Learning communities (LCs) are considered a high impact practice for teaching and learning in higher education (Kuh et al., 2010).
Perhaps the most widespread usage of the term in the US is for situations in which a group of students enrolls in multiple courses during one term to facilitate exchange and learning across disciplines and contexts, often as part of a ‘first year experience’ (Wawrzynski and Baldwin, 2014, p. 57). A broader definition of LCs includes any scenario that aims to encourage the academic and social interaction of a group of students on an ongoing basis. Thus, an LC is,
... an intentionally developed community that exists to promote and maximize the individual and shared learning of its members. There is ongoing interaction, interplay, and collaboration among the community’s members as they strive for specified common learning goals. (Lenning et al., 2013, p. 7)
While LCs may include group projects or assignments, these are not necessary features. LCs may also be linked to a service learning element, in which students take what they are learning and apply or observe it in the broader community (Love, 2012, p. 13), but again this is not necessary. The following is a useful typology that captures the diversity of forms LCs take:
- curricular LCs (interdisciplinary or intradisciplinary, across classes),
- classroom LCs (within singular courses),
- residential LCs,
- student-type LCs (for different demographic groups of students or students with similar interests), and
- virtual LCs (Lenning and Ebbers, 1999, p. 10).
As this CREATES toolkit is focused on classroom techniques for co-creative learning, the following page emphasizes the ways that an LC could work in a single course -a classroom learning community in the typology above. Classroom LCs involve creating smaller groups within larger classes and facilitating exchange and/or group work or other forms of collaboration.
Though classroom LCs are the focus here, this page also includes a few references to and ideas for some other forms of LCs. For a more extensive literature review on LCs, whose roots stretch back to the teaching and learning innovations of John Dewey and Alexander Meiklejohn, please see Love (2012).
If done well, learning communities become an end in themselves. Price (2005) identifies the following characteristics present in all learning communities, almost all of which also enhance student-centered learning:
- "Organizing students and faculty into smaller groups,
- Encouraging integration of the curriculum,
- Helping students establish academic and social support networks,
- Providing a setting for students to be socialized to the expectations of college,
- Bringing faculty together in more meaningful ways,
- Focusing faculty and students on learning outcomes,
- Providing a setting for community-based delivery of academic support programs, and
- Offering a critical lens for examining the first-year experience." (Price, 2005, p. 3)
Which learning objectives or competences does it support?
Proponents of LCs identify them as a high impact practice that supports many learning objectives (Kuh et al. 2010), but especially those associated with co-creation and collaboration with others.
Learning communities are the pedagogical embodiment of this belief: Teaching and learning involve co-creating knowledge through relationships among students, between students and teachers, and through the environment in which these relationships operate (Price, 2005, p. 6).
Students in LCs may take a more active approach to their learning, since the personal connections to their peers and teachers encourage responsibility to contribute to the community, and thus to their and their peers’ learning (Visher et al., 2010, p. 77-79). Students in LCs may also be better encouraged to co-construct the understanding of education as a process to which they contribute, rather than as something passively received from teachers (Ingram et al., 2016).
The relationships that students build with others in an LC may help bolster their communication and collaboration skills, including considering multiple perspectives and compromise (Wynn et al., 2019). LCs create the opportunity to engage with others, and when done well, supports and trains students in productive engagement with their peers and with faculty. These skills do NOT emerge automatically simply by having smaller groups, but through using other active pedagogies in combination with the personal relationships and community environments that LCs foster, such as problem-based learning (PBL) and metacognitive self-reflection, as in Wynn et al. (2019).
Types of Courses
Classroom LCs can be used in introductory or upper level courses.
Some of the benefits of using LCs in introductory level courses are that it creates a setting for students to be socialized into university study and to get to know their peers early on. A challenge of employing it in these courses is that students may require additional support if they have not had an experience of student-centered learning before. Teachers can address this challenge by scaffolding group work with smaller activities that are not graded.
When using LCs in upper level courses, you may need to consider to what extent students’ previous studies have prepared them to collaborate and exchange with one another. If your institution does not have a culture of encouraging collaborative group work, it may be difficult to create the setting for more advanced students who are used to studying on their own. On the other hand, if students are accustomed to classroom LC arrangements, they may require little instruction, and teachers can thus focus on supporting the group work in more of a supervisor position.
Learning communities are already employed in various fields in higher education; recent publications have looked at LCs in fields such as mathematics (Ingram et al., 2016), biology (Siegesmund, 2016) and history (Wynn et al, 2019) among other disciplines. While curriculum LCs (in which students are enrolled in multiple courses as a group) may be explicitly interdisciplinary and require coordination between faculty across university departments, classroom LCs (on which this page is focused) can be implemented by a single teacher in their discipline.
Resources: What do you need to implement it?
This technique can be implemented with time for planning and the investment of teaching staff.
- Planning allows for clear expectations about the faculty and student contributions to the learning communities
- Faculty and/or tutors to support and train students to participate productively in the LCs
- Workshops on group communication and teamwork may be useful, especially if group work will be graded. If the workshops are organized by professionals from the campus community, they may carry additional weight with and benefit for students.
Principles: How can we employ learning communities well?
Form small groups intentionally.
Perhaps you want to form groups randomly, but you may also want to form them to allow for more diversity within groups. Or to the contrary, you may want to form LCs so that students who face similar challenges can share their experiences with each other. If forming the latter, make sure that students can elect into that situation and that you are not making assumptions either about their situation or their preferences. For example, you could arrange a confidential survey at the start of the semester in which you ask students if they want to be a group with other first generation students, or international students, or commuter students (or other groups which may encounter specific challenges at university).
See "Classroom LC Example 2: Upper-level Research-based Learning Course" below for one example of how to form learning communities intentionally.
Support the contributions or interactions you want to foster in the LC.
Simply forming smaller groups does not mean that the students will form the kind of relationships that make a community or that they will collaborate in productive ways. You may want to support these competencies by providing structured classwork or instructions for how to contribute to or lead group discussions. Some ideas for supporting or scaffolding LC tasks include:
- Staff or student tutors who can be approached for questions or support
- Workshops or sessions specifically on teamwork, discussion, or other collaborative skills.
- Clearly communicated learning objectives and expectations in the LCs. These may include detailed syllabi, instructions, and rubrics (if graded work will be produced in the LCs, keep reading!)
See all three examples below for ideas about how to support LCs through instructions, exercises, and staff support
Scaffold any graded group work
Especially if group work will be assessed, you may want to support students and scaffold the LC work in the following ways:
- Assign an easier or ungraded task early in the semester to test out the group work before a larger project or more challenging tasks.
- Suggest or require specific roles for each member of the team to divide labor and responsibility.
- Ask students to set group contracts to adjust expectations.
See "Classroom LC Example 2: Upper-level Research-based Learning Course" for an example of scaffolding assessed work in learning communities.
The following examples describe specific classroom learning community practices from CREATES partners and include sample materials which may provide inspiration for your own courses.
In the Studium Individuale, the individualized study major at Leuphana University, we implemented classroom LCs in two of the major core courses in students’ first semester. In both courses they worked in groups. The methodology course called “Ways of Knowing” used both graded and ungraded groupwork to introduce students to many methodological approaches. You can read more about that course on the Research-based Learning page in this toolkit.
The Classroom LC:
In the introductory course “Transformation of Modern Europe," students learned in in-class discussion groups of 8-10, with a different ‘discussion leader’ for each class. In each weekly class, students would discuss a reading for half of the 2 hour session in this same small group. In evaluations, students reported that they liked this set up and that they learned well in it.
At the end of the course in the 2018-2019 semester, about half of the students who completed the course evaluation reported the small group discussion as something they liked about the course. Furthermore, 18 of the 22 respondents rated the learning that took place in the small groups as a 4 or 5 on a scale of 5.
Tips and Useful Features:
A few elements contributed to the success of the small group discussions (classroom LCs):
- Clear ‘hosting’ instructions, so that each week a different student was responsible for hosting the discussion about the readings.
- Students were invited to send their hosting notes to the teacher a few days before the class for feedback.
- This contribution was ungraded to lower anxiety and make participation in the LC feel less like a ‘presentation’ requirement.
- Each small group had either a teacher or a student tutor sit in on the discussion. To a great extent, the teachers and students tried to stay out of the conversation unless there was a serious misunderstanding or deviation from the topic at hand.
Steps to implement the LCs:
- Students were randomly divided into groups of 8-10.
- Teachers emailed each group a schedule for when each student would host the small group discussion. (Students could switch dates among themselves.)
- For the first few classes, the teacher would remind the group to identify the next week’s host before ending the group discussion.
- Each week before the small group discussion, the teacher would very briefly introduce a tip for small group discussions to encourage self-awareness of participation in the conversation.
Example tips for discussion:
- Lightning round: Ask each person to say an important takeaway from the text or a question they had. 1-2 sentences each. This can jumpstart the conversation and give everyone a point of reference.
- Allowing for space: A brief silence can be useful for those of us who like to think before we speak, especially if the conversation starts to become dominated by a few outspoken members. Hosts can ask for everyone to take a moment to think if it might be useful.
- Gratitude: Remember to express thankfulness for your group mate’s contributions and for the opportunity to participate. No need to force gratefulness, but if you are feeling thankful, please feel free to express it.
- Hosting instructions for classroom LCs
In the Studium Individuale, the individualized study major at Leuphana University, we implemented classroom LCs in the upper-level course “Collaborative Research Project.” Students complete a small-scale research project in teams during the semester. You can read more about the course as a whole in the Research-based Learning page in this toolkit.
The Classroom LC:
Students formed their own teams of 3 to 6 students in the first two weeks of the semester though identifying common areas and topics of interest. The teams then worked closely with a faculty ‘supervisor’ on their research. A student tutor, with previous management experience, gave a workshop to help support the teams (or LCs) on group communication and organization of group work. The plan and materials for the workshop are available below. The student tutor also meets with each team at least once throughout the semester to discuss how the group work is going and address any issues.
Tips and Useful Features:
A few elements contributed to the success of the research teams (classroom LCs):
- Two group communication and organization workshops run by someone with management experience (in this case, a student tutor with a professional background) held in the first month of the semester supported productive groupwork.
- Individual meetings with the student tutor (who again, had the professional background) are an opportunity to address unforeseen team issues that arise.
- For each class meeting, a different team member needed to prepare to be a ‘discussion lead’ on the project, encouraging all team members to be up-to-date on the state of the team’s research.
- Metacognitive self-reflection exercises encourage reflection on both the student’s experience of the research process and their contribution to the team work.
Steps to implement the LCs:
- One week before the start of the semester, teachers requested students complete a short questionnaire identifying their broad research and methodological interests. The responses were used to suggest starting conversation groups in the first class meeting.
- A first ungraded team assignment is due during the second week of the semester identifying the team’s topic and the schedule for discussion leads for the remainder of the semester.
- Tutor or teaching staff holds the first workshop on group communication during the third or fourth week of the semester.
- Tutor or teaching staff holds the second workshop on group work organization during the fifth week of the semester.
- Around half way through the semester, the tutor or teaching staff meets with each team individually specifically to discuss how the team work is going and to address any emerging issues.
- Throughout the semester in-class self-reflection exercises often ask students to identify their own contribution to group work and communication, or to identify challenges and possible solutions.
Learning Community Communication and Organization Workshop
Six of the seven steps of PBL involve working in groups. The steps (developed at Maastricht) are:
- Read the problem task and clarify any unclear terms.
- Define the problem statement based on the problem task.
- Brainstorm and discuss the problem statement based on prior knowledge or information from the problem task. The note taker takes notes of the discussion.
- Cluster the notes on the board into several topics and identify knowledge gaps.
- Based on the structured notes on the board, define learning goals that guide the research.
- Self study: Students do their individual research and find information to answer the learning goals. Sources of information depend on the aims of the course but can for example be from a provided reading list, lectures, or individual research.
- During the post-discussion the students discuss their findings and answer the learning goals. They may see if they can now better address the initial problem statement.
The Classroom LC:
At Maastricht University, the recommended size for tutorial groups are 8-10 students. Students participate in these groups to approach the problems addressed in the course. You can read more about PBL tutorial groups in the PBL section of this toolkit.
This role play activity was developed at UCM for use in the course “Introduction to Academic Skills II”. It is included here as an example of how Learning Communities (LCs) can be supported or scaffolded through reflection on the roles students can play in group work and conversation. In this document, you will find the following information:
- Activity description from the course’s student manual
- Instructions from the course’s tutor manual
Next Steps and Outside Resources
Would you like to read more about LCs from the scholarship of teaching and learning?
The open-access journal Learning Communities Research and Practice from the Washington Center at Evergreen State College publishes bi-yearly issues with research, practices from the field, and perspective articles.
Are you ready to start planning how you will set up your classroom LCs?
- The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence offers this page on planning group work in your classroom.
- If you are concerned about assessing group work, The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence also has a page on assessing group work.
Are you looking for other tools to support or collect feedback on LCs in progress?
Ingram T., Prabhu V., Smith H.E. (2016) “Just Tell Us the Formula!” Co-Constructing the Relevance of Education in Freshman Learning Communities. In: Czarnocha B., Baker W., Dias O., Prabhu V. (eds) The Creative Enterprise of Mathematics Teaching Research. SensePublishers, Rotterdam.
Kuh, G.D. (2008) High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. AAC&U.
Kuh, G., J. Kinzie, J.H. Schuh, E.J. Whitt and Associates (2010) Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lenning, O. T., and Ebbers, L. H. (1999) The Powerful Potential of Learning Communities: Improving Education for the Future. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 26, No. 6. Washington, D.C.: Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.
Lenning, O.T., Hill D.M., Saunders, K.P., Solan, A., Stokes, A. (2013) Powerful Learning Communities: A Guide to Developing Student, Faculty, and Professional Learning Communities to Improve Student Success and Organizational Effectiveness. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Love, A.G., (2012) The growth and current state of learning communities in higher education. New Directions in Teaching and Learning. 132:5–18.
Price, D. V. (2005) Learning Communities and Student Success in Postsecondary Education: A Background Paper (pp. 1–24). New York: MDRC. Available: https://www.mdrc.org/publication/learning-communities-and-student-success-postsecondary-education
Siegesmund, A. (2016) Increasing Student Metacognition and Learning through Classroom-Based Learning Communities and Self-Assessment. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. 17(2):204-214.
Smith, B. and MacGregor, J. (2009) Learning Communities and the Quest for Quality. Quality Assurance in Education. 17(2):118-139.
Visher, M., Schneider, E., Wathington, H., and Collado, H. (2010) Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community Colleges. New York: MDRC. Available: https://www.mdrc.org/publication/scaling-learning-communities
Wawrzynski, M.R. and Baldwin, R.G. (2014) “Promoting High-Impact Student Learning: Connecting Key Components of the Collegiate Experience.” New Directions for Higher Education. 65:51-62.
Wynn, C. T. , Ray, H. , Liu, L. (2019). The Relationship between Metacognitive Reflection, PBL, and Postformal Thinking among First-Year Learning Community Students. Learning Communities Research and Practice, 7(2), Article 3.