The Beauty of Learning Communities

I promised in my last blog that I would devote my next one to learning communities.

So I called my nephew Kevin O’Shaughnessy tonight before the presidential debate got started.

I wanted to talk to Kevin, who is a freshman at the University of Missouri, about his learning community. Mizzou, as well as an increasing number of schools across the country offer them. The learning communities at Missouri, as well as Indiana University, University of Wisconsin, University of Oregon and other schools are called First-Year Interest Groups or FIGS.

Universities are using learning communities to make life at large schools seem less intimidating and a more intimate educational experience. It’s a daunting task.

Just ask Kevin.

He’s a civil engineering major and he’s got 400 or 500 other kids in his calculus class. If Kevin doesn’t get to the lecture hall early and grab a seat in one of the first eight rows, he says he has trouble hearing the professor and seeing what he’s writing on the board. Oh, and the professor talks in a thick Russian accent.

Obviously this isn’t the best learning environment. But through his engineering FIG, Kevin and about 20 other engineering freshmen meet with a teaching assistant to supplement what they’re learning in the crowded lecture hall. The boys in the FIG also live in the same dorm and are assigned to two other classes together. Thrown together so much, the teenagers tend to study together and have made friends among each other.

Other advantages of learning communities: Students who participate in them generally enjoy higher grade point averages and are more likely to stay in school beyond their freshmen year.

A survey of students at the University of Texas, Austin, who participated in FIGs, showed that they were overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Among those surveyed, 97% said that the FIG made them “feel more comfortable” at the school and 98% said they would recommend a FIG to new students.

You can learn more about learning communities and find a national directory at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.

Learn more about my new book, The College Solution, at my web site.

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  1. I have found the FIG group offers a degree of positive peer pressure to do well in classes which may explain the higher grade point averages. Visiting my son, I saw a flier giving the dorm floor’s grade point average (3.5) and challenging students to get good grades. It’s a point of pride for them. My other son, at a small university, has gotten 1 on 1 from his professors, yet the peer pressure to do well is missing.

  2. Lynn,

    Nice article on one of the ways that large universities are trying to improve the educational experience for their students. Your description of your nephew’s experience at a large school sounds very typical of students at major research universities. However, it also points out one of the major disadvantages of a large school, the often impersonal educational approach that exists because of large class sizes. Trying to learn calculus, or any other subject, is made more difficult with such a large class. The FIG helps this situation but is generally not as helpful as having a small class actually taught by a professor where individual questions can be more easily addressed.

    Of course, smaller schools are not appropriate for all students either, but many students I talk with don’t understand this fundamental problem with a larger school.

    Take care.