Advising in learning communities: A collaborative approach
Lori McLean, Katie Lackey, Pam Hennessey, & Ruthanna Payne
Many large universities struggle with retention and academic success of first-year students. Learning communities are designed to help transition these students to the challenges of college life. A learning community builds a support system for 20-25 students that encourages student involvement with faculty, other students in their academic interest areas, and in the campus community. Wise academic advisors utilize these communities as an effective advising tool.
Learning communities at Auburn University
At Auburn University each college has at least one learning community; there are also learning communities based upon specific interests and majors. Students self-select into learning communities by completing an application prior to freshman orientation. Learning communities consist of first-semester freshman who take 2-3 classes together in the Fall and 2-3 classes together in the Spring. Students have the option of living near their community in on-campus housing although this is not a requirement for inclusion in any learning community. A learning community coordinator, responsible for organizing all learning communities at Auburn University, works with a liaison from each college/school/area of interest. The learning community coordinator also works with the departments to secure classes for each unique community and encourage support of the learning communities. Hiring peer instructors for the courses and organizing housing for the learning community is also handled by the learning community coordinator.
Each Auburn learning community has a one hour required course: The Auburn Experience and/or Success Strategies. This class often is taught by an advisor in the college in which the learning community is housed. The content of the required course includes: academic policies of the university, locations of important offices across campus, scheduling/advising procedures, specific information about each college’s requirements, study skills support, time management, and money management. These two required class options share a textbook, Success Strategies for Auburn Experiences, with each course highlighting different areas of the text.
Advisors capitalize on the learning community structure to provide students with the tools needed for a successful college career. This creates more informed advisees who know the university policies and understand their curriculum and thus require less advisor time and energy during peak times. Learning communities are a wonderful resource for first year students. The ability to combine the benefits of the community and academic advising allows for an increase in retention efforts and student success.
Three sample learning communities benefit incoming students
To gain a better understanding of how different colleges utilize learning communities, three examples are described. Each college has unique academic and professional school requirements.
In the College of Human Sciences (CHS) advisors take the opportunity to fully educate students on majors in the College and career options after graduation. As a part of the Success Strategies course, department heads serve as featured speakers and discuss major requirements for both inside and outside the classroom. Many CHS majors require a full time senior year internship and the advisor/instructors explain to freshmen the importance of gaining experience throughout their college careers so they can be competitive for these senior internships. Advisors also are able to share with students the College’s study abroad program and how this opportunity can work into an individual student’s curricula.
In the College of Education learning community academic advisors are able to better explain the requirements and deadlines mandated by the Alabama State Department of Education. Advisors work with the students to set up valuable service learning experiences. The learning community is a wonderful opportunity to inform students of the academic, social, and emotional support services offered on campus. During class time students learn more about the College of Education, prepare for the upcoming semester, and set future goals.
The School of Nursing learning community was established five years ago as a way to include pre-nursing students into the overall School and better prepare them for admission into the upper division Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. Students who matriculate as pre-nursing majors work on completing prerequisites for upper division program during their first two years and are typically ready to apply to the upper division in the spring of their sophomore year. The School of Nursing accepts 48 students twice a year from the approximately 200 who apply during each application period. The application process is competitive and the prerequisites are challenging.
The establishment of the Nursing learning community provided assistance to freshmen in traditional first-semester courses such as biology. Students in the learning community establish study groups that help them make connections with each other and provide them with the opportunity to complete a foundation science course in a positive, supportive atmosphere. Students benefit from increased connections with Nursing faculty and upper division students and receive assistance in preparing for the competitive application process. They also receive assistance in developing a backup plan if they are not accepted into the nursing program.
How learning communities benefit academic advisors
Learning communities are extremely beneficial for academic advisors. The many benefits include reaching more students, the opportunity to familiarize students with university policies, procedures and resources, and actively involving students in the university and the community.
Learning communities allow advisors to “reach more with less.” This is a great advantage in recent economic times as enrollment continues to increase but funding limitations do not allow for hiring additional advisors. The ability to work with a greater number of students means that more students are informed and are able to share their knowledge with others in their respective colleges. The students appreciate the time spent in class reviewing requirements and the added time their advisor has to answer questions. Advisor/instructors tailor their classes to each learning community’s specific interest area and their college’s unique requirements. Advisors teach students how to actively participate in their advising appointments and how to become more knowledgeable of their responsibilities in the college career and degree progress.
Connecting learning communities to student persistence
Learning communities have been embraced by Auburn University as a way to improve student persistence and retention rates. Learning communities focus on developing a student support system by encouraging study groups and community service activities. They also encourage students to become more involved in their college-sponsored groups (e.g., College Ambassadors, Student Government Association). The social comfort level established within a learning community can positively affect students’ academic success. Familiarity with the university affects how comfortable students can become in their “home away from home.” Students also have the opportunity to learn about available resources within the university and community. Students within learning communities are encouraged to develop study groups and use academic enhancement programs (e.g., tutors and supplemental instruction). These experiences allow students to grow emotionally, socially, and academically.
Research has shown that students who choose to participate in learning communities reap multiple benefits. Learning community students have a higher GPA than their peers, are more connected to the college and their classmates, are retained at a higher rate, feel closer to faculty, and make a smoother transition to college (Stassen, 2003; Williams, 2000). Not only do these students benefit academically, they also benefit socially. For example, Brower, Golde, and Allen (2003) found that binge drinking is less prevalent for learning community students due to positive norms and social support systems. In general, learning community students report a higher level of satisfaction with their college experience (Smith et al, 2004).
The use of peer instructors in learning communities
Each Auburn learning community uses peer instructors to assist the advisor/instructors in the Experience/Success Strategies course. Common responsibilities for peer instructors include assisting with preparing lessons and activities, communication with students via email and Facebook© groups. Peer instructors also serve as mentors to students and provide a unique “student perspective” to freshmen. Learning community students benefit from their relationship with the peer instructor. Freshmen are more likely to approach a peer instructor for advice, to share information, or ask questions. Peer instructors acquire teaching experience and leadership opportunities through this encounter. Currently, there is no formal evaluation tool for peer instructors. Peer instructors are not paid, but are allowed to register for their courses at an earlier time
Learning communities are a wonderful resource for first year students. Through advisor-led learning communities, incoming students are not only given the tools to be successful in the classroom but have a better understanding of the requirements of their chosen profession. Involvement in a learning community is a time-saving strategy for advisors who can advise in a classroom setting. The learning community also provides a venue for creating more informed students as advisors explain university policies and procedures. The mentoring provided in the learning community increases retention efforts and supports student success. Learning communities provide multiple benefits to advisors, students, and the overall institution. Combining learning communities and academic advising offers exciting possibilities for a unique student education assistance program within the academe.
Lori McLean, Katie Lackey, Pam Hennessey, & Ruthanna Payne
Brower, A.M., Golde, C.M. & Allen, C. (2003, Spring) Residential learning communities positively affect college binge drinking. NASPA Journal, 40, Article 9. Retrieved from http://publications.naspa.org/naspajournal/vol40/iss3/art9
Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Stassen, M.L.A. (2003, October). Student outcomes: The impact of varying living-learning community models. Research in Higher Education, 44, 581-613.
Cite this resource using APA style as:
McLean, L., Lackey, K., Hennessey, P. & Payne R. (2011). Advising in learning communities: A collaborative approach. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/learning_communities.htm
Learning Communities Resources