Students served by learning communities grows 40 percent in five years

More than 70 percent of Iowa State's direct-from-high-school freshmen are participating in a learning community this fall, the 21st year of the program. Learning communities aim to help students new to Iowa State succeed academically, make connections on campus and stay in school.

This fall's freshman participation rate, 72 percent, mirrors last fall's. Over the last five years, freshman participation rates have hovered around 70 percent. For minority freshmen, the participation rate is even higher, at 75 percent.

Nearly all of the growth in the program from last fall to this – 296 students in all – is in transfer students and sophomores, populations that program director Doug Gruenewald identified for growth four years ago. The total number of learning community students this fall – first year, transfer and returning – is 5,973. Learning communities with noteworthy growth this year include a sophomore version of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and a community that targets transfer, sophomore and junior students who are undeclared engineering students.

Of the 81 learning communities offered this fall, 35 of them either have sections reserved for transfer students or are open to transfer students.

Gruenewald credits the learning community coordinators for that growth. "Transfer students can be a tougher group to sell on the benefits of a learning community," he said. "The coordinators have to figure out what their transfer students need."

The same could be said generally for Iowa State's learning communities program.

"The whole point is to tailor the learning community to a specific group of students," Gruenewald said. "This isn't a one-size-fits-all experience."

Any Iowa State learning community might include some of these components: one to three shared courses, career exploration, service learning or community service, and social activities. About 25 percent of the learning communities include a residence hall component.

A few examples

Even though the number of students served has grown about 40 percent in the last five years, the total number of learning communities offered hasn't strayed far from 80. Growing communities add sections, under-utilized ones are discontinued, new ones targeting a different student population are piloted. Gruenewald said the discipline-centered learning communities have the best chance for longevity. This year's eight new learning communities include:

  • The Sky is the Limit, an interdisciplinary exploration of majors and careers for open-option students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Future Teachers, Future Leaders, for transfer students in elementary education and current students changing their major to elementary education
  • M-STEM, for multicultural transfer students in a STEM major

Among the largest learning communities:

  • Animal science (336 members), for all freshman and transfer students in animal science, dairy science or general pre-veterinary medicine
  • Women in Science and Engineering (379 members), for first-year female students majoring in one of about 50 science/engineering majors

Among the smaller learning communities:

  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation (23 members), for students in any major looking to gain skills in small business management and leadership
  • Writing Gender/Women's Studies (21 members), for students in any major taking English 250, also linked to women's studies 201; students analyze the intersection of gender, race, class, nationality and sexuality through written, oral and visual communication

Common threads

Regardless of size, Gruenewald said the common threads to all learning communities are coordinators who, in most cases, are academic advisers, and returning students who serve as peer mentors -- about 550 strong this year.

"Most mentors came from the learning community they're leading and they want to help other students. They are very effective at that," he said. "The more student-to-student contact, the better."

Nearly 100 employees serve as learning community coordinators, some for more than one learning community. Gruenewald said their efforts to make their learning communities successful are "exceptional."

One of the strengths of Iowa State's program is that learning community duties now are written into the coordinators' jobs.

"We've developed an infrastructure to sustain the program, regardless of staff changes," Gruenewald said.