Gertrude Stein was wrong: a rose is not necessarily a rose. Calling something a rose doesn’t make it a rose.
Take the example of learning communities, one of the high-impact practices that contributes to student retention and engagement.
A learning community can be an administrative convenience: a way to register students into a block of classes. Or a learning community can be something more: a cohort of students that shares common intellectual and co-curricular experiences, organized around a common theme, a career goal or a series of big questions.
Learning communities take many forms. There are:
Linked classes, which replace the disconnected, incoherent course schedule of the typical freshman year with two or three classes that complement one another in terms of themes, readings, skills or assignments. Groups of students take the courses together, simplifying course registration while embedding students within a supportive cohort, easing their social and academic adjustment to college.
But in many cases, the course linkages are fictional or superficial. There’s no genuine alignment of content or integrative assignments and assessments.
Freshman interest groups supplement linked courses, focusing on a common interest or theme, with a host of co-curricular and community building activities. FIGs usually include a small class, often centered on study and time-management skills and campus life, which introduces first-year students to the institution’s support services and social activities and gives freshmen the opportunity to interact with an instructor, an adviser or a peer mentor.
In practice, the FIGs’ core course is often led by near peers whose training and classroom leadership skills are limited or inadequate.
Meta-majors are clusters of classes designed to introduce students to a broad career field, such as business, education or health care. The aim is to expose students to a range of possible majors that share common prerequisites and help them see connections between their first-year courses and their career goals.
Too often, however, meta-majors simply include a single introductory course the career field alongside a number of disconnected gen ed classes -- and therefore fail to meet the students’ hunger for a freshman experience more closely tied to their postgraduation career goals.
Living-learning communities provide residential students who share a common interest or academic or career focus with the opportunity to live together, interact socially with one another and with faculty or staff members, and participate jointly in activities on or off campus.
Without committed leadership, engaged faculty and a well-planned schedule of activities, living-learning communities turn out to be little different than life in any other dormitory hallway or wing.
Learning communities seek to improve academic success, raise retention rates, enhance student satisfaction and ease the transition to college by connecting students with peers and making the first-year curriculum more coherent, cohesive, synergistic and relevant to students’ interests and aspirations. Meta-majors, in particular, are designed to help students choose a major that aligns with their interests and academic strengths.
However, if learning communities are to be more than clusters of linked classes, their faculty must share common objectives, values and vision and commit themselves to providing students with an integrated educational experience, a supportive learning environment, high-impact pedagogies and enrichment and engagement activities.
Instead of treating teaching as a solitary, siloed activity, instructors must collaborate in defining learning outcomes, selecting content and readings, and designing assignments and assessments. Instead of thinking of themselves solely as instructors, faculty must envision their role and responsibility more broadly as mentors and architects of a broad range of learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.
This vision is, of course, at odds with our training and our current incentive structure. It cuts against the Romantic image of professors as independent artisans and solo practitioners devoted to their craft, which is research and scholarship.
But there are examples should inspire us. Honors programs typically include one or more core classes taught in multiple small sections. At Columbia, instructors in the core curriculum classes on political and moral philosophy and theology and literary masterworks take part in intensive multihour weekly pedagogy and content sessions. In these instances, instructors are expected to be mentors: motivating students, providing guidance and emotional support, sharing knowledge and expertise, and serving as role models.
I should not close without mentioning one of the most important functions that a well-designed learning community can service. It can help students make a better-informed choice of a major, one better aligned with their passions, talents and skills.
Currently, many institutions advise students to front-load their gen ed courses and only gradually pursue courses in their major. This advice is mistaken. For one thing, it damages student morale. Many students regard gen ed requirements as mere box checking and are much more motivated when they feel they are pursuing their real interest.
Then, too, prioritizing gen ed leads students to delay declaring a major. Since about a third of students ultimately change their major, it is better if they do this earlier rather than later. Students who change their major after their fifth semester are much more likely to stop out or to significantly delay graduation. Learning communities that expose students to their preferred major as freshmen can help them see if that major is right for them.
As learning communities grow in popularity, we must ask ourselves: Are our institution’s learning communities real or a charade? Do these clusters offer students a true sense of community and do freshmen encounter an integrated curriculum; frequent, substantive interaction with faculty; and a rich array of co-curricular activities? Do these communities help students clarify their choice of major and their career goals?
Learning communities speak to our highest aspirations: to make higher education less transactional and more developmental, supportive, integrative and holistic. But we mustn’t let our language obscure reality. Much as the Holy Roman Empire was (in Voltaire’s words) neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, we mustn’t call a weed a rose.
Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.