Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Classrooms as Communities: Exploring the Educational Character of Student Persistence

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Classrooms as Communities: Exploring the Educational Character of Student Persistence

Article excerpt


The college classroom lies at the center of the educational activity structure of institutions of higher education; the educational encounters that occur therein are a major feature of student educational experience. Indeed, for students who commute to college, especially those who have multiple obligations outside the college, the classroom may be the only place where students and faculty meet, where education in the formal sense is experienced. For those students, in particular, the classroom is the crossroads where the social and the academic meet. If academic and social involvement or integration is to occur, it must occur in the classroom.

Seen in this light, it is surprising that the classroom has not played a more central role in current theories of student persistence (e.g., Bean, 1983; Cabrera, Castaneda, Nora, & Hengstler, 1992; Tinto, 1987). Though it is evident that classrooms matter, especially as they may shape academic integration, little has been done to explore how the experience of the classroom matters, how it comes, over time, to shape student persistence.(1) The same may be said of institutions of higher education. Though they have certainly not ignored the classroom, most have not seen it as the centerpiece of their efforts to promote student persistence, preferring instead to locate those efforts outside the classroom in the domain of student affairs. Therefore while it is the case that student experience outside classrooms have changed, their experience within them has not.

This article presents the results of a multimethod, quantitative and qualitative, study of the efforts of one college, Seattle Central Community College, to alter student classroom experience through the use of learning communities and the adoption of collaborative learning strategies. The study seeks to ascertain to what degree such strategies enhance student learning and persistence and, if so, how they do so. Beyond its obvious policy implications, the study provides the context for a series of reflections on the ways in which current theories of student persistence might be modified to account more directly for the role of classroom experience in the process of both student learning and persistence.

Literature Review

We know that involvement matters. As numerous researchers have pointed out (e.g., Astin, 1984; Mallette & Cabrera, 1991; Nora, 1987; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980; Terenzini & Pascarella, 1977) the greater students' involvement or integration in the life of the college the greater the likelihood that they will persist. We also know that involvement influences learning (e.g., Astin, 1984, 1993; Friedlander, 1980; Parker & Schmidt, 1982; Ory & Braskamp, 1988; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Generally speaking, the greater students' involvement in the life of the college, especially its academic life, the greater their acquisition of knowledge and development of skills. This is particularly true of student contact with faculty. That engagement, both inside and outside the classroom, appears to be especially important to student development (Endo & Harpel, 1982; Astin, 1993). Even among those who persist, students who report higher levels of contact with peers and faculty also demonstrate higher levels of learning gain over the course of their stay in college (Endo & Harpel, 1982). In other words, high levels of involvement prove to be an independent predictor of learning gain. The same conclusion follows from the growing body of research on the quality of student effort; namely, that there is a direct relationship between the quality of student effort and the extent of student learning (e.g., Pace, 1984; Ory & Braskamp, 1988; Kaufman & Creamer, 1991). Quite simply, the more students invest in learning activities, that is, the higher their level of effort, the more students learn.(2)

What we do not yet know, or at least have not yet adequately documented, is how involvement is shaped within the context of differing institutions of higher education by student educational experiences. …

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