June 16, 2002

Nancy S. Shapiro

I have been asked today to provide an introduction to learning communities: what they are, how they have evolved, where they may be going and why librarians should be involved with them. I look forward to hearing from the panel of librarians who will follow this talk to discuss their work with learning communities on their campuses.

Tomorrow, my friend and colleague, Barbara Smith will be speaking to some of you and offering a national context for understanding why learning communities have become such a compelling model for re-inventing undergraduate education.

Librarians have an important role to play in helping students develop into critical thinker…and learning communities provide an excellent venue for that part of your role.

As librarians assume expanded responsibility for information literacy, your role in shaping and influencing curricular change on campuses becomes much more important. Twenty years ago, it appeared that libraries and librarians dealt primarily with skills instruction. Today, you have an increasingly visible role as instructional leaders, as you respond to calls for standards for information literacy in an environment of ubiquitous internet access and information overload. Participation in learning communities is an extension of that change.

Historically, libraries were built at the very center of campus for a reason--they represented the source of accumulated knowledge. Over time, as campuses expanded, libraries and librarians (almost) seem to have become marginalized, especially with respect to undergraduate education. Students spent less time in libraries, had fewer interactions with librarians. Today, however, we recognize that librarians are re-emerging as a hub of college activity, and we are seeing greater and greater involvement in undergraduate education.

I know that over the past several years, you have been exploring the movement in education from a teaching model to a learning model--and all the implications of that transformation for librarians, in particular. ACRL President Mary Riechel's excellent paper introducing the presidential theme for this coming year offers an strong introduction to the sources of the this movement and to the learning communities concept.

I would like to begin with my definition of what learning communities are, and with several observations about why I believe they work.

In our book, Jodi Levine and I define the term LC as a "curricular restructuring," an opportunity for students to move through all or part of their undergraduate experience in a smaller cohort, a "community," that fosters more explicit intellectual connections between and among students, between students and their faculty, and across disciplines.

Typically, learning communities

  • Organize students and faculty into smaller groups
  • Encourage integration of curriculum
  • Help students establish academic and social support networks

They also

  • Bring faculty together with other faculty, with student affairs staff, and with other academic resource people across the campus, such as librarians.

Learning communities can be as simple as two courses linked together, for one semester, where students who register for one, are automatically registered for the other; or as complex as a multi-year, integrated living/learning community, where faculty have offices or even live in the same residence halls with their students for several years.

The first model, sometimes referred to as FIGS: Freshman Interest Groups-- can be found at institutions as diverse as University of Missouri, University of New Mexico, Florida International University, University of Washington and dozens of other institutions across the country. Temple University, for example, enrolls all of its freshmen students in FIGS during their first semester.
UM College Park Scholars, Michigan's Residential College, Chapman Learning Community at Bowling Green, Syracuse University, and Appalachian State University (Mary Riechel's campus) are examples of the second model-College Park Scholars, for example, is a 2 year commitment, and Michigan's College is a four year commitment. In living/learning programs, faculty take on roles as academic mentors and advisors, as well as teach in the program.

There are other models, of course, Evergreen College boasts a 100% participation in team-taught coordinated curricular model. Kim Kelly might be persuaded to tell us about models designed within distance and distributed education contexts. There are learning communities for the most gifted honors students, and learning communities that address the special needs of students in developmental classes, and learning communities for non-traditional community college students who hold down full-time jobs or have family responsibilities. The key point is that they have all be designed and developed to do the three things I mentioned earlier:

  • Organize students and faculty into smaller groups
  • Encourage integration of curriculum, and
  • Help students establish academic and social support networks for success.

Research Findings
Some of you might be familiar with the studies conducted by Alexander Astin out of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute or Pascarella and Terenzini's study How College Affects Students (1991). These studies arrive at a several important conclusions about the undergraduate experience:

  1. The single most important environmental influence on student development is the peer group.
  2. It is not the type of institution-research, liberal arts, comprehensive-but rather the environment created by faculty and students that has the greatest effect on student learning and cognitive development.
  3. It's not the size of an institution, per se, that has the greatest effect on the student experience, but rather the psychological size of the institution.

We also know that even though students spend 80% of their time outside class, the college classroom is the center of the educational experience of the college, and the faculty/student interactions that take place in classrooms are the most dominant feature of the educational experience for the student. It makes sense, therefore, to explore ways that the classroom experiences can be linked to each other, and to extra-curricular activities to create an integrated experience for our students.

Based on my research on learning communities and my work with College Park Scholars, I have come to several observations regarding learning communities in higher education.

First, Learning communities are good for most campuses.
Inevitably, they create a climate for engaged learning that transforms campuses.

How? Learning communities involve cross-over collaborations on a campus and allow for a creative use of resources. They improve retention and student success, and they create an environment of connectedness and coherence for both traditional and non-traditional students. They maximize the resources of an institution by bringing all the segments of the campus together to serve student learning. There is some evidence to suggest that students in learning communities have higher average retention rates and higher grade point averages than students in traditional programs, [although we are only now beginning to do the large scale research that will validate those preliminary findings.]

Second, my research and experiences suggest that learning communities are most successful when they are grounded in academic departments. When learning communities have buy-in from key academic players-deans, chairs, and the faculty senate-they have an easier time finding resources, and cutting through the red-tape that frequently embroil other forms of curricular change, (think about revising General Education studies, for example).

Face it, the academic affairs side of the campus is the 800 lb gorilla, with the biggest share of the budget, and the loudest voice in academic policy issues-so it stands to reason that support from academic affairs is crucial to long term success and institutionalization of learning communities.

But while faculty involvement is necessary, it is not sufficient. Learning communities function best when they cross campus divisions, and build strong collaborations between academic affairs, student affairs, and other segments of the campus. Let me give you an example from the College Park Scholars program.

At the University of Maryland, for example, when life sciences faculty were given an opportunity to make recommendations for the residence hall for the College Park Scholars program in life sciences, they drafted a wish list that included a fish pond, a bee hive, and a tropical fish tank in the lobby of the building. Residence life rejected the pond as too expensive, the bee hive as potentially dangerous (some students might be allergic!) but they built the 100 gallon tropical fish tank in the lobby of the residence hall with the understanding that the faculty and students in the program would do all the maintenance and upkeep, including ensuring that someone would care for the fish over vacations when the residence halls were closed. As a result, I believe that Cumberland Hall, at the University of Maryland has the only tropical fish tank in the country!

Third, assessment and accountability are critical to gaining the necessary support from top administrators. Administrators are moved by data and facts, and gaining support from administrators, who can allocate resources requires some demonstration of success--some effective evaluation feedback loop that will generate assessment data. The Learning communities movement began in the 1980's and matured in the 1990's. Now there are hundreds of campuses that have introduced some form of learning communities into their institutions. Campus level research is important, but just as important is data that is beginning to be collected nationwide about what works. Barbara Leigh Smith is co-directing a National Learning Communities project which will address some of these broader issues (she is scheduled to speak tomorrow).

Until we have hard evidence to answer the question: Why should institutions consider investing in and building Learning Communities? We will need to turn to other persuasive arguments.

Back in the 50's and 60's when most of us were in college, only 30-40% of high school graduates went on to college. Today, over 80% of high school students expect to go on to some form of post-secondary education.

Today we have more students from more diverse backgrounds coming to college, more adult students and more part-time students.

Last week the NCES reported that almost 75 percent of today's undergraduate students are considered "nontraditional" because of their age, financial status, or when they enrolled in college. While that report included community college students, even our four year institutions have up to 37% non-traditional students enrolled.

In an age of increasing technology and distance education, colleges are being challenged to redefine themselves to attract new students and to better serve their existing students.

Given the challenges we face both in the global economy and in our diverse democracy, we, in higher education, must accept a more broadly defined responsibility to prepare educated, ethical, and socially responsible citizens.

Numerous commissions and task forces have addressed the changing nature of the student body in higher education. In 1998, the Boyer Commission Report paid particular attention to the quality of undergraduate education at research institutions, offering the hypothesis research institutions have a particular responsibility to use their special mission in the service of undergraduate education.

How can we better organize our colleges and universities for learning? For student engagement? For student success?

There is surprising consensus around what we know about learning. Peter Ewell, senior associate at the National Center for higher Education Management Systems, (NCHEMS), recently completed a review of the literatures of cognitive science, human learning and development, teaching improvement, curricular and instructional design, organizational structuring, and noted that the surprise was the remarkably consistent picture of what approaches promote learning. Ewell identifies four strategies that have a proven track record of promoting learning:

Approaches that emphasize application and experience (active learning models that are experiential or problem based)

Approaches that emphasize rich and frequent feedback on performance (coaching and reflection)

Approaches that emphasize linking established concepts to new situations (interdisciplinary and integrated coursework and curricula that foster fluency across different domains of knowledge)

Approaches that emphasize interpersonal collaboration (working together in ways that promote those "habits of mind" and lead to life long learning and community responsibility).

Learning communities are a direct response to Ewell's findings.

Librarians Role
This brings me to my main topic: What roles can librarians play in learning communities? How can librarians in colleges and universities help shape both the learning and the communities?

In 1998, the Boyer Commission Report on Undergraduate Education stated: "Everyone at a university should be a discoverer, a learner. That shared mission binds together all that happens on a campus [and] the teaching responsibility of the university is to make all its students participants in the mission." (p1). [And in 1996, the American College Personnel Association adopted mission statement that says: "the key to enhancing learning and personal development is not simply for faculty to teach more and better, but also to create conditions that motivate and inspire students to devote time and energy to educationally-purposeful activities, both in and outside the classroom..."] This is to say what we all know, that the best universities are places where learning transcends the classroom.

Librarians are a unique resource on a university or college campus, and many of you in this room are already participating in learning communities in your institutions in a variety of ways.

Already, on campuses where learning communities have been initiated, we have reports of strong links being formed between faculty leaders and librarians.
Librarian involvement ranges from orientation briefings of freshman students, to participation in faculty development activities, to involvement in advisory committees and curriculum development.

At many institutions librarians are connected to LCs through the writing courses, since writing courses are frequently linked to content courses to form the FIGS I mentioned earlier.

Frequently Librarians are identified as a resource faculty on syllabi across the first-year curriculum. They can become involved with active learning workshops on the evaluation of sources, and internet sources, library research and technology. Librarians are frequently pulled in to help with technology across the curriculum, and at some institutions they are invited to serve on the advisory committees for learning communities, and teach information literacy courses.

I hope that our panel will describe some of the work going on at their campuses during the discussion, and I encourage you to attend Barbara Leigh Smith's presentation tomorrow where she will be describing several of these models and presenting a kind of taxonomy of models for engaging librarians in learning communities on different campuses.

Discovery Learning
Today, however, I want to speak about the involvement of librarians in the learning community movement at a different level.

To begin with, I'd ask you to think back to your own undergraduate experience. Do you remember the moments of intellectual epiphany? Remember being awakened to the thrill/energy of discovery? It may have been during a lecture, when a professor produced a particularly surprising or compelling piece of evidence; or it may have been in the preparation of a term paper, when all of a sudden you discovered that you were reading the same things in multiple sources, and you realized you'd come full circle in your research-and you felt complete. We all had that happen-I can almost guarantee it-because that is why you are all here.

I believe that at the core of some of the new approaches to undergraduate education, we find a nostalgia for our own pasts. In truth, of course, our remembrances of the past are probably a bit romanticized. Yet, much about those experiences is worth reinventing today.

Well, as I worked with the faculty to develop and design the College Park Scholars learning communities, I wanted to recreate that experience of discovery for my students. In spite of the diversity of our student's backgrounds, I wanted all of them to come away from their undergraduate experience with that feeling of epiphany associated with discovering knowledge, connections, even revelation.

That feeling of intellectual engagement and empowerment is transformative, and I wanted to make it happen for my students.

I'd like to describe in detail an example of how one learning built a major curricular component around the resources offered by research librarians.

In the second year of the CPS program, the CPS faculty were struggling with how to keep the momentum going between the first year and the second year programs. We wrote a grant to FIPSE for something we called "Discovery Projects" in an attempt to infuse the second year of our program with an intellectually challenging/stimulating core activity that would engage both students and faculty.

Building on our enhanced understanding of college student cognitive development, we recognized that students who are emerging from what William Perry has characterized as "dualistic thinking" are prime candidates for an engaged research experience because that type of experience might contribute to increasing the complexity of their thinking.

Sophomore level students have had a year of college-they have begun to realize how much they don't know. The faculty in our program saw a great opportunity to build a transformative intellectual experience into the curriculum. We had all the supports in place: students knew each other and their faculty leaders, and presumably trusted them. They were ready to take some risks, and they were no longer coping with the overwhelming newness of a university experience.

Our conversations with librarians and student affairs developmental counselors convinced us that we needed to set high expectations, but provide a reliable support system for this experience. In the planning phase of this project we defined the objectives and created the support system for our students.

Discovery Projects are a structured independent study course of variable credit (1-3 credits) where students work with a mentor and meet weekly in cohort "discovery groups" to share the progress (or lack thereof) in their research.

The design for the project centered on a deceptively simple idea: give sophomore level students a chance to choose a broad topic of interest--and time and mentoring to explore that topic, and only require a "discovery journal" and an "artifact notebook" as the end product. No paper is required for this project, because the point of the project is discovery.

One of the attractive features of the Discovery Projects for the student is that they don't require the student researchers to reach for a level of abstraction that may be beyond them developmentally. Rather, the primary goal of the project is to motivate students to go back to primary documents/primary sources and collect, record, and describe their findings, evaluating the importance and validity of the artifacts as they collect more information and better understand the contexts of their quest.

While writing a finished research paper in one semester is not the goal; writing does play a large part in this project-so we included the writing center resources. In fact, one way we sold this project to the campus was to bill it as a "sophomore level writing course" that would sharpen the skills students gained in their freshman writing course, and prepare them for their junior level writing/rhetoric general education requirement.

In discovery projects, students keep a structured weekly "Discovery Journal" which poses very specific questions at different points in the semester. For example, in the beginning they write about their questions, their objectives. Then they describe the process of their research, who they contacted, and what they learned, they write about their frustrations, and disappointments, their time management, and their discoveries. And eventually, they write evaluative and analytic descriptions of the variety of materials they collected and catalogued-which ones were most interesting, valuable, why?

As you all are well aware, primary sources come in all shapes and sizes, and all levels of believablity. Working with primary sources was one of the key objectives of this project, and faculty across all the disciplines were intrigued by the idea of getting sophomore students sifting through primary source documents.

Our thematic program lent itself to different types of document research. For those students in Science Technology and Society Learning Community, we offered an opportunity to research an invention of their choice through primary research at the patent office and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Inventions at the Smithsonian. One African American woman did her research on the hair-straightening iron (and traced the idea it back to an ex-slave!)

A number of our students from International Studies and other learning communities, went to the National Archives to research a variety of topics ranging from the de-classified documents from the Viet Nam War era, to the Nixon tapes, to letters from African American men who volunteered to fight in the 1935 Ethiopian-Italian War on the side of Hailee Salasee .

Arts students went to local museums, the National Gallery, and local music clubs. They interviewed performing artists on and off campus and the nationally known UM faculty member, Arthur Wheelock , who was the curator of world famous Vermeer Exhibit. Students studied Jim Henson's Muppets because Henson was a Maryland alum, and the archives of his Muppets are housed on the UM campus. They even corresponded with Henson's widow. Every campus has rich resources beyond library walls that can be tapped for undergraduate research, if only folks across the campus pooled their imaginations and their contacts to find them and make them accessible to undergraduates.

The success of this project was dependent on hooking the topic to something the students were curious about. It did not have to be tied to an academic content area, although simply by virtue of being part of the LC project, it became so.

Student Response to Discovery Projects
So what did the students think about all this? I want to read to you from one student's discovery journal:

I chose my topic after talking to Dr. Newman. I wanted to do a project that dealt with Latin America in some way, and he gave me some suggestions. I thought the anti-Castro plots would be very interesting because they deal with intelligence, and they occurred in a very interesting time in history.

I don't know anything about this topic except that the USA and Cuba had very rocky relations in the Kennedy years. Dr. Newman told me about some of the plots, also. I think it is very interesting that the information on these plots is held in the JFK Assignation Collections. I wonder what connects Castro or the CIA to this collection.

I think this project will help me find out why we wanted to kill Fidel Castro and how the CIA tried to do it. I also think it will teach me how to use the National Archives! It lets you learn about something on your own. It teaches you responsibility.

Friday: Went to Archives with Diane. We met with Rick Blondo, he told us how to get about finding documents. I read the 1967 I.G. Report that describes the CIA's assassination attempts against Castro, but it was not very detailed. The most detailed event was the poisoning attempt using a Cuban insider. This will probably be my topic, because there doesn't seem to be much information on the other attempts. I also jotted down some names that I think might be important for finding other documents. Some of these were Santos Trafficante, Manuel Antonio Varona and John Roselli.

The next thing I have to do is find a definite mentor.

The workshop on project planning helped me, because it taught me how to focus my goal into an activity that I can definitely accomplish.

Tuesday: We went to the Archives today very early, I am not finding much of any stuff that directly relates to my topic, but I have found out a lot of stuff that loosely relates. I have found a lot of documents about Mafia involvement in Anti-Castro plots, and I might focus on this. The next thing I have to do is to go to Dr. Newman's house to look at the documents that he has. I also need a copy of the 1967 I.G. Report in the full-length version, and I want to listen to some audiotapes about the plots.

The log book asks: How is your research progressing? How would you evaluate your progress over the last few weeks? Have you broadened our delimited your topic since your early research efforts?

Sunday: I did some secondary research today, and found three really good sources that give a general review of the major plots. On is Alleged Assassination Attempts Involving Foreign Leaders by the Church committee. It is probably the most in-depth account, apart from the IG Report. I understand a lot more about the background and significance of the CIA plots.

Tuesday: I spent a few hours at NARA, and I copied about 5 documents. They are mostly focusing on the plot that involved Sam Giancana and the mob. This plot is very interesting because it was being planned at the same time that JFK was killed, so it was abruptly cut off.

Log book: The mid-point meeting is coming up soon. Are you in the middle of your research? Do you need to speed up or slow down? Have you encountered any stumbling blocks along the way? If so, how might they be solved? Will you work on your project during spring break? What will your next steps be?

Tuesday: I went to the Archives today, but I only had 3 boxes on hold, so I didn't get much done. I have an appointment with Steve Tilley on Friday to discuss where I should be heading. I hope it will lead me to some more specific documents. Until then I have some the materials such as the IG Report and the Church Committee book in order to try to choose a specific angel or event. I'm not sure if I'm half way done, because I don't know what else is available in terms of material. I could probably research forever. I have found that all of the stuff I have learned about eventually ties into the Kennedy Assassination, but nobody is quite sure why. Unfortunately, I think I have to stay way from this connection, or I will be in way over my head for this project.

I went to the Archives today (Tuesday) and requested the audiocassette I want to listen to. The people in the motion picture, sound and video room could not find the tape in their holdings, and I guess the numbering system in the JFK Collection in different. So my trip today was unsuccessful, they said they would find the tape for me for the next time

Log book: You should be about ¾ of the way though your project. What will be some of the last steps? Has your research taken any unexpected turns over the last months? If you had to diagram your research process, what would it look like?

I think my project is going well. I have a good knowledge of my topic from my two major sources: the 1967 IG Report and the Church Committee Report. My other documents basically show some of the details associated with the plots. A lot of them are summaries, however, because the CIA agent did not keep notes during the operations.

I finally listed to the tape and it was very interesting, I hope I can go copy it next week. I have to find out how to do that.

Jen's conclusion: I enjoyed this project because it gave me the freedom to choose a topic and work at my own paces. I put a lot of time into it by going to the Archives every Tuesday and Friday for at least two months. It was a lot of work, but I am happy with what I ended up with. I am glad I learn how to use the National Archives, because I think I can use this skill in the future. My favorite part of this project is not writing a long term paper. I loved putting together the project board and I also liked presenting at the IS Conference. I definitely feel like I could write a long paper with the research that I have done but I would rather not! I liked this course better that the other CPS Colloquia but it was a lot more work and I only learn about one specific topic the whole semesters. The thing I like better about traditional classes is being able to switch from topic to topic. I would definitely like to this kind of research again. There are 1,000 other things I would like to research that I ran into at the Archives!

Universally, students responded to this project with what I would consider a leap forward in cognitive maturity.

I remember sitting with a group students in a workshop who were sharing what they had found in the Archives. One student He opened a box of documents from the Nurenberg trials, and while searching for documents written or translated into English, he found a verdict on a convicted Gestapo Agent, and a file containing letters from his children and his neighbors. He described it this way: I read about all the horrible atrocities this man had been convicted of, and then I read the letters from his children and his friends, and it seemed impossible that he could have done that. They were testimonials to his goodness. It really made me think about how history is written-historians choose what to put in the books, and you never know what they left out!" AH HA!

Who among us would not want to be present at such a moment of discovery?

Why do I describe this project in such detail? Because this was a model curriculum transformation project that has become institutionalized at the University of Maryland. Every year close to 300 students engage in discovery projects, supported by librarians across the campus at the different libraries. Librarians lead the discovery workshops where students learn to distinguish good information from bad information, primary sources from secondary sources. Librarians are the "go-to" resources for both faculty and students for the duration of this project, and they report that students seek them out long after the project is finished.

Final Point

Why are learning communities a good model?
Any campus that is considering investing faculty time and campus resources in learning communities has already assimilated some key ideas about the nature and purpose of undergraduate education.

I'd like to conclude by citing the Boyer report once more, because it carries particular credibility for research universities thinking about quality undergraduate education: "The research university owes every student an integrated educational experience in which the totality is deeper and more comprehensive than can be measured by earned credits." (2)

If we are serious about providing students with an experience that is both wide and deep, we must find more ways to "make the big store small." I believe wholeheartedly that learning communities offer us a wonderful opportunity to achieve that very worthy goal.

Palmer, Parker J. (1997). "The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching," Change, 29 (6)15-21

Ewell, Peter T. (1997). Organizing for Learning: A New Imperative. AAHE Bulletin, December 3-6

Lindblad, Jerri H. The Current State of Learning Community Assessment, AAHE, 2000

Boyer Commission on Education Undergraduates in the Research University, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blue print for America's Research Universities, 1998: (


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