Learning Communities: Master Your Coursework in a Tight-Knit Cohort

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In these college programs, a small group of students takes two or more courses in common, and often share an on-campus living environment or first-year seminar.

Because students get to know each other outside of the classroom, these programs foster interaction and community. In turn, students in learning communities tend to become accountable to and supportive of one another. The long-term goal of this teaching strategy is to improve students’ academic engagement and performance across courses.

Many student learning communities (LCs) in higher education center around a topic that transcends a single discipline, such as pre-law or pre-med, or a broad theme such as ‘the future of science,’ and may incorporate research, professional training, or service-learning components.

Examples of Learning Communities

Learning communities are groups of students with common academic goals or trajectories. LCs can empower students to collaborate on classwork for their shared courses or seminars. Some examples include:

  • Living Learning Communities (LLCs): LLCs are communities of students who take two or more college classes together, collaborate on classwork, and share a living environment in a residence hall.
  • Multi-Year Honors Programs: These programs begin as early as freshman year and allow students to participate in a shared honors curriculum in addition to their regular major requirements.
  • Interdisciplinary Thematic Programs: Interdisciplinary thematic programs are a collection of courses centered on a single theme or field, such as Women and Gender Studies, Environmental Studies, or Peace and Conflict, in a cohort of students with similar learning styles and common academic goals.
  • Study Abroad Communities Study abroad communities involve students taking one or more campus courses in common which then feed into connected study abroad experiences.

What Can Students Expect?

Learning communities promote academic inquiry, collaboration, and social connections among participants. Students share classes with others who have common academic interests and goals. They get to know each other early on in an academic semester and build friendships, collaborative partnerships, and accountability with each other. Because students know the people in their classes, they have ready-made peer groups that can help them with both academic and social challenges.

How Do Learning Communities Improve Student Outcomes?

The goal is to foster student curiosity and engagement. Bringing students together in collaborative and team settings encourages students to discuss course information with each other. Through collaborative learning, studies suggest that students have better retention of the material. When students connect with each other they are more likely to attend class, form study groups, and discuss the material outside of class. Building a community of fellow students can extend beyond their shared courses curricular material into study groups or tutoring in other parts of their college curriculum.

By taking part in an learning community, research shows that there is a better chance of students getting to know people who come from different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, giving them a better appreciation of diversity and different points of view. Challenged to work collaboratively in the classroom, and sometimes within their living environments, students develop the social skills necessary to work well with others later in life.

In learning communities that involve multiple courses on a related topic, students also report deeper appreciation for the material. Because they confront the same academic questions from a variety of angles and academic disciplines, learning communities benefit students by developing a greater understanding of the complexity of the issues involved, and learn how to think critically and integrate sometimes conflicting information as they reach conclusions. Each of these skills improves the chances of student success in- and outside the classroom, because a deeper appreciation increases student engagement and increases educator effectiveness.

How Schools Implement Learning Communities 

Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, CO

Students at Colorado Mesa have the opportunity to take courses that involve scenario-based projects or community learning, taking them outside of the classroom and allowing them to interact in a meaningful way. Some courses also connect with student organizations, allowing college students with shared interests to come together within a theater or political setting and translate that learning back to the classroom.