Building Academic Skills and Information Competency through Learning Communities
Although many college campuses agree that a basic level of information competency is important for students to achieve, the specific elements of what constitutes information competency are still disputed. What one college considers adequate knowledge of technology is viewed as minimally acceptable by another college. And, furthermore, even if information competency requirements could be standardized, how could we then assess whether or not students reached this level? The criteria for evaluation remain as vague as the standards themselves. Defining information competency has become one of the foremost issues on campuses today. Providing courses that bridge the “Digital Divide” has become big business among colleges. To address this issue, San Jose City College (SJCC), under the auspices of a Title III U.S. Federal Department of Education Strengthening Institutions Grant, designed and offered several courses intended to help students begin the process of learning how to use computers to enhance their technology skills through the use of learning communities.
In spite of the fact that SJCC is a vocationally oriented
community college located in a high-tech area, many students still lack
the requisite skills to survive or even obtain jobs in a technologically
advanced area. An increasing number of jobs in this area require a high
degree of expertise, which students do not possess when they enter the
Community College. In fact, as many
Bringing Technology Skills to the Community College Campus
Designed to alleviate, if not solve, the problem of how to bring technology skills to a community college campus, the following technology-related goals were implemented in an environment referred to as a learning community:
What is a Learning Community?
Designed to blend the instruction of logically related disciplines, a learning community weaves the learning, the skills, and the assignments in two or more classes together into a unified mosaic of educational objectives. Typically, two or more instructors work together to create a course syllabus that reflects the objectives of the learning community. San Jose City College’s learning communities combine courses in the following disciplines:
Benefits for Students
As members of a learning community, students have the advantage of
Given the rise in non-traditional instructional methods designed to serve a diverse educational and cultural college student population, learning communities provide an ideal platform for combining varied approaches to learning (Jamilah, 2002). Because learning communities cluster classes around skills that are useful in various subjects, students are more likely to perceive the relationships or connections among academic disciplines than if they take separate, non-linked classes. For example, in a learning community consisting of Organic Chemistry and Getting Started using the Internet, students discover how the Internet can facilitate research on recent trends in pharmacology. Contrary to the popular, but highly erroneous, belief that using the Internet is simply a mechanical process of finding and retrieving information, students in a learning community experience the serendipity of discovering heretofore unknown relationships and connections that expand their intellectual horizons.
Research studies have been conducted for several years on the achievements of LC students (Shapiro & Levine, 1999).Reinforcing current pedagogical trends, learning communities move the focus of classroom learning from content-centered and teacher-centered to student-centered and learning-centered education (MacGregor, 2002). One of the themes running through the majority of the learning community collaborative efforts is the realization that a more intensive participation in educational goals forges creative connections and innovative thinking across disciplines. Once students discover unexpected connections, this joy of discovery may remain with them, leading them to continue seeking pleasure in lifelong learning.
Learning Communities Reinforce Workplace Competencies
Responding to the publicized need to help students develop skills that will enable them to succeed in the workplace, Elizabeth Dole, the secretary of labor, established a commission to define workplace competencies identified as SCANS competencies (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991). The published list of competencies, developed as a result of information gathered from employers, managers, full-time and part-time workers, describe skills that that enable workers not only to perform their jobs well but also to function as responsible adults in a variety of environments.
Instead of adding more requirements to an already full
curriculum, learning communities seamlessly blend these workplace skills
into a course, simply by changing the method of instruction and presentation
of material. (
Students’ Responses to Learning Communities
Students who have completed learning communities are being surveyed and will continue to be surveyed to determine some of the long-term benefits of their having participated in the SJCC learning communities. On a post-course survey on student involvement for the Chemistry and Computer Applications learning community, students indicated that they valued the learning community environment for 4 main reasons:
Further research is being conducted to determine if these positive responses indicate a significant relationship between learning community participation and effective communication and problem-solving skills.
Course Success Rates
Given the specific SJECCD ethnographic population, do
learning communities motivate students to succeed in greater numbers
than students who take the same courses without the collaborative learning
structure? At SJCC, the success rates of students in learning communities
were compared to the non-learning community sections of the same courses.
(See the website at http://www.sjcc.edu for
detailed information about learning communities and
As Figure 1 illustrates, SJCC learning communities for Spring 2001 and Fall 2001 had higher success rates (defined as passing a course with an A, B, C grade or Credit) than comparison courses and even higher success rates than baseline figures. The comparison courses are those most closely offered in a semester to those paired as learning communities. However, because of college scheduling and program requirements, the same courses were not always offered each semester. The number of successful students column shows the number of students who passed the class. The number of students indicates those who enrolled and stayed in the class and received a grade whether this is a passing grade or not. The percentages indicating successful completion of a course are derived by dividing the number of students who received a passing grade (A, B, C, or Credit) by the total number enrolled in the class who received a passing grade or W(withdraw), I(incomplete), NC (no credit), D, or F.
Using Baseline Courses as a Point of Comparison
Serving as a benchmark against which other classes are compared, the baseline courses are those courses offered before any innovative programs, such as learning communities, were instituted. Baseline courses comprise a range of courses and are typically the same courses offered at the same time and even the same teacher, if possible, as the learning communities and comparison courses. Most of the Baseline Success Rates were created by adding all the sections of the indicated courses, with the exception of those sections already included in the learning communities and comparison groups, together from Fall 1989 through Spring of 1991 and calculating the average success rates. The exception in this case involves the CA technology skills courses, which were not developed until 2000 and first offered in 2001. As is also the case for the learning communities and the comparison courses, the percentage of students who successfully passed is derived by dividing the number of students enrolled by the number of students who successfully passed the indicated courses with Credit or a grade of C or better (2858/1375=48%). The number of students enrolled includes those who completed the course with a passing grade or W(withdraw), I(incomplete), NC (no credit), D, or F.
Detailed Course Success Rates
Figure 2 shows the specific classes involved in learning communities, comparison non-learning community courses, and baseline courses. Within each group, the table shows the number of students enrolled, the number of students succeeding, and the percentage of students succeeding in each section, each class, and each learning community.
A Chi-Square test of the frequencies of success among the baseline classes versus the learning community classes was significant at the .01 level (Chi-Square =25.30, df=7). This conclusion supports the hypothesis students in learning communities differ from those in the baseline group. However, regardless of statistical significance, other issues merit consideration when deciding whether learning communities are a practical and relevant methodology. We are continuing to investigate the variables among students and faculty that distinguish those who participate in learning communities from other instructional groups and students. The results of such investigations may help us to identify the level and content of classes that are most suitable for learning communities and whether certain combinations of classes prove more successful than others.
Highlighting several salutary effects of learning communities in colleges throughout the United States, Stefanou and Salisbury-Glennon (2002) note that students enrolled in learning communities increase their motivation to learn, reduce test anxiety, and reinforce their confidence in their ability to control learning. Coincidentally, the camaraderie among faculty and staff members helps to ameliorate some of the deleterious effects of pervasive budget cuts and staff reduction that occur in academic, governmental, and corporate environments.
In addition, the most impressive benefits in learning and student achievement occur when instructors coordinate efforts to produce a combined syllabus reflecting the unified goals of the learning community (Stefanou & Salisbury-Glennon, 2001). This insight suggests that the success of a learning community positively correlates with having instructors work closely together to blend course objectives so that the resulting creation emerges as more than merely the sum of its parts.
Directions for Future Research
While the baseline courses are used simply as a benchmark against which the other courses are compared, it is obvious that factors, such as differences in student population between 1989 and 2001 may introduce other independent variables that could influence the results of this study. In order to more carefully identify exactly which factors caused differences in students’ performances, we are continuing to analyze the changing demographics of the student population from 1989 to the present.
Despite the documented increase in successful learning communities, additional research needs to be completed to determine if students who enroll in learning communities are already pre-selected in terms of their having had more education and academic success than their peers. That is, do they already possess some of the traits required for academic success when they initially enter the courses? Continuing to implement learning communities throughout the curriculum and at all levels will help illuminate the answer to this question.
However, the intangible benefits of a learning community may not fit into a procrustean bed of statistical data. Although having quantifiable results may bring an element of reassuring validity to a study, the most significant results of participating in a learning community may not be restricted to quantifiable data. Even such a notable management guru as W. Edwards Deming stated that the most important figures for management are elusive and unquantifiable (Holt, 2002).
Toward that end, further research might elucidate whether learning communities promote other non-quantifiable skills such as critical thinking skills and an enthusiasm for life-long learning. These are the results that suggest students have gained a more profound awareness of the value of their education beyond simply obtaining a passing grade in a course. Toward that end, we are in the process of developing assessment tools that will identify whether students gained analytical and critical thinking skills that help them solve problems and face challenges they encounter in their academic, personal, and professional interactions.
Given that the new paradigm in leadership emphasizes the value of being able to adjust to changes more rapidly than before, learning communities strengthen this ability for both men and women. To successfully manage a diverse group of individuals requires a composite set of skills that may be more difficult for women to develop because of societal constraints and ingrained habits. During their tenure in a learning community, students are required to adapt to changes, form new relationships among peers and faculty, and to adjust to the needs of others by rescheduling their time commitments, thus laying down early foundations for the development of altruistic behaviors.
Although additional research needs to be completed in order to elucidate whether students enrolled in learning communities are pre-selected for success in an academic or vocational environment, the structure of a learning community itself affords students the opportunity to develop skills that enable them to become leaders capable of skillfully blending competence, perception, and sensitivity.
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