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Success Grant to Expand Learning Communities
From: University Currents
Date: April 26, 2000
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo By: Lisa Venture Archive: Campus News, Research News

Taking a mother's advice isn't always the easiest thing for college freshmen to do, especially when they're facing their first chance to live away from home. But as a freshman entering UC in the fall of 1999, Erin Gray's glad she listened to her mother.

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The mother counseled her 18-year-old daughter to sign up for an experimental program that would allow Erin to take most of her courses at UC with the same group of students or "cohort," taught by faculty whose subject areas were coordinated through a special section of Freshman English. This way Erin got to make friends easily. Though she was skeptical when she learned about the program during summer orientation, Erin now is so thankful she had the opportunity to join "the Cohort" that she calls it the most helpful resource she has found in her adjustment from high school to college.

The impact on Erin and other freshmen involved in this year's cohort is precisely why UC will be expanding this approach beginning in fall 2000. Heading up the learning communities effort will be Wayne Hall, the associate dean in A&S and English professor who spearheaded and taught Erin's cohort in Freshman English. He has been appointed by Provost Anthony Perzigian as UC's learning community facilitator, or czar, to take the approach university-wide, armed with a two-year $225,000 Success Challenge grant. The funding is available through the state of Ohio.

The aim of the learning community approach is to improve student retention by providing first-year students with a ready-made vehicle to build a sense of community.

Hall's goal is to launch 20 learning communities with a maximum of 25 students per cohort by fall quarter. For now, he is concentrating on recruiting students to participate and faculty to coordinate courses. To start, he will limit the cohort structure to three courses per quarter, with most of them offered within A&S. In the coming year, he hopes to develop a more formal structure for the program.

"Learning communities is a concept that has been around for a while, but it has not been widely used until the last six or seven years. Research by Vincent Tinto, the guru of retention, has shown that especially in large universities, learning communities give the students a chance to get to know one another, and they improve student retention," said Hall, who will be building upon a foundation that began with two learning communities, "Mick" and "Mack," piloted by Howard Tolley, professor of political science, in 1997-98.

According to Perzigian, the learning community's effort is consistent with provostal goals of the UC Collaboration for Student Success. Expanding the learning cohort concept became a key point in the university's application for Success Challenge funds from the state, according to Linda Cain, associate provost who served on a committee that reviewed and revised the application. It also was a recommendation made by UC's Strategic Enrollment Management retention work group, according to work group member Russell Curley, director of Educational Services.

"In a large university, it is very possible for a student to fail to develop a connection to the campus, and this is especially true for a commuting campus. Because of that lack of attachment, students are far more likely to drop out. The learning community can provide the connection that some students might not otherwise have an opportunity to have. "It also helps students to make links between their courses, so it enriches both the educational experience and the social experience," he said.

Both Erin and her mother, Vicki Brunn of Findlay, Ohio, can vouch for that. "I have been really happy with it," said Brunn, herself a teacher of high school juniors. "The biggest way it helped her was to give her a smaller school within the large university. She has talked about being very happy with the professors she had. She's made a lot of really good friends."

For more information about joining the learning community program, call Wayne Hall at 556-5870.