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Learning Communities

The idea of creating a group dynamic to aid learning is widespread, though possibly most developed in the USA. Such 'learning communities' may be created through summer schools, or placing all of one subject cohort in the same hall of residence ('learning-living communities'), but they have in common Schroeder's essential four elements of effective learning communities: involvement, investment, influence and identity.

Read more on the elements required prior to establishing a learning community and for a fascinating analysis of perceptions of staff and cultural influences (in this case between Japan and the USA) in both the raison d'être and expected outcomes of learning communities.

Further information about student comments on the social / academic side of university life and the interaction between the two and includes some interesting statements on the level of maturity (broadly defined) of some students as seen by others. The latter were often overseas students - who expected 'better' - and older 'home' students. Student comments on peer support were obtained for the Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year practice-focused project, as well as discussions on social aspects of university life.

The University of Auckland has implemented UniGuides, a voluntary academic induction and campus socialisation first-year support programme initiative. This initiative was specifically based on the retention approach that Beatty-Guenter (1992) articulated, and has five components:

  • sorting by grouping students into subsets
  • enhancing teaching and learning environments
  • developing relationships between the student and the institution
  • stimulating students to improve attainment levels and skills
  • supporting students holistically, including their life outside university.

Participants in UniGuides can opt in and out as they wish. They join and take part in small, faculty-based peer-mentored groups (communities), typically of eight to 12 students, which are designed to help them to develop their student identity and sense of belonging. Clark (2008) has captured the success of UniGuides in terms of improved retention and academic progress. Regarding retention, three years after enrolment in February 2004, nearly 85 per cent of the cohort that joined UniGuides remained enrolled, compared with 68 per cent of the control group (from a sample of 1,000 contemporaries who did not elect to join UniGuides).

Likewise, the UniGuide students outperformed the control group by an average of 50 points (credits). From these findings, Clark concluded that the UniGuides initiative has been a value-added investment for the university and participating students. Of course, since UniGuides only involves a minority of students, it is possible that the self-selecting dimension has had an influence, and that the gains cited might not be fully attained if the scheme became comprehensive and compulsory or inherently embedded in institutional practice.

These findings from the University of Auckland broadly match the cumulative experiences of many initiatives to enhance the first-year experience. In Auckland, as has typically occurred elsewhere, the initiative is voluntary, and while uptake has been substantial it does not embrace all of the relevant student intake.

Another perhaps even more ambitious project from outside the UK can be found at the University of Washington (UW) in the USA. For some time, UW has operated a freshman seminar series at the start of each academic year and topics offered in autumn 2006 included: Modern product research and engineering; Exploring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues; What is philosophy?; Recovery of function from a central nervous system trauma; DNA dilemmas; and Diversity issues in science.

Each seminar has a general education code and is valued at one credit. A second strand consists of the opportunity for students to enrol in Freshman Interest Groups (FIGS) 2. The initiative has operated at UW for over 15 years and the University reports that around 70 per cent of freshers register for a FIG. FIGs run in the autumn semester only and are described as 'a pre-packaged cluster of high-demand freshman courses', which are taught in small groups of 20-25 students, with the same students in each class.

They fulfil general education requirements and allow social networking among students ('form your own UW community'). One element of the cluster is the two-credit class , 'The university community.' Each group for this class is facilitated by a FIG leader, an experienced undergraduate student who serves as their guide to UW. This FIG is specifically designed to assist transition into UW, and as part of the class curriculum participants have the opportunity to take part in social and extracurricular activities, and are inducted into the e-portfolio tool that students are expected to use to record and reflect on their past, present and future.

In 2006-07 UW introduced an additional initiative, the UW Common Book, and agreement was reached that all new students would read the same book (Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003)). The initiative is intended to move the commonality of experience of freshers at UW to a different level, involving the entire intake and linking the common book to their specific studies. UW also planned visits by the author and the subject of the book, Dr Paul Farmer, whom the subtitle describes as 'a man who would cure the world'.

It will be very interesting to read an evaluation of this initiative in a few years' time, particularly to see to what extent UW has managed to achieve the important academic additionality that was a prime purpose of the venture. Many of the activities at UW demonstrate actions taken in other universities and colleges in the USA, such as first-year seminars and focused interest groups. Indeed, many institutions use variants of common reading, either pre-entry or for focused interest groups or seminar groups.

It is the upscaling of the concept at UW that is of interest, combined with the fact that implementing the idea required acceptance by the different disciplines within the academic community. In addition to pursuing a broader commonality for the first-year student experience at UW, the initiative can be viewed as a significant step towards academic mainstreaming. Another test, therefore, would be the degree to which this is achieved over time.

These case studies are taken from the nature and purposes of the first year: sharing and reflecting on international experiences and initiatives booklet where further analysis and discussion can be found.

In the Overview document that accompanies the Research-Teaching Theme, there is a discussion of what one writer describes as the 'teaching-research nexus' (Kerri-Lee Krause, 2006):

"The principles of the teaching-research nexus should inform curriculum development and delivery from the first year as a way of promoting a sense of belonging to a community of scholars with a focus on discovery and creation of knowledge...there is much to be learned and gained from students engaging in the community - both their immediate university learning community, and the broader community - from their first year". 

Source:  Research-Teaching Linkages overview

Certainly the idea of students as 'scholars' supports the notion of developing distinctive graduate attributes; although, as the overview points out, that leaves the sector with the challenge of how such attributes might be assessed, especially in the context of work- based learning. 

The Research-Teaching Linkages Enhancement Theme offered a number of examples of summer schools that encourage students to examine what is involved with further and deeper research activity. For example, in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, a vacation scholarship programme has been organised for some years now. The programme has expanded considerably in recent years with a typical number of 15-20 attendees per year.

Students generally attend for six weeks, preferably all or most at the same time. Their programme begins with lectures on specialised topics, together with discussions and group problem-solving sessions. It then progresses to the students tackling individual research questions and writing up the results. At this stage the regular interaction between the student and an academic supervisor provides a foretaste of the student-supervisor relation at postgraduate level.

This programme, aimed at good students going into their final year (and not necessarily restricted to St Andrews students), has been a valuable tool in enthusing potential research students and encouraging them to carry out their postgraduate studies in St Andrews. It depends crucially on the support of staff willing to devote part of the summer to this activity. Funding has come from external sources, such as the Carnegie Trust and the Nuffield Foundation, as well as from the School. Typically the School would allocate around £4,000 per annum to this activity. Another example is at the same university, but in psychology.

As part of the G21C Enhancement Theme, the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde reported on a new first-year curriculum designed to enhance the student learning experience and actively foster student engagement and 'research-mindedness'. This initiative involved introducing group work and team-building into almost all classes (with the students staying in the same groups throughout) and active, collaborative learning, using various styles.

As part of the curriculum renewal, two major structural changes were made: firstly, Mechanical Engineering Design is introduced to the incoming students immediately in the first year, and secondly research skills are part of the curriculum throughout the student's studies. For the new first year Design, which represents one-third of first-year activities, a specific version of Problem-Based Learning was adopted, known as Mechanical Dissection. This drew on an influential and successful model developed originally at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and known as CDIO ('Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate').