Learning Communities and Unlinked Sections: A Contrast of Student Backgrounds, Student Outcomes, and In-class Experiences

Abstract

Learning communities, the co-registration of student cohorts sharing curricular goals, are often associated with greater academic achievement, retention, inclusivity, and engagement. While not all previous studies unequivocally demonstrate a positive learning community effect on performance, many suggest that students participating in learning communities identify a greater sense of community and interaction with their peers and instructors. Few studies, however, have compiled both academic metrics of success as well as multiple quantitative measures of academic engagement. Moreover, few studies have contrasted these metrics to roughly equivalent classes where the only difference was linkage by a learning community, while holding course content, semester, and instructor constant. Our research goal was to compare academic performance, retention, student background, and engagement of students participating in learning communities to those in similar but unlinked sections. We found no significant differences in academic performance, student background, or engagement between linked learning community classes and unlinked, freestanding sections of the same class. We also found student retention was lower in learning community sections compared to unlinked sections. Some of our findings may reflect our student population of a non-residential, commuter campus where building relationships may be more difficult. We suggest that other metrics of success, including those that quantify interdisciplinary knowledge or skills and collaboration, may better reflect gains of success in learning community environments.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the UVU University College for its support of this assessment, and Doug Gardner for his collaborations and assistance with the student survey data. Ethan Keller contributed to analysis of observation data. Ash Heim provided a critical review of an early version of this manuscript, and two anonymous reviewers provided insight to improve this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Emily A. Holt.

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Holt, E.A., Nielson, A. Learning Communities and Unlinked Sections: A Contrast of Student Backgrounds, Student Outcomes, and In-class Experiences. Res High Educ 60, 670–683 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-018-9531-1

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Keywords

  • Collaboration
  • Engagement
  • Performance
  • Retention