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Plan in place to expand learning communities at KU

Monday, December 08, 2014

LAWRENCE — Last summer, a team of nine University of Kansas faculty and administrators participated in the National Summer Institute on Learning Communities at Evergreen State College. The valuable lessons learned at that national resource for learning communities is guiding their collaborations with partners across campus to expand learning communities at KU, an important part of the university’s strategic plan, Bold Aspirations.

Learning communities provide a shared educational experience for students around a common, engaging, culturally relevant theme. These communities are designed to create a collaborative environment where students thrive, faculty and staff do their best work, and learning fosters the habits of mind and skills to tackle complex real-world issues. 

At Evergreen, the KU team was matched with resource faculty from all over the country who have proven themselves as leaders and innovators in learning community work and other progressive movements within higher education. The end result was a two-year plan for expanding learning communities at KU.

“Evergreen marked an important first step toward helping us relaunch learning communities and develop a new identity for the program,” said Sarah Crawford-Parker, assistant vice provost, director of First-Year Experience and team leader.

Today, the learning community program is a collaborative endeavor supported by First-Year Experience, Undergraduate Studies and Academic Affairs with support and involvement from the Department of Student Housing. The return of learning communities to KU’s campus follows strides made in several Bold Aspirations goals, including First-Year Seminars, University 101 (or UNIV 101, KU’s orientation seminar) and campuswide course redesign efforts, all of which are also important strategies for meeting KU’s goals for progression and graduation.

The learning communities plan focuses on serving the needs of deciding and pre-professional school students by providing structured exploration of a topic while satisfying requirements for the KU Core. Additionally, by connecting these students with an academic community that enhances engagement and belonging, learning communities positively affect recruitment and retention. Student participation in a learning community can also provide an early opportunity to test the fit of different majors by exploring important questions across disciplines.  

Learning communities not only provide a key opportunity to connect faculty to the university’s progression and graduation goals, but can also make faculty work more visible. Stacey White, Evergreen team member, chair of Urban Planning, and one of three faculty who teaches the Building a Better Future World learning community, described her experience as enjoyable, noting that it allows her to interact with students at the start of their college experience and to introduce them to ideas in sustainability and urban planning.

“Helping them to see how the work I do connects to the many majors and careers they might pursue is quite gratifying,” she said.

Jeremy Shellhorn, associate professor of design and First-Year Experience Faculty Fellow responsible for leading learning community efforts, partners with White on the “Building” learning community.

“The future of learning communities will continue to help students think about big issues and also teach skills that translate across disciplines,” he said. “Skills like ‘teamwork and problem solving’ and ‘personal and social responsibility’ allow faculty to develop contexts for students to apply their skills in settings outside the classroom and provide early exposure to experiential learning.”

Of the KU team’s time at the institute, Shellhorn said that it gave team members a unique opportunity to come together, listen and challenge each other.

“We were able to create a learning community plan that will renew, institutionalize and sustain KU’s learning communities program and create an academic environment that helps students find meaning in their studies and successfully complete their degrees,” he said.

The University of Kansas team consisted of:

John Augusto, assistant vice provost, Experiential Learning
Sarah Crawford-Parker, assistant vice provost, First-Year Experience (team leader)
Howard Graham, associate director, First-Year Experience
Ellen Raimond, Learning Communities program coordinator, First-Year Experience
Amanda Schwegler, assistant director, Center for Civic and Social Responsibility
Jeremy Shellhorn, associate professor of design and First-Year Experience Faculty Fellow
Mike Vitevitch, professor of psychology and Honors Faculty Fellow
Jennifer Wamelink, associate director, Student Housing
Stacey Swearingen White, associate professor and chair of Urban Planning