First Year Learning Communities: Creating Success by Building Relationships
July 2013, Volume 16, Number 7
By David Gerkin
Learning communities, a growing movement in higher education for almost 40 years, are generally considered to be groupings of two or more courses that integrate course content, often around a unifying theme. One of the prominent features of a learning community is the building of relationships among students and between students and faculty (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, & Gabelnick, 2004). Barefoot (2000) suggested that learning communities are especially helpful for first-year students because they enable students to engage with one another academically and socially. The first year experience (FYE) at Glendale Community College (GCC), part of the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), consists of first-year learning communities created with this goal: to engage students in the academic and social domains in order to increase their persistence and success in college.
The FYE learning community program for first-year, full-time students at GCC in the fall 2006 and fall 2007 semesters was the subject of the author’s doctoral dissertation, a descriptive case study which used a mixed methods research design utilizing both qualitative and quantitative data (Gerkin, 2009). The study explored the perceptions of former FYE students on aspects of their learning community experience that affected their persistence in college using Astin’s (1984) student involvement theory and Tinto’s (1997) student persistence model as a conceptual framework. The researcher predicted that increased student involvement with the college due to participation in a learning community would lead to increased persistence. The study also addressed two gaps in the literature, a lack of research that helps practitioners understand how learning communities increase persistence and a very small number of formal studies of learning communities at community colleges.
GCC’s First Year Experience
GCC’s FYE during the time of the study was made up of five learning communities of 20 to 25 students. Each learning community was composed of three linked courses, most typically an introductory English course (First-Year Composition or developmental English), a Psychology course, and CPD 150, Strategies for College Success. CPD 150 topics included study skills, career and educational planning, and life skills such as personal responsibility and self-awareness. The classes were scheduled as a block, so that students went together from one class to the next, and FYE faculty worked together to integrate assignments among the courses in each cohort, encourage student success strategies, engage students in collaborative learning activities both within and outside the classroom, and involve them in campus life.
In addition, a large group event was held each month of the semester to bring all five FYE learning communities together. At these events, students were encouraged to get to know students and faculty outside of their own learning community. Each event typically included a lecture or presentation, a collaborative learning activity, and time for students to socialize, usually over food.
Quantitative Data: Persistence, Course Completion, and GPA
Descriptive data on student performance were collected and analyzed for two groups: All students who participated in the FYE during the fall semesters of 2006 and 2007, and a comparison group of all first-time, full-time students enrolled at GCC in the same two semesters who were not in the FYE, the non-FYE group. The data were analyzed to discover if any patterns could be found that matched the predicted pattern of student involvement leading to persistence. In addition, the data were analyzed to discover possible relationships between the themes that emerged from the qualitative data and the patterns found in the descriptive data.
GCC defined persistence as completion of the first semester and enrollment in subsequent semesters. Persistence rates were measured for the fall 2006 FYE cohort for four semesters after the first semester at the college. For each of these four semesters, FYE students had higher rates of persistence than the non-FYE group. For the first three semesters, the FYE students persisted at rates 5 to 10% higher than the non-FYE group. For the fourth semester, the FYE students’ persistence rate was 19% higher than the non-FYE group. For the fall 2007 FYE student cohort, persistence rates were measured for two semesters after the first semester. For each of these two semesters, the FYE students’ persistence rate was 7% higher than the non-FYE group. FYE students persisted at higher rates than the non-FYE comparison group for all semesters measured for both cohort years.
The study defined course completion as completing all classes attempted in a semester. For the fall 2006 FYE cohort, course completion was measured for four semesters beginning with the first semester of college. The course completion rate for the fall 2006 cohort was higher than the non-FYE group for two of the four semesters measured. For the fall 2007 cohort, the course completion rate was higher for one of the two semesters measured. While the results were somewhat uneven, both cohorts had one finding in common. The course completion rate was higher than the non-FYE group for both cohorts in the first semester. This may be due in part to the design of the FYE. The FYE students in each learning community were enrolled in the same three courses, and the instructors worked together to integrate shared assignments among the courses and encouraged their students to commit to completing all three courses as a block. Additionally, in CPD 150, the college success course, students were taught attitudes, behaviors, and skills designed to help them succeed in all their courses, including those courses outside of the FYE that completed their full-time course load.
For the fall 2006 FYE cohort, mean semester GPA was computed for four semesters beginning with the first semester of college. For all four semesters, students in the fall 2006 FYE cohort had a higher mean semester GPA than the non-FYE group. For the fall 2007 FYE cohort, mean semester GPA was computed for the first two semesters of college. Students in the fall 2007 FYE cohort had a higher mean semester GPA in their first semester of college than the non-FYE group, but in their second semester, the FYE students had a slightly lower mean semester GPA. Overall, FYE students from both cohort years combined had a higher mean GPA in all semesters measured but one.
Qualitative Data: Three Themes
Qualitative data were collected from interviews with former FYE students and analyzed to identify emergent themes within the responses. Three themes emerged from the qualitative data: connecting with others, acquiring and applying knowledge and skills, and making the transition to college.
Connecting With Others
Many of the FYE students spoke of involvement with FYE faculty and students that helped them persist in college. They often expressed that the FYE faculty supported their efforts to succeed. One student put it this way, “The FYE teachers that first year just seemed like they were all pulling for you…and they wanted to see you succeed…It’s almost like, you know, having somebody in your corner.” Many FYE students reported feeling closely connected to the faculty, developing relationships which sometimes lasted several semesters after the FYE program ended. These relationships were developed because, according to the students, the faculty took the time to get to know them individually, cared about them, were willing to help them, and expressed a strong desire for their success.
FYE students also attributed their persistence to connecting with other students, which helped them integrate into the college socially and academically. They worked together in class on collaborative learning activities, completed group projects outside the classroom, and helped each other with homework. Beyond the academic function of these collaborative activities, there was a social aspect to them, and relationships were built. As one student expressed it, “But when we did this group project, when we were working together, we just got really close. We became really… good friends.”
Acquiring and Applying Knowledge and Skills
FYE students reported acquiring knowledge and skills learned in the college success course, CPD 150, in their first semester and applying them in subsequent semesters. The knowledge and skills learned and applied were the educational and career planning process, study skills, and life skills. The study skills included taking notes, using campus resources, managing time, and understanding learning styles, while the life skills included personal responsibility, goal setting, self-confidence, and interpersonal communication. One student said she learned how to more confidently interact with others; in her words, “That’s what helped through the next semester, yeah, is being able to have confidence and know that you can approach almost anybody now, including instructors and students.” Many of the students reported a positive impact on their persistence in college as a result of learning and applying this body of knowledge and skill.
Making the Transition to College
“At first, it was very scary because I had no idea what to expect…If I hadn’t gone through the FYE, then it would have been a lot more intimidating because it really helps you ease into the whole process.” This is one student’s description of how the FYE helped her make the transition from high school to college. Many FYE students spoke of the transition to college as a process of overcoming a fear of the unknown and of college as a frightening place. They expressed how the FYE helped them deal with the fear and make a smooth transition.
The FYE helped students develop confidence in their ability to succeed in college by teaching them about the college environment, helping them establish realistic expectations of college, and fostering supportive relationships with peers and teachers. The supportive relationships, with the FYE faculty in particular, helped students feel less apprehensive and more comfortable in college. One student described her personal relationships with her FYE teachers and their impact on her persistence, saying that without these relationships, “I don’t think I’d be back because I would just be so intimidated, because college is scary to begin with.” In addtion, the FYE helped students make the transition to college by teaching them about college resources and processes and the structure and expectations of college courses.
The three themes that emerged from the qualitative data, connecting with others, acquiring and applying knowledge and skills, and making the transition to college, matched the predicted pattern of involvement leading to persistence. FYE students were involved with FYE faculty, students, and course content throughout the first semester, which had a positive impact on persistence.
The FYE now falls under GCC’s Student Success Initiative, which is a component of MCCCD’s Student Success Initiative. One aspect of this initiative is a required college success course for all new, degree seeking or transfer students who test into one or more developmental education courses. At GCC, CPD 150 is the required success course, and many sections of this course are offered as part of the FYE. More students in MCCCD colleges will now have the benefit of taking CPD 150, many in FYE learning communities. With the increasing emphasis on community college accountability for student success nationwide, more community colleges may require college success courses. If they do, they should consider offering at least some of these courses as part of a first-year learning community. These learning communities should be designed to promote the development of relationships among students and between students and faculty, teach college success skills, and help students make a successful transition to college so that increasing numbers of first-year students make it to the second year and beyond.
Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297-308.
Barefoot, B. (2000). The first year experience. About Campus, 4(6), 12-18.
Smith, B. L., MacGregor, J., Mathews, R. S., & Gabelnick, F. (2004). Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gerkin, D. (2009). The impact of a first-year learning community on student persistence: Perceptions of community college students. (Doctoral Dissertation, Walden University, 2009). Dissertation Abstracts International.
Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.