University doubles number of learning communities, participation rate
Sept. 6, 2007
By George Mauzy
Ohio University has twice as many learning communities this year and twice as many first-year students -- about half of the freshman class -- participating. That's good news considering the communities' positive effect on academic success, retention and student-faculty interaction.
As of this morning, 1,975 first-year students are enrolled in 115 communities, a significant leap over last year's totals of 57 and 1,026. Wendy Merb-Brown, director of learning communities, said the number of participants is still fluctuating as students drop and add classes, including core learning community courses.
Every institution constructs and defines learning communities differently, but Ohio University describes them as a group of students who take a common set of courses together or share a common experience around academics during fall quarter of their freshman year.
"Learning communities are a critical part of our comprehensive effort to improve the first-year experience of undergraduate students," said David Descutner, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of University College. "We discovered that participation correlates with better academic performance and better retention."
Indeed, the Office of Institutional Research reports that, in 2005-06, participants' retention rate from freshman to sophomore year was 82 percent, compared to 79 percent for nonparticipants. Learning community members' accumulative adjusted GPAs averaged 2.93 compared to 2.84 for their nonmember peers.
In addition, the 2003-04 National Survey of Student Engagement found Ohio University participants felt they had a better educational experience and would choose OU again if given the chance to start college over. The study also found that learning community members interacted more with faculty outside the classroom.
"Our plan is to continue to expand the learning communities program in measured, focused ways," Descutner said. "We're looking at the specific programs where the demand is greater and trying to meet those demands, but also being focused on what our students' needs are and how we can best meet those needs in order to help our students be successful."
Every learning community group takes two to four courses together, including UC115 for undecided students, UC190 for students who have selected a major or a freshman-level course from a college's curriculum. Each learning community is assigned a peer mentor whose job it is to serve as a role model, facilitator, programmer and resource for students and faculty involved in the group.
Peer mentor Brandon Campbell, a sophomore, said being part of a learning community last year helped him decide on industrial technology as a major.
"I came to college undecided but was able to choose the right major for me after joining a learning community," he said. "Now as a peer mentor, I want to help new students feel at home in their new home away from home, because them fitting in is what's going to help retention."
Undecided students make up about half of learning community participants because University College requires their participation. Of the 115 current communities, 50 are reserved for such students. At 27, the College of Arts and Sciences has the second-largest number of communities.
The communities can be organized around colleges and majors; by themes such as foreign languages, sports or global sustainability; by residence; or by classifications such as commuter students or Army ROTC participants.
"I met with the other students in my learning community cluster today, and we all got along great," said Michelle Benincasa of Pittsburgh after a welcome event for participants Sunday. Benincasa has not yet selected a major. "We walked to (the locations of) our classes and met with our UC115 teacher. That interaction made me feel more comfortable about starting school, and it's calming to know I will have friends in at least three of my classes."
In addition to undecided students, scholarship recipients under the umbrella of the Office of Diversity are required to be part of a learning community. This includes first-year Templeton, Urban, Appalachian and King-Chavez-Parks scholars.
"I would have joined a learning community anyway because one of my mother's coworkers has a daughter who participated in one and enjoyed it," said Dawn Parker, a freshman political science major from Akron and King-Chavez-Parks Scholar. "I expect to make good friends who I can network and fellowship with. I already love Ohio University."
The learning communities program began here in 1999 with two 20-member residential groups. Until 2004, all of the communities had a residential requirement. This year, only 12 do. Merb-Brown said the switch to more academic-based communities served as a catalyst in the rapid growth.
"We found that many students were not receptive to the residential-style communities, but were OK with academic learning based groups instead," Merb-Brown said. "Our feedback suggested that many students didn't want to only live with students in their major or college. They felt they wouldn't make as many connections."
The Russ College of Engineering and Technology has witnessed a dramatic increase in participation since the change -- from 16 students in 2004 to more than 180 this fall.
"We pitch the learning communities to parents during Precollege, and many times they encourage their kids to sign up for them," said Ken Sampson, the college's associate dean for academics. "The learning communities accelerate the development of good study habits and acceptable social patterns among the students because they interact and learn from each other more than they normally would. It traditionally takes students a year or two to develop these things without learning communities."