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Course Design: Learning Communities

Overview

What Are They?

To clarify the definition of Learning Communities (or LCs) for College of DuPage, we have adopted the relevant aspects of the provisional definition crafted by the Learning Communities Association, a newly-formed national organization for promoting scholarship and practice in LCs:

Learning communities represent an educational approach that involves the integration of engaged curricular and co-curricular learning and emphasizes relationship and community building among faculty or staff and a cohort of students in a rich learning environment. This educational approach may come in different forms, but [at COD, it] typically involves/incorporates/includes…[a] curricular structure characterized by a cohort of students participating in an intentionally designed integrative study of an issue or theme through connected courses, experiences, and resources. 1

In particular, an LC is dependent upon "intentional integration" of course content and assignments determined by the teaching faculty from each course. At COD, most LCs are comprised of two courses from different disciplines that focus on a common theme and have a common cohort of students. A full list of examples is included in the back of this guidebook, but a few examples include:

  • Honors LC Seminars like Seed, Soil, and the Soul, Visions of (Im-) Perfect Societies: Social Utopias, and Planetary Ethics
  • Topical LCs like Decision 2016, Composing Your Career, and Video Games and the Stories That Make Them
  • Expanded LCs like Business Simulation and Integrated Engineering Technology

 

1. “About Us”. Learning Communities Association. 2018. http://www.lcassociation.org/about-us.html.


What’s Possible?

LCs permit a wide range of teaching approaches:

  • Problem-Based Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Service Learning
  • Flipped Classrooms
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Writing/Speaking Across the Curriculum
  • Metacognitive Activities
  • Hybrid Instruction
  • Team Teaching

A learning community works best when it includes:

  •   Integrative assignments (readings, papers, projects, etc.) that encourage students to make connections between the courses and engage the LC theme
  • A clear, intentional theme or focus that integrates the courses
  • A dedicated cohort of students (all students enrolled in all courses in the LC)

What are the Benefits of Learning Communities?

Learning Communities (or LCs) have demonstrated significant benefits for students, faculty, and the institution at large, both nationally and at COD. Further, as McGregor, et. al., note, LCs address the needs for

  • Greater intellectual interaction (student to student, student to faculty, faculty to faculty)
  • Curricular coherence: reinforcement and/or integration of ideas
  • Understanding issues which cross subject matter boundaries
  • Ways to facilitate the move toward a richer, learning-centered environment
  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Exploring and understanding diverse perspectives
  • Student retention and progress toward degree
  • Faculty development
  • Low-cost methods for doing the above

Strategies

How Do I Start a Learning Community?

All successful and effective (and fun!) learning communities need to start with a few key questions:

1.) What are the courses involved?

In truth, just about any two courses can be paired into an LC; however, based on the experience of the LC Committee, we’ve found that the most successful LCs include

  1. Courses that are gen eds; having one course be an IAI gen ed is good, but having both is better for attracting students (especially those seeking to complete degrees and/or transfer). If one of the non-gen ed courses fulfills a degree requirement (like Human Relations or Contemporary Life Skills) or may be an important course for certain majors, this can also be attractive to particular students. LCs where both courses are electives and/or special topics tend to be the most challenging to market to students, but can be done if the theme is engaging.
  2. Courses from separate disciplines (again, courses from separate gen ed areas have greater appeal). While combining courses from the same discipline can be done, such an approach doesn’t always promote the cross-disciplinary benefit of LCs. Still, they can be effective in certain cases (such as combining composition and literature, where both courses fulfill gen eds).

Keep in mind, the more courses you try to integrate together, the more complex the task will become. If you’re new to LCs, we advise that you start out with only two courses.

2.) What’s the theme/focus of the LC?

This may be the most crucial question to address, as it speaks to the intentionality of the LC. Both faculty should agree on a specific focus for the pairing; this focus should be such that it promotes integration on some level of the content of both courses. In other words, each faculty member needs to think about how he/she might address/incorporate some of the content or skills addressed in his/her partner’s course into his/her own course.

For instance, ENGLI 1101 or 1102 and SPEECH 1100 are courses that easily pair with other disciplines. However, the LC won’t be truly integrated if the purpose of the pairing is merely that the English or Speech faculty member will evaluate the papers or speeches assigned in the other course. That other faculty member will need to consider how written/oral communication (or rhetoric) plays an important role in the subject matter of his/her course.

In addition, the faculty partners need to consider the attractiveness of their theme to their ultimate audience: students. Why would they enroll in this LC, rather than take both courses separately? This question leads us to our next topic…

3.) What’s the design of the LC?

The exact nature of the design of your LC is up to you and your partner. At minimum, you should include at least one assignment or activity that connects the course content of both classes in some meaningful way to capture/reflect the theme of the LC. One of the greatest tensions in creating an LC is between the desire to integrate and innovate versus the need to fulfill course objectives and/or cover course content. Many an LC has struggled or even failed to launch because one or both members were unable to be flexible enough in their approaches to their courses. The process of integration requires imagination, flexibility, prioritization, and compromise. It may mean that you change the order of what you teach when to have your content synch up more effectively with your partner. It may mean changing your teaching style somewhat, especially if you opt to team-teach. It may mean restructuring (or even shelving) a particular assignment or activity you normally do in that class for one that integrates material from both courses. It may even mean not covering certain material in order to focus in greater depth on concepts that connect to the theme. All of this can be challenging, but none of it is impossible, especially if you and your partner approach the effort together with candor, creativity, and confidence.

4.) How do I choose an LC partner?

Choosing a fellow faculty member to partner with in an LC is in some ways like choosing someone to date, or even marry. If you have an idea for an LC but no one in mind to partner with, the LC Committee can play “matchmaker” to help you find an interested collaborator. We’ve found, however, that many good LC partnerships start from good faculty friendships. Still, just because you may be friends with a colleague doesn't always mean you’ll be a good “match”. Thus, you and your partner need to have strong lines of communication about your expectations, hesitations, and limitations before embarking on this partnership. Consider these…

Tips for a Successful LC “Marriage”

  1. Communication: Discuss and agree on how often, when, and by what modes you prefer to communicate between you and your partner(s). We recommend you meet at least once a week; perhaps agree to hold a joint office hour together (alternating offices) to use as planning time or meet with students in your LC.
  2. Beliefs and Values: Discuss each of your policies, procedures, and other aspects of course/classroom management. For example, what is each of your attendance policies? What are your policies on late work? How much/little do you use Blackboard?
  3. Roles in the “Marriage”: How will each partner incorporate/address the discipline of the other partner in his/her course? How integrated will your curriculum be (shared readings, assignments, tests/exams, field trips, etc.)? How will each of you work to understand and support the other’s discipline?
  4. “Children” and “Parenting”: What is each partner’s persona/teaching style like in the classroom—to what extent is one partner strict/relaxed? How does each deal with classroom management/discipline?
  5. Decision Making: Who makes decisions about what? While much of the decision-making should be done jointly, are there areas where either partner feels a need for greater control?
  6. Time Spent Together: To what extent will you be team-teaching? How will you decide who gets/needs what time in (or even outside) the classroom?

Some Suggested “Pre-Nuptial” Activities:

  • Exchange syllabi and assignments
  • Sit in on each other’s classes to observe teaching styles
  • Go on a “date” or two (lunch, a drink, etc.)

REMEMBER: A successful LC depends on a successful partnership; if there’s conflict between the faculty, students will notice (and often try to exploit it).

5.) Which students might benefit most from taking this LC?

The best-designed LC will never be successful if few or no students enroll in it. While the LC Committee does its best to help market LCs across the campus, faculty need to consider who their target audience may be for their particular offering. Are you looking to attract incoming freshmen? If so, they’re most likely interested in all gen ed courses or LCs that may combine a gen ed with a course in their intended major. Some students are particularly interested in the environment, politics, self-exploration, or other “sexy” topics. By looking at the list of previous LCs at the end of this Guidebook, you can see some of the themes that have attracted students; this is, by no means, an exhaustive list.

One “selling point” for most LCs is the integrative design of the LC—students are quite often attracted to the idea that they can “reduce their workload”, since many of the readings and assignments for each class overlap. Being able to communicate such integration to students can be a helpful marketing strategy. As you develop your plan, keep in mind the question posed above: Why would they enroll in your LC, rather than take both courses separately?

6.) How much to integrate?

There are a variety of models that can be used to structure learning communities; three common approaches are as follows:

Version One: First Year Seminar Mode

Programs in which a small cohort of students enrolls in a larger classes that faculty DO NOT coordinate. Intellectual connections and community-building often take place in an additional integrative seminar.

Version Two: Standard Linked Model

Programs of two or more classes linked thematically or by content, which a cohort of students takes together. The faculty DO plan the program collaboratively.

Version Three: Standard Integrated Model

Programs of coursework that faculty members team-teach. The course work is embedded in integrated program of study.

Other options, of course, may be possible. At College of DuPage, we’ve relied mainly on the linked and integrated models, mostly using pairs of courses. Some LCs at COD have connected as many as five or more courses, such as previous versions of the Adult Fast Track and Integrated Engineering Technology programs or the more recent Enhanced LCs offered in Fall 2016. Additional examples are listed in the Teaching in Learning Community guidebook.

If you’re new to teaching a learning community, you may want to start off integrating only part of your course material with your partner—say, a common project or other assignment that counts for perhaps 20% or so of each student’s final grade in each course. In future iterations of the LC, as you and your partner gain experience with your LC (and teaching in such a format), you may decide to integrate the courses further. There’s really no strict standard here, other than each LC should have a minimum of one integrative assignment; what that is and how much it counts in your grade book is up to you and your partner. Even some of our longest-running LCs, like Seed, Soil, and the Soul or Decision 2016, are not fully integrated; Decision, for example, only has 60% of the activities/assignments count for each of the three courses involved—the other 40% is determined by each professor, according to the particular needs of his/her course.

7. To Team Teach or Not to Team Teach?

Nearly all LCs at COD are scheduled such that the courses meet back-to-back on the same days, providing the faculty involved the opportunity to use the combined time creatively. While the LC Committee recommends you consider team teaching, many times this isn’t possible, due to each faculty member’s schedule. There are particular benefits to team teaching, though:

  • Each of you can be present to make more immediate connections between your subject matter as situations arise, especially if this involves pointing out differences in how, through your disciplines, each of you might view/approach a specific issue or topic;
  • You get the opportunity to watch a colleague teach, which can often significantly inform your own teaching
  • You have greater opportunities to get to know your students and your teaching partner
  • Even if you should disagree with your partner on an issue, you can model for students how such disputes are addressed in academia through reason and evidence

If for whatever reason you’re not able to teach together, remember that you both still need to find time outside of your classes to meet (we advise doing it weekly) and discuss the progress of the LC so each of you is aware of what’s happening in the other’s class. Such meetings help reinforce the integration of the LC.

Resources

COD Learning Communities
Visit the COD Learning Communities page for resources and all the forms and information you need to teach an LC. Questions? Contact James Allen, Faculty Chair of Learning Communities.

Washington Center at the Evergreen State College - https://wacenter.evergreen.edu/learning-communities
Washington Center led the national project for Assessing Learning in Learning Communities, and has developed widely-used tools for learning community practice including a heuristic for designing integrative assignments (PDF) and the Online Survey of Students’ Experiences of Learning in Learning Communities. Their comprehensive guide to Learning Communities includes:

  • Archive of the open access journal Learning Communities Research and Practice (LCRP)
  • National Learning Community Program Directory
  • Resource guide

Consortium for Illinois Learning Communities - http://www.consortillc.org
The Consortium for Illinois Learning Communities (CILC) was founded in 2002 to support regional academic institutions that are offering interdisciplinary learning communities, related learner-centered pedagogies, and the faculty development that supports them. This organization also sponsors a yearly Best Practices Symposium hosted at a member institution.

 

Coteaching: A Formula for Learning from and with Colleagues - Faculty Focus, Aug. 2022
"Murphy and Martin (2015) define coteaching as “two or more teachers teaching together, sharing responsibility for meeting the learning needs of students, and, at the same time, learning from each other,” which best aligns with our scenario. A few illustrations of coteaching in higher education settings include coteaching as a mentoring experience (Cordie, 2020), a collaboration between disciplines (Rooks et al., 2022), and a rationale to better meet students’ learning needs (Salifu, 2020). Coteaching in a teacher preparation course has seen benefits (Steele, 2021; Drescher, 2017; Ricci & Fingon, 2018), which is a reason for us to explore the opportunity within our teacher education department.

 

  • URL: https://library.cod.edu/guide_coursedesign
  • Last Updated: Nov 21, 2022 4:09 PM
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