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An overhead view of a group of six students studying together, their books and notebooks open, around a small, cozy table.

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Almost four years after colleges shifted to emergency remote instruction at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, presidents, provosts and other senior leaders are grappling with tough decisions around rebuilding student enrollments, identifying pathways to improve students’ sense of belonging and balancing face-to-face teaching with increased demands for online learning—while at the same time establishing an ethos of care among students, faculty and staff.

Students spent 12 to 18 months fully immersed, academically and socially, in an online sphere and are still suffering the repercussions of that experience. As our institutions continue to welcome students back to a more traditional and inclusive campus experience, students are in need of rebuilding social skills in ways that contribute to and enhance their face-to-face interactions with peers, faculty and staff; improve their participation in coursework; and facilitate learning across different contexts.

Students are craving community, yet many lack the confidence and the fundamental wherewithal to pursue it on their own. It is an institution’s responsibility, under the direction of its senior leaders, to identify avenues that proactively address these challenges. One effective response is to reinvest in learning communities.

Learning Communities Are a Proven High-Impact Practice

While a variety of models exist, learning communities typically consist of a team of faculty and staff members who collaborate to advise and teach a common group of students across several academic courses spanning an academic term or year; some models engage students in a residential curriculum that complements the academic curriculum. Learning communities have been proven to enhance students’ sense of belonging, improve academic performance and persistence, and increase student engagement.

By focusing on a specific cohort of students, learning communities intentionally connect them to one another and to faculty in meaningful ways. Because of these communities’ identifiable shared purpose and inherent structure, participants can be connected before, during and after the academic year, both within and beyond a face-to-face or online classroom.

The learning community provides an ongoing space where faculty members have the opportunity to transition from a perceived authority figure to a trusted partner in learning. When the faculty prioritizes developing rapport with learning community members, this personal connection becomes critical in motivating and exciting students to engage in their academic coursework. To be trusted requires a willingness from both the student and the faculty member to be vulnerable while engaging in informal and formal conversations about more than just academics, discussing, for example, relationships and family and engaging in dialogue to make meaning of what is being taught. Intentional space both in and beyond the classroom must be created for such interactions to occur.

Students are more invested when they recognize their faculty members are more invested and naturally desire to engage the learning experience on a deeper level. They want to make their teachers proud. Shouldn’t we lean into this opportunity to create an environment that produces the most from our students?

Addressing Faculty Burden Through Collaboration

Higher education has faced significant disruption over the past several years and is facing demographic changes that will continue to result in turnover of student affairs practitioners as well as faculty. Learning communities serve as a value-added experience that can motivate faculty and student affairs leaders to truly collaborate and establish synergy in their work, eliminating the silos that tend to exist in traditional organizational structures of higher education.

This work feels extra in an overwhelming moment for higher education. Yet the learning community, when done well, allows faculty members to engage with thought partners both inside and beyond their departments and shifts teaching from an isolating experience to a collaborative one, which results in the design of syllabi that intentionally intersect and integrate multiple courses and provides the opportunity to produce scholarship beyond a single discipline in ways that contribute to the tenure and promotion process. It is here that faculty members can design courses that explore their passions from an interdisciplinary lens alongside colleagues they may never have considered working with otherwise.

Uplifting a Values-Based Approach to Student Engagement

While faculty can play an important role, we must also consider the significant roles played by student life and residence life leaders in the successful implementation of learning communities, particularly in cases where the learning community has a residential component (living-learning communities). Deeply integrated learning community experiences require strong advocates in student affairs departments. Living-learning communities and first-year experience programs heavily rely on the energy of new student affairs professionals entering the field to maintain strong partnerships among student, faculty and staff stakeholders.

Although residential settings are advertised as sites of co-curricular learning, they are increasingly built as recruitment tools that will appeal to both students and their families with a customer satisfaction focus. For many residential educators, this business-oriented dynamic creates a values incongruence and cognitive dissonance from our graduate and professional training rooted in student development theory, social justice and student learning. To recruit and retain professionals in the field, we must return to these roots and uplift a values-based approach to student engagement. Senior student affairs officers must prioritize these values-driven commitments to student learning and development among competing institutional priorities that are primarily financially driven.

A Need for Institutional Leadership

As institutions live through this moment of constant evolution, it will become more critical than ever to rebuild enrollments by standing out from the crowd while simultaneously ensuring that students feel at home at their institution. Faculty and staff must feel supported, provided with the autonomy to be creative in the delivery of curriculum and co-curriculum, resourced to serve their students, and valued for the quality work they do when they feel the institution and its leadership are investing in them and their efforts.

When done well, learning communities serve as a unique experience that bind students to faculty, staff, their peers and ultimately the institution, particularly for those students who currently desire but lack the confidence and exhibit hesitancy to build relationships beyond their phones, tablets and computers. This work requires institutional leadership to truly commit to serve students through the creation of intentional spaces that help facilitate learning and relationship building, gluing higher education back together. Is this commitment being lived out on your campus?


The authors are members of the National Learning Community Collaborative. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins is executive director of the HBCU Executive Leadership Institute at Clark Atlanta University. Richie Gebauer is dean of student success at Bryn Mawr College. Jeff Godowski is the house assistant dean for the Flora Rose House at Cornell University. Jean Henscheid is an education and workforce training policy analyst and fellow at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina. Jillian Kinzie is associate director for the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute at the Indiana University School of Education. Clark Maddux is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Appalachian State University. Julia Metzker is the director of the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education at Evergreen State College. Matt Scammell is a faculty member in business and economics and the integrative learning coordinator at Skagit Valley College. Rita Sperry is the director for college readiness and academic support at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

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