Learning Communities and Phenomenon-Based Learning

Evelyn Seiler
Learning Abstracts

Community colleges have long embraced the concept of learning communities to provide meaningful, engaged education for the students passing through their gates. Many colleges have been successful in instituting this educational strategy that “places small cohorts of students together in two or more thematically linked courses, usually for a single semester, with added support, such as extra advising or tutoring” (MDRC, 2012, para. 1). Other community colleges have struggled to maintain momentum in the development and sustainability of their learning community programs. Studies by MDRC (2012), in conjunction with the National Center for Postsecondary Research, indicate that “implementing learning communities at scale is challenging but possible. Learning communities with high levels of curricular integration among courses are particularly hard to establish and maintain” (para. 6). U.S. higher education has often looked outside of itself for innovative models that lead to educational breakthroughs. One such model that could inform further development of learning communities in the U.S. is Finland’s recent curriculum reform utilizing a new instructional direction called phenomenon-based teaching and learning, which eliminates the concept of subjects in their current form and uses student-initiated topic exploration to meet established learning outcomes (Smith, 2017). Considering these two systems together leads to interesting possibilities in the areas of student success and completion for community colleges.

U.S. Learning Communities

Learning communities are defined by the National Learning Communities Project (2017) as:

the purposeful restructuring of the curriculum by linking or clustering courses that enroll a common cohort of students. This represents an intentional structuring of students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community and foster more explicit connections among students, faculty and discipline. (p. 6)

Learning communities exist in many variations across the community college landscape including linked or paired courses (Johnson, Jr., 2017), living learning communities of students studying and living in content area cohorts (Mirabito, 2016), and professional learning communities of student mentorship within an academic field (Cambrian College, 2009). Bunker Hill Community College (2017) engages in multiple initiatives in their learning communities, including “interdisciplinary learning experiences, teacher-to-student mentoring, peer mentoring, and integrated support services, including peer mentors and success coach advisors” (para. 3). Holyoke Community College (2009) integrates student learning “across courses and disciplines, over time, and/or between the classroom, campus, and community” (para. 3). Each of these efforts aims to create community and increase campus engagement which leads to student success. The issues arise in how the programs are sustained over time; maintaining institutional support, faculty engagement and ownership, inclusion in strategic initiatives, and changes in leadership that occur at various levels each have an impact on the functionality of any campus program.

Finland’s Phenomenon-Based Learning

In Finland, there is a different attitude and expectation about education overall (Penttila & Linberg, 2017; Karpanen, 2017; Luisvaara, 2017; Flemmich, 2017; Roms, 2017; Purolla & Pekkarten, 2017; Ervast, 2017). Education reform is structured at the national level with learning outcomes which are then implemented by municipalities (Flemmich, 2017). The concept of phenomenon-based learning could take learning communities to a higher level of interdisciplinary engagement by starting with a topic and exploring that topic through many disciplines. For example, climate change is an ecological issue, a social issue, a political issue, and an economic issue involving sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and literacy, all of which spur critical thinking and engagement to fully understand the topic. Students are guided by faculty in their explorations and encouraged to find answers, as opposed to being lectured about answers others discover (Luisvaara, 2017). Learning is project based, group and individual, and developed under the guidance of faculty (Purolla & Pekkartnen, 2017). The discovery process is the learning process. Faculty develop labs and exercises to guide learning and provide resources for the information necessary to complete projects (Ervast, 2017). Student outcomes are measured by what students demonstrate they have learned (Roms, 2017). Educational goals are set for each grade (Flemmich, 2017). The integration of critical thinking skills encourages lifelong curiosity and the ability to answer complex questions (Roms, 2017). It is these skills that have resulted in Finland being among the highest scoring countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2009. Finland trusts its faculty to guide student learning (Luisvaara, 2017). Finland started this curricular reform in the lower grades and it is working its way up through the educational system so student expectations are maintained and faculty have time to develop the systems and curriculum to meet established outcomes (Flemmich, 2017).

Perceptions of Teaching

In Finland, trust is placed in the superintendents and faculty to be effective in meeting students’ needs (Flemmich, 2017). Teaching is a valued profession in Finland and the university teaching programs are highly competitive, taking only the best students (Purolla & Pekkartnen, 2017). The Finnish population understands that an educated populace makes for a strong and effective workforce, and, therefore, willingly supports social programs like education and healthcare that result in a strong economy. Their educational system guides students based on demonstrated ability (Roms, 2017). University program enrollments are based on projected job needs, and all jobs in Finnish culture are valued for what they mean to the whole society. Education from early childhood education through to university master’s programs cost students nothing, but is part of the social benefits provided through taxes (Purolla & Pekkartnen, 2017).

By comparison, in the U.S. teaching is often considered a default profession and even more often is devalued and degraded (Morrison, 2015), with people complaining about the amount of their taxes going toward education (Riffkin, 2014). The rhetoric is that teachers are not trusted (Ozimek, 2014), but are told what and how to teach by various entities, and then their teaching quality and the school’s quality are measured based on test results, which are reflected in performance funding (Fain, 2014). Teachers often provide their own classrooms with supplies and resources. School districts vary in educational funding based on their tax base, which results in some school districts having more resources than others, and negatively impacts the quality of education for less resourced districts. Decreased funding for and support of education at all levels of government negatively impacts the potential futures of all students and communities (Bendix, 2017; Mitchell, Leachman, & Masterson, 2017). U.S. higher education is market driven, with enrollment generating funding for all programming and operational activities. Job markets do not drive the programs available (LaBombard, 2016). Whereas many four-year colleges and universities have select enrollment, community colleges are open enrollment and provide developmental education as necessary. The need for student loans to pay for a college education puts many students in debt long after they have left their institution (Student Loan Hero, 2017).

The Finnish model provides a unique perspective from which to evaluate what works in learning community programs. One aspect is how traditional boundaries set by subject-based learning can be further eroded to emphasize the interconnections that multiple subjects play in any issue. Learning to think and thinking to learn are the goals of the Finnish education system. This is a universal principle which can help focus the efforts of the U.S. system to move toward real student success. Critical thinking skills do not develop if students do not need to use them. A more intentional use of job projections to guide students in their choices of careers will provide a direct path to employment to alleviate the debt burden due to student loans and career fulfillment.

Next Steps

Community colleges have an opportunity to make their learning community programs more effective and impactful by taking the following actions:

  • Evaluate and implement best practices from other community college learning community programs. Don’t hesitate to go beyond traditional boundaries for models that challenge current program limitations (American Association of Community Colleges, 2013, pp. 7 & 10).
  • Involve and support faculty more actively to develop and teach in learning communities, emphasizing critical thinking skills which lead to greater student success.
  • Make learning communities a strategic priority as part of an integrated initiative to increase student learning and success. If not a college priority, the program will not have the impact or support necessary for either of these goals.

Learning communities in community colleges will facilitate the transition from student to employed professional.


American Association of Community Colleges. (2013). AACC competencies for community college leaders, 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from https://www.aacc.nche.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/AACC_Core_Competencies_web.pdf

Bendix, A. (2017, March 16). Trump’s education budget revealed. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/trumps-education-budget-revealed/519837/

Bunker Hill Community College. (2017). Mission statement for BHCC learning communities. Retrieved from http://www.bhcc.mass.edu/learning-communities/

Cambrian College. (2009, December). Cambrian College: New program translates into practical retention strategy. Member Spotlight. Retrieved from https://www.league.org/member-spotlight/cambrian-college-new-program-translates-practical-retention-strategy

Ervast, H. (2017, September 29). Lapin Yloipisto Teacher Training School presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

Fain, P. (2014, November 19). Gaming the system. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/11/19/performance-based-funding-provokes-concern-among-college-administrators

Flemmich. M. (2017, September 27). Municipality: The main provider of education in Finland presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

Johnson, L., Jr. (2017, September). Redefining the learning experience at community colleges. Learning Abstracts, 20(9). Retrieved from https://www.league.org/learning-abstracts/redefining-learning-experience-community-colleges

Holyoke Community College. (2009, October). Holyoke Community College: A leader in learning communities. Member Spotlight. Retrieved from https://www.league.org/member-spotlight/holyoke-community-college-leader-learning-communities

Karpanen, S. (2017, September 26) Tuusula Upper Secondary School presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

LaBombard, R. J. (2016, December 15). ‘I don’t know what to do with my major’ and other reasons college grads can’t find good jobs. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/15/why-college-grads-cant-find-jobs-commentary.html

Liusvaara, L. (2017, September 25). Ressu Comprehensive School presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

MDRC. (2012, July). What have we learned about learning communities in community colleges? Retrieved from https://www.mdrc.org/publication/what-have-we-learned-about-learning-communities-community-colleges

Mirabito, R. (2016, November). Onondaga Community College: Living learning community. Member Spotlight. Retrieved from https://www.league.org/member-spotlight/onondaga-community-college-living-learning-community

Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Masterson, K. (2017, August 23). A lost decade in higher education funding: State cuts have driven up tuition and reduced quality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved from https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/a-lost-decade-in-higher-education-funding

Morrison, N. (2015, April 27). If teachers feel undervalued it’s because they are. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2015/04/27/if-teachers-feel-undervalued-its-because-they-are/#35789028412b

National Learning Communities Project. (2017). Learning communities and community colleges. Washington Center at The Evergreen State College, National Resource Center for Learning Communities. Retrieved from http://wacenter.evergreen.edu/sites/wacenter.evergreen.edu/files/communitycollegesch1.pdf

Ozimek, A. (2014, June 14). The data shows teachers are still highly respected. Forbes. Retrieved from  https://www.forbes.com/sites/modeledbehavior/2014/06/14/teachers-highly-respected/#4cb8ade24555

Penttila, E., & Lindberg, P. (2017, September 25). Education in Finland presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

Purolla, A. M., & Pekkartnen, A. (2017, September 28). Oulu University presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

Riffkin, R. (2014, April 14). More than half of Americans say federal taxes too high. Gallup News. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/168500/half-americans-say-federal-taxes-high.aspx

Roms, J. (2017, September 27). Veikkola Comprehensive School presentation. Ferris State University Doctoral Community College Leadership practicum to Finland.

Smith, N. (2017, April). Goodbye rote learning: How Finland’s new curriculum puts children first. Centre for Public Impact. Retrieved from https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/goodbye-rote-learning-finlands-new-curriculum-puts-children-first/

Student Loan Hero. (2017). A look at the shocking student loan debt statistics for 2017. Retrieved from https://studentloanhero.com/student-loan-debt-statistics/

Evelyn M. Seiler is an Administrative Coordinator at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, and a student in Ferris State University’s Doctorate in Community College Leadership program.

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.