Learning Communities make freshman year fun
Diana Holguin and Kelsi Miles
Freshman Diana Holguin did a lot of fun things with a group of new friends during her first semester at CU Denver: ice skating, fancy downtown dinners, even a trip to a Rockies game. What was her favorite activity with the group? Actually, it was studying with her Learning Community.
“We had a group study session at the beginning of the semester, and it wasn’t really supposed to be fun, I guess,” Holguin says. “But it was fun because we were sharing the experience of having to study in college for the first time. We were all in it together, so it was exciting.”
In the Fall 2014 semester, Holguin was one of 41 students who participated in the Learning Community pilot, a cohort of new college freshmen who take classes together and do activities together. Each Learning Community is a kind of club, a group of approximately 24 freshmen who stay together for three classes—a First-Year Seminar, an English Composition course and a subject-based course like Philosophy or Anthropology. That means for at least half of their courses in their first semester of college the students in the Learning Community have a group of friends with the same teachers, the same homework assignments and the same freshmen fears.
Learning in a Community
“My life would have been so much easier if I had had a Learning Community,” Peer Advocate Leader (PAL) Kelsi Miles says. “I was the classic first-semester freshman who didn’t know what a syllabus was, when things were due, or how to find anything but the cute boys. I’m glad I get to make those things easier for my students.”
In addition to learning and working together, the Learning Communities also play together. That’s where Miles and the other PALs come in. Every week the students participate in co-curricular and community activities that integrate classroom learning with life skills and real-world issues, and the PALs join them in every adventure. Miles says she also has one-on-one coffee dates with her students and sits in on many of their classes to stay connected to her students’ professors and weekly work. The PALs are part mentor, part friend and part parent, gently reminding students that they already missed a class or need to check their grades when necessary. Miles calls it “bridging the gap”—showing students how fulfilling their college experience can be.
“I was really attracted by that idea of mentorship and by the thought of seeing the same people three times a day,” Holguin says. “I’m so glad I decided to join a Learning Community. We were all trying to get used to the whole college experience, but we got to do it together. We really quickly went from being nervous to relying on each other for everything from homework due dates to coffee dates.”
When Holguin and the other Learning Community students talk about their experience, they use a lot of “we.” “We” always made sure everyone knew when homework was due, “we” liked going to dinner on Friday nights, “we” had fun in the city. It’s immediately clear that the students now see themselves as a unit, and enjoyed their first semester of college all the more because of it.
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Experiences Jeff Franklin, the man spearheading the Learning Community pilot project, says this is exactly what he wanted.
“I want our students to learn, but I also want them to have a good time and feel good about being at CU Denver,” Franklin says. “I want the students to notice that they’re enjoying college. Really, they’re benefitting from these communities in more ways than they know.”
“Learning Communities are a high-impact practice, a nationally recognized educational practice that is shown to be especially engaging for students,” Franklin says. “The national consensus is that getting students engaged in high-impact practices is good for their learning and good for retention and completion.”
That means that students who spend time learning, studying and playing within a Learning Community experience an easier transition into college, more connection to other new students inside and outside class and more satisfaction with their college experience.
Because all Learning Communities include a First-Year Seminar, students in Learning Communities are required to be engaged on campus, attend events, attend resource office workshops and meet with their advisors—opportunities that lead to a greater understanding and use of valuable campus resources that may otherwise go unnoticed by the average freshman. It also means they are given training on topics like information literacy, academic honesty and time management—basic skills that everyone needs to succeed in college. So, it’s no surprise that the students who start in Learning Communities have a greater likelihood of completing college.
Franklin and his collaborating colleagues in Student Affairs knew all this data when they decided to bring the Learning Communities to CU Denver, but they’re happy to see the benefits actually playing out on campus. End-of-semester surveys showed that the students in the Learning Communities felt more engaged outside the classroom, felt like “part of the CU Denver community,” felt more confident in their ability to find research to support their writing and reported higher levels of confidence about their college success skills.
Justin Bain, the professor who taught Holguin’s composition course, says he saw this play out in his classroom too. “There’s definitely something special about the Learning Community classes,” Bain says. “The students bond more quickly, so attendance is better, students are more willing to take risks and say things they might otherwise be embarrassed to say and they’re all more willing to talk to me as their instructor. Those are habits that they will now carry forward to the rest of their college career.”
At the Learning Community end-of-semester banquet, students, teachers and CU Denver administrators sit together at a table in a dim downtown restaurant, sharing chips and memories from the semester behind them. Some students make weekend plans, Miles asks Holguin how her chemistry test went and an advisor asks a student about her plans for next semester. It’s a unique mingling, a clear demonstration of what the Learning Communities provided for the students: easy access to peers, relatable mentors and university leadership.
Franklin says the success of the Learning Communities is completely dependent on the success of inter-administration collaboration. It was the Learning Community Steering Committee, comprised of representatives from the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of Student Life, the Academic Success and Advising Center and CLAS Curriculum Coordinators (with school leaders like Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Raul Cardenas and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Success Peggy Lore) who made the Learning Community pilot successful. Moving forward, it will take more hard work from the steering committee, more dedication from professors like Bain to talk with students about their lives outside of class and more PALs like Miles to make CU Denver a comfortable place for freshmen.
In the Fall 2015 semester, incoming freshmen will have the opportunity to sign up for one of two Learning Communities: a Women and Gender Studies First-Year Seminar paired with an introductory sociology course or a Human Development and Family Relations First-Year Seminar paired with Introduction to Cultures of the Spanish-Speaking World. Then, in the Fall 2016 semester, CU Denver hopes to launch a few major-specific Learning Communities geared toward students interested in majoring in education, business, architecture, engineering or other fields.
As for Holguin, she did her best to create her own “learning community” for the Spring 2015 semester. She and her fellow Learning Community members signed up for as many of the same classes as possible, and, of course, they’re still meeting for group study sessions.