Skip to content Skip to navigation

Principles for Design of Powerful Learning Communities (LCs)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) propose 14 principles for LC (Learning Community) design, as presented in Table 2.2.  They are not introduced in a specific order but combined to help emphasize intent and identify purposes that aid the LC process as based on prior attempts to create and maintain successful LCs.  The development of effective LCs often requires a paradigm shift for most individuals who work in institutionalized forms of education.






The posting below looks at principles for the design of learning communities (LCs).  It is from Chapter 2 - Preparing for Powerful Learning Communities, in the book, Powerful Learning Communities: A Guide to Developing Student, Faculty, and Professional Learning Communities to Improve Student Success and Organizational Effectiveness, by Oscar T. Lenning, Denise M. Hill, Kevin P. Saunders, Alisha Solan, and Andria Stokes. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright @ 2013 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. [] All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Learning Centered Advising



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

---------- 1,966 words ----------

Principles for Design of Powerful Learning Communities (LCs)


When considering the idea of principles, most agree that these are the stated beliefs that one holds about a particular topic, such as life, profession, or conduct.  The use of principles within LCs relates to those beliefs that will guide the creation and sustenance of the community.  When we discuss principles pertaining to a powerful LC we are taking into account actions and beliefs that will become the architecture that guides the operation/functions of the individuals in the LC.

Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) identified four characteristics that should be evident within the culture of the organization: (a) a population of members who are diverse in knowledge and skills, (b) a desire to create and build a collective knowledge, (c) a shared belief that the process of learning is the key component to academic success, and (d) the creation of a device to share what is learned.  Before implementing a plan, faculty and staff should reach a consensus that these four characteristics exist.

Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) propose 14 principles for LC design, as presented in Table 2.2.  They are not introduced in a specific order but combined to help emphasize intent and identify purposes that aid the LC process as based on prior attempts to create and maintain successful LCs.  The development of effective LCs often requires a paradigm shift for most individuals who work in institutionalized forms of education.  These principles are shared with the intent of helping individuals move beyond such prior perspectives when beginning or refining LCs.

First and foremost, the guiding principle for any type of LC should be community growth: the power of many versus the power of one.  Intentional growth occurs through assembling professionals with differing strengths and knowledge bases.  Combining individual knowledge leads to expansion of skills, general knowledge, and growth in perspective.  The intent of this principle is to create a cycle that expands the LC's knowledge exponentially through collaboration and communication.  Without a desire to expand the LC's knowledge and skills, the LC will quickly lose sight of purpose and be open to a variety of pitfalls.

At this stage, institutions may start to ask the following: Do we need to consider new ways of doing things?  What processes and procedures hinder collaboration?  How can we jump-start an initiative, or what are ideas for beginning?  Iowa State University started a path of collaboration as various planners from multiple parts of the institution brought various goals: improving undergraduate education, increasing retention, focusing on student learning, and building connections across department and college silos (Brooke & Gruenewald, 2003). The principle of growth invites the community to develop a common purpose and to explore future possibilities.

The next several principles work in concert to begin forming the framework needed to support the LC.  These principles are emergent growth, articulation of goals, structural dependence, respect for others, and sharing.  They focus on co-construction of goals to increase collective buy-in while identifying participant strengths and weaknesses.  Whether working with students, colleagues, the outlying community, or all three, each participant must be able to participate fully.  Simply constructing goals does not guarantee that perceptions will be equal.

Table 2.2

Fourteen principles for design of powerful LCs





1.     Community growth

Confirm that the ongoing intent is to enrich and grow the entire LC.

New diverse and talented students join the program, department, and/or institution as a result of the LC.

2.     Emergent growth

Construct LC goals through conversations with its members.

Faculty and students hold brainstorming sessions on LC growth and objectives.

3.     Articulation of goals

Be sure goals, objectives, and measures are clearly identified, effectively communicated, and understood and agreed upon by all LC members.

Faculty committees draft and approve a goal to increase the number of campus students actively involved in powerful face-to-face SLCs by 10% during the academic year of 2012-13.

4.     Metacognition

Ensure that there is continual monitoring of thought, identification of strengths and weaknesses, and reflection on prior actions within the LC.

Staff agree to record attempts to attract new students and to realize it is important to involve students in recruitment because they may have more access to prospective students even though they may not know the details of the program.  They have never tried using students to help recruit but decide to try it out.

5.     Beyond the bounds

Try new things that seem to be "out of the box."

The department chair decides to try having students from the department SLC create a video about the department and post it on social media.

6.     Respect for others

Encourage and allow all voices in the LC to be heard and respected.

The administration invites feedback by providing diverse options: publicly in groups, and privately in e-mails or on note cards.

7.     Fail-safe

Take risks with ideas.

Supervisors remind staff that they accept and appreciate that learning comes from failure.

8.     Structural dependence

Focus on collaboration that is created with purpose in mind.

One department invites another to assist in completing a task.

9.     Depth over breadth

Give time for group investigation into the purpose of and connection between matters under consideration, allowing participants to realize who has expertise in the area.

Each recruit completes a personality test that identifies likes and strengths.  Pairs or groups are then matched to build in-depth connections.

10.  Diverse expertise

Utilize individual strengths by connecting abilities to tasks.

Those who are excellent writers create the script for recruiters; those who speak well go out to schools to gather data; and those who are strong statisticians track data.

11.  Multiple ways to participate

Ensure that the community is designed with a variety of ways to participate and be heard.

Administrators invite all LC members to be cheerleaders, collaborators, facilitators, initiators, questioners, responders, summarizers, and other roles.

12.  Sharing

Encourage knowledge sharing as essential throughout the LC.

LC coordinators encourage LC members to engage in both face-to-face and online discussion, including the use of tweeting, blogging, and other social applications of the latest technology.

13.  Negotiating

Encourage energetic questioning and exchanges of ideas, and provide practice in honing effective negotiating skills.

LC coordinators make use of the Socratic Seminar to hone the individual's and the group's negotiating skills.

14.  Quality of products

Establish standards of practice that support the inside and outside community and stick with them.

Students are not badgered to participate or give information: well-thought-out, creative, pertinent, stimulating, and workable ideas and solutions result.


Note. For more information see Bielaczyc and Collins (1999).

As institutions consider these principles, individuals will often begin to consider a series of questions that move beyond the initial visioning steps and turn attention to the purpose, structure, function, and ethos of the program. Questions at this stage might include: Who owns the program? What organizational structures support partnerships and collaboration?  What ongoing structures and practices will support ongoing partnerships?  An important consideration in this phase is how the structure of the program supports the established goals.  For instance, several institutions developed intentional partnerships between student affairs and academic affairs in the development of SLCs (see B.L. Smith & Williams, 2007).

It is important to remember that the intent of LCs is to help expand the community's knowledge and effectiveness; all members need to be in agreement regarding goals and their achievements.  Without careful articulation and agreed-upon assessment, goals could be interpreted as being met by some members whereas others might disagree.  Use of identified activities that require dependence within and among groups can help to unify the work at hand.

Use of the correct grouping will provide growth of expertise as well as identify new information.  Homogeneous grouping will help strengthen like knowledge bases and heterogeneous grouping will provide different perspectives.  Without interdependency, rogue groups or individuals could derail the LC's work.

Finally, consideration of and respect for individual personalities, backgrounds, and experiences plays a large role in achieving LC goals.  Specific rules for respect should be created by the group so that all members feel empowered and heard as the LC moves forward toward completion of goals.  Establishment of sharing mechanisms is essential, including the use of collaborative, real-time devices such as Google Docs or asynchronous methods such as e-mail to ensure that each voice in the community is heard, respected, considered, and challenged.

The next group of interconnected principles consists of depth over breadth, use of diverse expertise, and metacognition. Research conducted by A. L. Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione (1983) supports these principles.  When considering operation of the LC, individuals and groups need sufficient time to investigate deeply and foster a sense of expertise to support the meaning derived through collaboration. As interests expand, there may be a need to departmentalize and create small groups within a larger one that presents a passion and drive that brings new expertise to the LC.

Planning for meaningful discourse, exchanging ideas, and wrestling with the presentation of new topics or ideas can help create deep learning and understanding of content.  Reflection, intentional use of personal monitoring, and awareness of collective knowledge provide the tools needed to guide and refine the LC's work.  As all individuals work in unison, new or modified versions of goals may come to light.  With the metacognitive principle in place, all members are reminded to ask themselves what is needed to continue moving toward the goals.

Finally, the creation of quality ideas and learning requires the fail-safe and out-of-bounds principles, provision of multiple ways to participate, and skills in making one's case and challenging the ideas of others (effective negotiation) so that the best ideas survive and result in exceptional quality for the groups' results, outcomes, and products.  The fail-safe principle is the ideal way to create and maintain risk taking that includes trying "out-of-bounds" ideas.  If members of an LC know that they can fail and that the group will collectively learn from that failure, individuals and interest groups will attempt to move beyond ideas considered within the status quo and find new, exciting ways to extend learning.  One way to support this principle is to establish numerous ways for individuals within the LC to participate.

For instance, there are many aspects to running a successful community and not all have to do with writing, public speaking, or researching.  Sometimes, individuals will need to participate by watching and listening instead of doing.  Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) noted that learning by doing may mean learning by watching someone else do it first.  Observations can be just as powerful as experiences.  This principle encourages co-collaborators to create a community that respects all roles and participation levels and understands that learning is a process and takes time.

The last principle, quality of products, must be valued by the community and those outside the community.  When creating products, the LC should take stock of the audience, the level of background knowledge, and the expectations for standards of completion.  Although the LC, as a whole, may agree on one set of standards, consideration of the outside community will determine the worth of the community's collective output.  Each LC should keep in mind who its audience is and what standards of performance are expected.

The Powerful LC Planning Form presented in Appendix C includes items pertaining to the principles, such as for structural dependence, respect for others, diverse expertise, and knowledge sharing.  Identification as a group or an organizer of how the structure of the community will have inter- and intradependence, respect for all members, intentional grouping or member selection to maintain diverse expertise, and identification of specific values for knowledge sharing help make an LC strong and effective.  These elements are often discussed at the creation stage, but they sometimes get lost along the way. The use of these components can take an existing or fledgling community and guide it toward one of power.


Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice.  In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models (pp. 269-292).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.  Retrieved from

Brooke, C., & Gruenewald, D. (2003, June). Building bridges between academic affairs and student affairs: Learning communities at Iowa State University. Paper presented at the North Central Teaching Symposium, Minneapolis, MN.

Brown, A. L., Bransford, J. D., Ferrara, R. A., & Campione, J. C. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J.H. Flavell & E. M. Markham (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Cognitive development (4th ed., pp. 77-166). New York, NY: John Wiley.

Smith, B. L., & Williams, L. B. (Eds.). (2007). Learning communities and student affairs: Partnering for powerful learning. Olympia, WA: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education.