Learning communities enhance education experience at ACU
For Immediate Release
May 23, 2000
Julie O'Neill, public relations specialist
As student retention becomes a major concern for colleges and universities nationwide, Abilene Christian University is reforming the way it introduces new students to college academic and social life through the use of learning communities.
A learning community is composed of two or three classes grouped around a common theme. While the course content will not be parallel for the entire semester, the teachers of these courses will work together to help students recognize and understand how the knowledge gained in each course relates to the learning that is going on in the other courses.
Most learning communities are designed for students who are new to ACU, so they provide an additional incentive of allowing students to get to know one another through the courses they have in common, creating a social community as well as an academic one. Several of the communities include a Bible course in their topical curriculum to allow faculty to help fulfill the university's mission of educating students for Christian service and leadership throughout the world.
"Many of them include inside- and outside-of-class experiences," said Mark Davis, dean of the first-year program. "Part of the concept behind learning communities is students not only learn together but they also socially bond together."
Currently 15 ACU learning communities exist covering eight different headings, ranging in topic from "Words, Images and Power," which combines the diverse fields of art, journalism and government, to "Health Science Though the Eyes of Faith," which incorporates biology and chemistry courses and is directed at students interested in pre-health fields.
The "Identity Learning Community," or IdLC, integrates the unique academic, social and spiritual needs of entering freshmen who are in a critical period of transition. The classes in this community are part of every student's university core and aim to help new students learn more about themselves and their values and goals so they can make informed decisions about the future.
Learning communities are not a new idea, but they are being implemented in greater numbers across the nation because of their positive effects on student morale and retention rates. Iowa State University, where learning communities have been in place for several years, has seen a jump in retention from 45 to 90 percent since the fall of 1998.
According to an article in the 1998 issue of "About Campus" magazine, students who are involved with the people and activities of learning communities are significantly more likely than their less involved peers to show growth in intellectual interests and values, and apparently more likely to get more out of their college education.
Dr. Vincent Tinto, who visited the ACU campus in January at Davis' request, and Pat Russo at Seattle Central Community College found that students in Iowa State's Coordinated Studies Program reported greater involvement in a range of academic and social activities and greater developmental gains than students in the regular curriculum. The same students also had more positive views of the college, its activities and its people, and they persisted at a higher rate than students in the standard program.
Similar results are beginning to appear after just two years of ACU's learning community program. Results of a study completed jointly by the learning communities advisory committee and the Department of Psychology show that more than 90 percent of students said their learning community experience was a positive one, and 75 percent said they would participate in one again.
Social interaction increased, and students felt an increased sense of comfort expressing themselves in class. Overall, students reported having an increased sense of confidence and ability to adjust to a university setting as a result of their learning community experience.
Mimi Barnard, instructor of English, will facilitate the IdLC learning community for the third time this fall. She believes in this educational approach for a number of reasons.
"Over and over again, studies have shown the benefits of learning communities. Students develop a stronger sense of belonging and are able to make connections to a stable cohort of peers and faculty. Friendships that begin in the classroom spill over into the cafeteria, residence halls, etc.
"And because students are taking the same classes with the same teachers, they begin to study together. Accountability develops among them - they are concerned for each other academically, socially and spiritually. Of course, ACU is a place where this sort of thing happens often, but with learning communities, it is purposeful.
"The professors who teach in the IdLC learning community understand the unique concerns regarding the transition to the university setting, leaving home for the first time, making decisions about a major, refining and owning values, etc. I'm thrilled that ACU is offering so many different learning communities this year, and I hope to see this program grow in the future."
When Cherese Archie began classes last fall, she was the only student from her high school at ACU. She said being in the "Words, Images and Power" learning community helped her adjust to college life.
"If you have different people in every class, it's hard to work up the nerve to talk to them," said Cherese, freshman photojournalism major from Wichita Falls. "I didn't know anybody. I made quite a few friends through my learning community."
Although no assignments were connected between classes in Cherese's community, she said the teachers connected the material they covered.
"One teacher gave examples connected to the other," she said. "They tried to talk about the same topics at the same time. They were always communicating."
In the future, Davis said the university is looking into increasing the bond between learning communities and residential life. Residence halls may be modified to include more classroom and group study space, and new residence halls will be built in the future with learning communities in mind.
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