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Voices of the Global Community

Ben Chamberlain, New Advising Professionals Interest Group Chair

Ben Chamberlain,jpgDepending on your role in higher education, you may hear the term learning community on a daily basis or perhaps much less frequently. However, the possibility is great that you have heard the term being used to refer to some sort of curricular connection amongst groups of students in the higher education setting.

The term learning community is quite broad and can be used to describe a range of activities. Back in 1990, a definition was proposed that includes “any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses – or actually restructure the material entirely – so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise” (Gabelnick, et. al). While this definition is now more than 15 years old, it still works well as a basic definition of a learning community.

There are several working definitions of advising. Most speak to the fact that advising is more than the process of scheduling courses, but consider advising a process.Wes Habley, during the 2003 NACADA Summer Institute in St. Charles, Illinois argued that “Advising is a relationship based on collaboration, learning, growth, sharing, decision-making, and maximizing higher education.”

In my position as an advisor in the College of Business at Iowa State University, I work with about 100 students in approximately ten “teams” that comprise a learning community. Some of these students live on the same residence hall floor, while others do not. All of these students, however, share between two and three classes and a peer mentor. The peer mentor is an upper division student who receives a stipend to be a resource person for the students in his or her team. Recently, we’ve also added a “faculty mentor” component. Five faculty members from our college were given the committee assignment to work with us on learning teams. While this had varying degrees of success, students reported that they appreciated the opportunity to interact on an individual basis with faculty members, and many learned that faculty “aren’t as scary” once you get to know them.

My role with learning communities is to facilitate the interaction between students, peer mentors and faculty mentors. It is interesting to observe that in essence, my role as an advisor is similar. Returning to Habley’s (2003) definition, every component of advising can be found in learning communities:

  • Collaboration: to be successful, learning communities require that many campus units, such as registrar, housing and academic units work together.
  • Learning:the goal of putting students together in teams who take similar courses is to improve student learning.
  • Growth:growth comes from learning about oneself and others through interactions with faculty, staff and other students.
  • Sharing:formal and informal team activities provide opportunities for students to share their experiences and feelings about various issues.
  • Decision-Making:students (with the occasional assistance of parents) choose to join the learning community. Membership is not required of any student. After students join, we remind them of their decisions and their responsibilities to participate as team members.
  • Maximizing Higher Education:In a sense, a learning community returns to the roots of higher education – small groups of students interacting with a faculty member. This time tested and proven activity is at the heart of much of what we do.

Considering these definitions, it is clear to see the many connections between quality advising and learning communities. The goals of both activities are to work together with students to increase learning and increase connection to the institution. Increased connection leads to a higher likelihood that a student will be retained (Tinto, 2001). It is cheaper to retain a current student than to recruit a new one (Noel-Levitz, 2006). As advisors, we work towards the goal of retaining students and moving them successfully towards graduation. Looking at what is being done in formalized learning communities, it is intriguing to think about less formalized activities advisors can do that will net similar results. Can we, as advisors, create more intentional interactions between students and faculty? How do we foster relationships with other campus units? How do we assist in the retention of students? In what ways do we view the “whole student” versus the name on the degree audit? How can we as advisors do these things while dealing with a generation of students which is quite different from ourselves?

The learning community is an important asset to college campuses around the country. As an advising community, we should consider what we can discover from learning communities and explore methods of applying these lessons to our advising duties.

Ben Chamberlain
Iowa State University
[email protected]


Gabelnick, F., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R. S., and Smith, B.L. (1990). Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty and Disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 41. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Habley, W. (2003). Realizing the Potential of Academic Advising. Presented at NACADA Summer Institute, St. Charles, Illinois.

Noel-Levitz. (March, 2006). Connecting Enrollment and Fiscal Management. In University Business. Retrieved March 16, 2006 from http://www.universitybusiness.com/page.cfm?p=1134.

Tinto, V. (2001). Taking Student Retention Seriously. p.3. Retrieved on March 16, 2004 from http://soeweb.syr.edu/Faculty/Vtinto/Files/TakingRetentionSeriously.pdf.

Cite this article using APA style as: Chamberlain, B. (2006, June). Learning communities and academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 29(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2006 June 29:2


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