As a demonstration site supported by the Bringing Theory to Practice project, Dickinson College has, for the past two years, implemented an ambitious engaged-learning initiative for first-year students with an accompanying research project to assess what impact these experiences have had on student engagement, well-being, alcohol use, and civic engagement.
All first-year students at Dickinson take a first-year seminar in their first semester. This program, taught by faculty from every department, is designed to engage students in a seminar-style course on varied subjects. Incoming students identify their six top choices for seminar topics and are assigned to one of these choices. No matter the topic, all seminars emphasize writing, information literacy, and research skills. The faculty member, in contact with these students two or three times per week for the first semester, also serves as the students' academic advisor and remains in this role until the student declares a major.
Four years ago, Dickinson began to experiment with building a learning-community program by linking first-year seminars that share a common theme, housing students in these seminars in a common residential hall, and developing out-of-the-classroom educational experiences for this larger group of students at the intersecting points of the two seminars. Faculty met with students in their residence halls over dinners, shared weekend-long experiential education programs, and incorporated other campus-based and off-campus learning opportunities into the overall learning-community experience. We were interested to see if we could confound the students' binary thinking about where learning happens and what constitutes social experience by introducing learning and stimulating social interaction among students and faculty across the boundaries of classroom, dorm life, and campus experience.
A Closer Look with BTtoP
Working with Bringing Theory to Practice became a vehicle for rigorous assessment. We wanted to explicitly study the effects of student participation in our first-year engaged-learning initiatives to examine whether variously structured learning experiences would yield different impacts on student learning and engagement, mental health, alcohol use, and civic engagement over the short and long term.
Our first question was whether students participating in the learning-community programs yielded any difference compared to those enrolled in stand-alone first-year seminars. Our second question was whether variations in the learning-community model-whether principally classroom based or incorporating service-learning pedagogy or experiential learning, and even a noncredit, community-service-focused residential clustering not linked to the seminar-yielded different results.
In terms of the engaged-learning initiatives during the first year of the project, we had eleven faculty members and approximately 160 students participating in five seminarbased learning communities, and an additional 22 students in the noncredit community-service learning community. (The first year of our project involved a sample of 153 learning-community students and 419 students not in the learning communities. Of students in learning communities, 52 percent were in the classroom-based track, 20 percent in the experiential track, 14 percent in the service-learning track, and 14 percent in the noncredit community track.) Collectively, these students participated in more than forty-five separate out-of-class informal learning experiences, including dinner discussions, film viewings, guest speakers, field trips, service-learning, outdoor physical activities such as caving and rock climbing linked to course content, and community service.
Our evaluation agenda involved both quantitative and qualitative data collection, and supplementary data from institutional sources. To collect baseline, midyear, and end-of-year quantitative data, we administered three surveys during the year. …