Learning communities to benefit freshmen

By Staff Writer
April 18, 2002

Next year, Cabrini will implement learning communities into the core curriculum as a beneficial feature for incoming freshman. A learning community is a program that will link two classes together in criteria.

Thirty percent of higher education institutions nationwide utilize learning communities within their curriculum. “The learning communities will integrate courses together to make the freshman experience more coherent,” Catharine O’Connell, dean of academic affairs, said. O’Connell has worked with learning communities at her previous school before coming to Cabrini last fall. “It’s not that students will go from one class to another class, which might have nothing in common, but that there would be a sense that you talk about the same ideas and issues, and work on the same skills in several different classes.”

Two core classes, one being English 101, will be linked together with a common topic. As with the seminar courses, these courses will have designated themes. However, the learning communities are not a mandatory requirement for the new freshmen. “It’s just to add on a benefit for freshmen, but it’s not required,” O’Connell said.

“We’ve already sent out a questionnaire asking students which English 101 topic they find most interesting,” O’Connell said. If one topic appeals to the student, the correlating class is then suggested to them for the opportunity to participate in the learning community.

Usually incoming freshmen who are accepted into the Honors Program are not required to take English 101, but rather take an honors freshman seminar. “What we’re doing for next fall is one of the sections of Honors SEM 100 is linked to a religious studies course, so those students would have the same option that all the other students would have,” O’Connell said.

The students taking a particular English course will also be offered a correlating course within another department focusing on a similar curriculum. The two professors will work in collaboration with one another to design a course of study to relate the assignments and discussions in both classes.

English/communications professor Dr. Charles McCormick will also be incorporating his sports and society course into the learning community curriculum next semester. Along with Dr. Janet Lohmann, professor of sociology, McCormick will design his course work to focus on issues of race, gender and class. “We are planning events that are in common with each of our classes,” McCormick said. “Maybe trips to games or showing films to the students.”

An advantage to the learning community experience is the familiarity of classmates within the two classes. “The research supports this very strongly,” O’Connell said. “When students are in more than one class together they are more likely to explore ideas within the class because they feel comfortable with their peers and in addition they are more likely to continue the discussion of academic topics outside of class because they work together as a group.”

However, the scheduling experience may not be as advantageous. “Basically if students want to be in a particular learning community, those would be the first courses on their schedule,” O’Connell said. “Then their other classes would be arranged around those.”

Though the learning communities are directed to affect the incoming freshmen, they have already impacted the current students on campus. “I know that upperclassman were probably a little frustrated when classes they really wanted to take were bracketed off and reserved for freshmen,” O’Connell said. “But I think the way it usually works at this school and at most schools is that the freshmen get the last choice of classes and not very much is open by the time freshmen register.”

Should the learning communities among the freshmen prove to be a successful venture for the core curriculum, the future of the program may be offered to upperclassman as well. “There’s nothing magical about putting it in the freshman year. That’s just where most institutions start,” O’Connell said.

“But once they grow, any courses, at any level, can be linked together. There’s nothing to say that it wouldn’t be a possibility.”

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