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Theoretical Foundations of Learning Communities

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Having evolved from an innovation adopted to improve the quality of higher education, learning communities are now an integral part of many postsecondary institutions.



The posting below looks at the many theoretical underpinnings of learning communities.  It is from Chapter 2 – Theoretical Foundations of Learning Communities, by Jody E. Jessup-Anger in the book Learning Communities from Start to Finish, Mimi Benjamin, editor. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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Rick Reis

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Theoretical Foundations of Learning Communities



Over the past half-century, learning communities have evolved from an innovation adopted in isolation by postsecondary institutions to a widespread reform movement embraced by over 800 colleges and universities (Matthews, Smith, & MacGregor, 2012). Scholars describe a learning community as “an intentionally developed community that exists to promote and maximize the individual and shared learning of its members. There is ongoing interaction, interplay, and collaboration among the community’s members as they strive for specified common learning goals” (Lenning, Hill, Saunders, Solan, & Stokes, 2013, p. 7). More specifically, learning communities arrange the curriculum to promote coherence in students’ learning and increase intellectual interaction with faculty and peers (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990).  The structure of a learning community can vary widely from pairing courses from different disciplines with a common theme (e.g., a sociology and psychology course on poverty) to more tightly coordinated studies that may encompass the entire educational experience during a given semester for both students and faculty (Matthews, Smith, MacGregor, & Gabelnick, 1997).  Some learning communities incorporate a residential component into their design as well (Shapiro & Levine, 1999).


The growth of learning communities is linked to broader reforms in undergraduate education that emerged as a result of concerns about the quality of undergraduate education detailed in reports by the Association of American Colleges (1985), the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998), the Wingspread Group on Higher Education (1993), and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) (2002).  These reports raised concerns about undergraduate student learning and retention, as well as the content and coherence of the curriculum.  More recently, the identification of learning communities as a research-based “high-impact practice” (AAC&U, 2007; Kuh, 2008) has bolstered interest in developing, sustaining, and assessing learning communities.  Given the continuing interest in learning communities, this chapter provides an overview of their historical theoretical foundations, the research that undergirds their structure, and contemporary frameworks useful in conceptualizing and understanding their impact.


Historic Theoretical Roots of Learning Communities


As indicated in the previous chapter, most scholars credit educational theorists Alexander Meiklejohn and John Dewey (Gabelnick et al., 1990; Lenning & Ebbers, 1990) with providing the structural foundation of contemporary learning communities in the United States.  Whereas contemporary educators laud Meiklejohn for his structural contribution to learning communities, they credit John Dewey with envisioning the pedagogical foundations, specifically “student-centered learning and active learning,” two concepts espoused by contemporary learning community advocates (Gabelnick et al., 1990, p. 15).  Dewey encouraged educators to ground the curriculum in students’ experiences, cultivating students’ individuality, advancing their interests, and promoting their construction of knowledge (Dewey, 1938).  Although he was focused on the learning experience, Dewey stressed the importance of maintaining subject matter at the center of education, emphasizing that content should drive the teaching method and arguing that the outcome of a successful educational experience is an expanded understanding of subject matter coupled with an acknowledgement that there is more to know (Dewey, 1916).  In a learning community environment, Dewey’s ideas have been advanced by examining big questions and using differing disciplinary perspectives to illustrate the complexity of these questions, encouraging students to seek out further knowledge.  Because Dewey’s work focused more on primary and secondary schooling than on postsecondary education (Dewey, 1916, 1938, 1974), the application of his ideas in collegiate learning communities is fraught with difficulty, as one teacher is not the sole conductor of students’ educational experiences.  Rather, a learning community may include several instructors, academic advisors, and sometimes residence life staff or other administrators.  These individuals may have varying levels of understanding of and commitment to the subject matter of the course or courses, may not see the connections across disciplines, and tend to view one another with suspicion (Golde & Pribbenow, 2000).  Thus, constant coordination and communication are critical to a successful learning community environment, which may explain in part why early learning communities were fleeting.


Theoretical and Research Support for Learning Communities


Since the mid-1980s, learning communities flourished in a variety of postsecondary contexts.  Student development theory and research support the aims and outcomes of these communities.  Below are several theories and research studies that support the learning community structure.  For a comprehensive overview of the cognitive theory that supports the learning community design, readers should refer to Powerful Learning Communities: A Guide to Developing Student, Faculty and Professional Learning Communities to Improve Student Success and Organizational Effectiveness (Lenning et al., 2013).


Astin’s Involvement Theory.  Among the conditions of the college environment that Astin (1984) maintains are critical to student development is involvement, which he defined as “the investment of physical and psychological energy in various objects” (p. 298).  Astin argued that the amount of learning and development connected with an educational endeavor is proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the experience and that some students will invest more energy than others in their educational activities.  The structure of learning communities, with paired classes and intentional activities to foster faculty and peer interaction, is well suited to increase student involvement and thus enhance development.


Tinto’s Departure Theory.  Vincent Tinto’s (1993) work on student departure led to his interest in and research on the effectiveness of learning communities (Tinto, Goodsell Love, & Russo, 1994) in promoting student persistence.  In his theory of individual departure, Tinto contends that students’ decisions to leave a postsecondary institution stem from the interaction between their individual attributes (skills, prior educational experiences, and dispositions) and the academic and social systems of the institution (Tinto, 1993).  He stressed the importance of academic and social integration into the institution, arguing that those students who choose to leave a postsecondary institution often do so because they are not academically or socially connected to the institution (Tinto, 1993).  In research conducted at both two- and four-year institutions, Tinto and others found that students in learning communities form their own supportive peer groups that provide academic and social support, are more actively involved in classroom learning even after class, and ultimately learn more (Tinto et al., 1994).  Looking more specifically at living-learning communities, Wawrzynski, Jessup-Anger, Helman, Stolz, and Beaulieu (2009) had similar findings, namely that these communities produced a culture that promoted seamless learning, a scholarly environment, and an ethos of relatedness among faculty and peers.


Interdisciplinary Studies.  Alexander Mieklejohn’s belief in and promotion of interdisciplinary studies, coupled with his influence on the learning community movement via the Experimental College, in part explain the influence of interdisciplinary studies on the learning community movement.  Although there is variation in the definition, broadly speaking, interdisciplinary studies are defined as “a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession” (Klein & Newell, 1997, p. 393).  Often learning communities take an interdisciplinary approach in their curricular design, pairing students with two or more courses with similar topics from different disciplines.  For example, among the offerings at Skagit Valley Community College in Mount Vernon, WA, is a learning community entitled Composing the American Diet, which pairs an English composition class and a nutrition class.  The instructors of these classes agree to integrate their course topics and readings, discussing them from varying perspectives while also sharing assignments, readings, and activities.  Although the interdisciplinary approach to a learning community requires faculty coordination and structural support, when it is done well, it can promote greater coherence and connectedness in the curriculum, ultimately improving student learning (Klein & Newell, 1997).


Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice and Other Relevant Research.  In 2007, the AAC&U identified learning communities as one of 10 effective educational practices. Kuh (2008) used data from the National Study of Student Engagement to illustrate the strong positive effect of participating in a learning community and other high-impact practices, noting that students who participated in these activities reported greater gains in learning and personal development.  These findings echo those of other researchers (see Taylor, Moore, MacGregor, & Lindblad [2003] for a comprehensive review) who demonstrated that, overall, students who participate in learning communities have a richer academic experience; however, much of that richness is dependent on how the learning community is implemented.  Lichtenstein (2005) found that the classroom environment plays an important role in the success of learning communities, with student outcomes varying greatly depending on the extent to which the classroom environment promoted linkages between classes, communication between faculty, and used active learning methods and out-of-class group experiences.


Cox and Orehovec (2007) also noted tremendous variation across learning community environments.  Using data from their study of faculty-student interactions in living-learning community environments, Cox and Orehovec developed a typology detailing interactions ranging from disengagement to mentoring, with incidental contact, functional interaction, and personal interaction defining the middle of the continuum.  The authors argued that even in a learning community environment, which is marked by an expectation that faculty and students will interact outside of class, the greatest type of interaction is disengagement, as often faculty and students have little common ground on which to build a relationship.  The authors suggested examining the cultural norms of the institution to determine the value placed on faculty-student interaction.


Online Learning Communities.  As detailed in Calhoun and Green’s “Utilizing Online Learning Communities in Student Affairs” (Chapter 5 of this volume), the emergence and rapid growth of online learning have raised questions about the possibility of creating virtual communities that support the individual and shared learning of its members.  Whereas in a traditional learning community the structure is such that students are likely to be physically present with one another regardless of if they interact, in an online community, if students are not actively engaged, it is as though they are not in class at all (Palloff & Pratt, 2007).  Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) developed the Community of Inquiry Framework, a model of the necessary elements for the development of community and pursuit of inquiry in an online environment.  Included in the model are three interacting core elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.  Cognitive presence addresses learners’ construction and confirmation of meaning through reflection and discourse within the online community (Garrison & Anderson, 2003).  Social presence addresses participants’ ability to project themselves as “real people” in the virtual community.  Finally, teaching presence encompasses “instructional management, building understanding, and direct instruction” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 101).  As one might expect, the elements necessary for a virtual community to flourish are similar to those in traditional learning communities.


The aforementioned studies illustrate that the mere presence of a learning community does not ensure positive learning outcomes, and attention needs to be paid to how learning communities are implemented.  Wawrzynski and Jessup-Anger’s (2010) longitudinal research on the effect of resource allocation to learning-community environments supports this claim.  They found that the organizational structure of the environment affected students’ academic experiences.  Specifically, students who were in more comprehensively resourced communities—those with faculty affiliated directly with the community, classes, or sections of classes geared to students in the community, and blended student and academic affairs roles within the community – reported significantly higher levels of academic peer interaction and perceived their environment as academically rich.






Having evolved from an innovation adopted to improve the quality of higher education, learning communities are now an integral part of many postsecondary institutions (Matthews et al., 2012).  As these communities become more commonplace, it is important not to lose sight of the theoretical underpinnings that guided their initial structure and function and the research that directs best practices in their implementation.  In addition, as postsecondary institutions continue to increase in complexity, it is vital that administrators and scholars adopt more multifaceted models for conceptualizing and assessing these communities, acknowledging the myriad issues that affect their structure and the students within them.




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