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Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities

By Jodi Levine Laufgraben, Nancy S. Shapiro and Associates
Jossey-Bass
2004
208 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6054-3
$35.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Mark Wiley

Department of English
California State University, Long Beach

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In their previous book, Creating Learning Communities (1999), Jodi Levine Laufgraben and Nancy S. Shapiro attempted to explain why learning communities were a significant means for reorganizing undergraduate education. Now, they take up the twin themes of Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities in order to provide practical advice and strategies for campus leaders and interested faculty who already have a stake in promoting the success of existing learning communities. In other words, this book attempts to answer the question: Now that we have a learning community on our campus, how do we keep it going and make it better?

This volume can also be useful for those in higher education who are less familiar with the purposes and types of learning communities and why they might improve curricular coherence as well as student learning and retention. However, I suggest that readers for whom learning communities represent a completely new concept should begin with Laufgraben’s and Shapiro’s 1999 text before reading this one.

The authors’ overriding purpose is to identify the essential elements that enable successful and long-lasting learning communities, as the excitement and enthusiasm generated by something new can sometimes conceal underlying problems that only emerge over time. The first chapter offers a brief overview of the “what and the why of learning communities,” information covered in depth in the 1999 volume. Succeeding chapters, written by numerous scholars in the learning community field, cover elements of campus culture conducive to successful learning communities, effective means to plan and assess curriculum, pedagogy that promotes student learning, faculty development, assessment of learning communities, and the use of these communities to promote diversity. The longest chapter in the book reviews three types of “living-learning programs,” suggesting how to make them successful and keep them going. In the last chapter, Laufgraben and Shapiro broaden the concept of learning communities by considering how they fit into “current movements and issues in higher education and society at large” (157), including a discussion of learning communities in K-12 and their use in providing students a smoother transition between high school and college.

Overall, I found that this book delivers what the authors promise, and I found especially valuable the use of specific examples from various institutions throughout the country, examples that illustrate either key components of learning communities or successful strategies relevant to a specific theme in each chapter. Readers will also find useful the numerous listings of institutional websites and disciplinary organizations that provide further information about learning communities.

Learning communities are a response to growing concerns in higher education over student retention and graduation rates, the quality of student learning, and the integrity of the undergraduate curriculum. While there are several types of learning communities, the focus in this volume is on curricular learning communities and how these organizational structures create opportunities for faculty and students to work together in more meaningful ways to promote student learning through effective teaching and through establishing “academic and social support networks” (3).

Proponents of learning communities recognize that today’s students are much more diverse in terms of their demographics; their preparation for and expectations of college; their learning styles; and how they access higher education, for example through on-line courses, distance education, and by enrollment in one or more community college courses while attending a four-year institution. Furthermore, as so many of our students are working full or part time, learning communities are purposefully designed to counter the tendency toward a shopping-mall quality in higher education whereby students accumulate units through the most efficient means possible simply to achieve the goal of earning a college degree.

If learning communities are to continue to be valuable counterweights to transitory, superficial learning, they need to become, as the authors argue, an essential part of campus culture. The purpose for establishing them must be clear to all stakeholders—faculty, staff, students and their parents, and administrators—and this structure must fit in with the institutional mission. Moreover, those responsible for creating and improving learning communities must understand how the purposes of their community translate to achievable, demonstrable goals. For instance, one chapter argues that a campus establishing a learning community to address poor student retention must first examine “the reasons for lower-than-desired rates of retention” (21). In knowing the reasons, campus leaders can design the learning community to address the causes and then accurately measure its success in addressing them.

Other essential elements for sustaining and improving learning communities include designing a curriculum aligned with the purpose of the community. If a central goal of a learning community, for instance, is to help underprepared students remain in school, get involved in campus life, and develop foundational skills of reading and writing, the curriculum should be so designed that students can learn about the expectations of their college professors and about the myriad opportunities to get involved in campus life (and perhaps be required to attend some campus events). These students must receive direct instruction in reading and writing, but instruction that is integral to the course content of the linked classes in the learning community. Assessment is also essential not only to determine the effectiveness of the curriculum and teaching in the learning community, but also to discover if the community is attaining its stated goals.

Faculty who teach in these communities must also engage in professional development. They must learn about and try out active learning strategies, learn to work together—and in many communities, teach together—and learn how to incorporate technology effectively into the classroom. They must also meet regularly to discuss student work and other aspects of the learning community.

Another key element is to teach for a range of learning styles and student backgrounds. For example, LaGuardia Community College offers several learning communities organized around particular themes that allow the diverse students in them to bring their own voices into the classroom. “Relationships” proved to be a useful theme since all students had this experience in common. Students developed oral histories and had them performed as theatre pieces, allowing the authors to direct others how their particular life stories could be defined and told from a specific perspective (123).

Living-learning programs are also important structures that “introduce and integrate academic and social learning in residence hall settings through faculty involvement with the goal of an enriched learning experience for all participants” (130). Descriptions written by representatives of institutions offering such programs provide real-world examples.

This review highlights several of the useful ideas, strategies, organizational structures and resources provided in Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities. What I did not find, however, was sufficient recognition of significant problems that can adversely affect how learning communities function.

When students spend much of their time together, they can become supportive peers and effective study groups. The downside, however, is that they can establish cliques that can polarize a classroom, particularly if these cliques are antagonistic toward one another, or worse, toward their instructors. Sometimes students in learning communities even attempt to pit their instructors against one another.

My only reservation about Sustaining and Improving Learning Communities is that it does not treat more deeply the professional implications for faculty without whose willing and active participation learning communities will flounder and ultimately fail. Successful learning communities need strong leadership, from campus administrators on down through the community’s director and from the faculty who teach in it. Those individuals closest to the operation of the community must dedicate much of their time and energy to establishing and maintaining its effectiveness. Reflecting the institutional importance of that dedication, the institution’s retention, tenure and promotion decisions should recognize and reward those faculty whose efforts make these learning communities successful.

A related problem not mentioned in Laufgraben’s and Shapiro’s book is that at many institutions, and this is certainly true within the CSU, a substantial share of lower-division courses are taught by part-time lecturers. These instructors have little power on campus and are more vulnerable than tenure-track faculty to the damage caused by negative student evaluations. For faculty to take ownership of learning communities on their respective campuses, they must receive both symbolic and material rewards.

Perhaps in their next volume, Laufgraben and Shapiro will focus more on the social and political issues and problems that arise within learning communities and the institutions where they exist. In the meantime, their latest book is sufficiently engaging and valuable to help advocates of learning communities continue to create, expand, and improve these innovative curricular structures.

Posted November 15, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Mark Wiley

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