Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Assessing Student Outcomes in Learning Communities: Two Decades of Studies at a Community College

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Assessing Student Outcomes in Learning Communities: Two Decades of Studies at a Community College

Article excerpt

The assessment of student learning outcomes in integrated courses is particularly challenging. This article reviews a range of assessment studies conducted over two decades by a community college that requires integrated Learning Communities for the transfer degree. This review highlights methodologies, findings, and lessons learned from these assessments of integrated learning. This journey is recounted with the purpose of informing assessment practices at other colleges.

Learning Community Assessment in the Literature

In the past two decades, the interest in Learning Communities as a curricular innovation has been fueled in part by its potential for fostering interdisciplinary learning in undergraduate education. In their executive summary to Interdisciplinary Education at Liberal Arts Institutions, Rhoten, Boix Mansilla, Chun and Klein (2006) observe that interdisciplinary learning is "one of the 'catch fire' ideas of 21st century liberal arts education." The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (1991), numerous professional organizations (cited in Humphreys, 2005), the American Association of Colleges and Universities Greater Expectations (2002), and the American Association of Colleges and Universities/ Carnegie Foundation's "A Statement on Integrative Learning" (2004) all argue that interdisciplinary or integrative frameworks must become an essential characteristic of American education.

Coincidentally, the imperative to assess student learning outcomes developed in parallel with this growing interest in Learning Communities and the national focus on integrative learning (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews & Gabelnick, 2004). Although both initiatives have been refined over time, as Taylor, Moore, MacGregor, and Lindblad note in their 2003 examination of two decades of Learning Community (LC) assessment, the research focus has been on those factors easiest to quantify: retention, grades, GPA, and surveys of student satisfaction. Only a few studies measured students' cognitive or personal development.

According to Taylor, et al. (2003), despite variations in Learning Community types and design, the studies demonstrated "overwhelmingly positive results" for retention, academic success, and satisfaction, suggesting that "even modest learning community initiatives are likely to reap positive outcomes" (p. 19). Additionally, both students and faculty generally find their Learning Community experiences positive, and under-prepared students demonstrate strong gains in retention, completion of college-level course sequences, and academic achievement. However, as the authors point out, "much less assessment work focuses on direct measure of and/ or external judgments about the nature and extent of student learning in learning communities" (pp. iii-iv).

While the data about retention and persistence has provided useful support for this promising curricular innovation, there is clearly a need for research about learning outcomes in Learning Communities - about what those outcomes are and how they are attained. Establishing an assessment agenda is, however, a complicated task. On the one hand is the need for "clear articulation of what counts as quality interdisciplinary work, and how such quality might be measured" (Boix Mansilla, 2005, p. 16). At the same time, as Vincent Tinto observes in his introduction to the Taylor et al. (2003) monograph, such "assessments need to be multi-method and longitudinal because many impacts of learning communities emerge over time and are not captured in one academic term" (p. ii).

Smith, et al. (2004) argue that for Learning Community initiatives to be lasting, assessment of these programs "should not be an afterthought tacked on an educational program; instead, it should be an integral part of the process used to develop and sustain the entire educational enterprise" (p. 220). They emphasize that LC assessments should "involve explicit cycles of planning, inquiry, and reflection, especially at the classroom level where teachers and learners do their work" (220). …

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