollment
New or reaffirmed values, aspirations, commitment
Enhanced leadership skills
Increased self-confidence and motivation
Widened scholarly interests and efforts
New understandings of other disciplines, and the nature of interdisciplinarity
New understandings of discipline or professional specialty
Deepened understandings about diversity and citizenship, multicultural teaching skills
Enlarged pedagogical repertoire
Deepened understanding of students, student development, and student needs
Increased interaction with students
General response - level of satisfaction, perceived benefits or challenges
FACULTY, STUDENT AFFAIRS AND STUDENT FACILITATOR LEVEL
Enhanced institutional reputation
Strengthened institutional culture (focus on learning, and community)
Hiring, tenure, promotion and other reward systems supportive of LC goals
Increased cost efficiencies
Achievement of diversity- and citizenship-related goals
Strengthened curricular offerings
Improved campus climate
Fit with, movement toward institutional mission and goals
Positive interdepartmental or inter-unit collaboration (academic affairs/student affairs)
General response - level of satisfaction, perceived benefits or challenges
Understanding (degree to which institution is aware of, understands program)
Source: Adapted from a similar chart in Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, and Gabelnick, 2004, p. 70.
Adapted by permission of Jossey-Bass, Inc..
Barbara Leigh Smith is a Member of the faculty, Senior Scholar and Provost Emeritus at The
Evergreen State College. With Jean MacGregor she founded the Washington Center for Undergraduate
Education and has been a leader in learning community work for more than 25 years.
Jean MacGregor is Director of the Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative at The Evergreen State
College and was co-director of the Washington Center for Undergraduate Education for many years.
MacGregor and Smith received the Virginia B. Smith Leadership for outstanding leadership in higher
education in 2003.