College students know everything. So taking advice from anyone-let alone their parents-isn't always the easiest thing for soon-to-be college freshmen, especially when they're anticipating their first chance to live away from home. But as a first-year student entering St. Ambrose in the fall of 2001, Rick Mendoza's glad he listened to his mother.
Maria Mendoza from East Moline, Ill., counseled her 18-year-old son to sign up for a learning community, which would enable him to take most of his first-semester courses with the same group of students-or cohort-taught by faculty who tap into the interrelation between their subject areas. "You'll make friends easier this way," Maria told Rick.
Though skeptical at first, Rick says he's thankful for the opportunity he now calls his most helpful resource in making the adjustment from high school to college.
For decades, the educational experience in colleges across the nation was, for most students, a "spectator sport." Faculty lectures were the dominant format and few students actively participated in class. Students typically took courses as detached, individual units separate from others in both content and peer group, with one set of understandings linked in no systematic way to what was learned in other courses. "It's little wonder that students seemed so uninvolved in learning. Their learning experiences were, frankly, not very involving," says biology professor Richard Legg, former director of general education at St. Ambrose.
Fortunately, things changed. They had to. One quarter of Americans were born in the past 20 years, giving rise to one of the mightiest demographic groups since the baby boomers. Known as Generation Y, these young people are the ultimate multi-taskers, who grew up doing ten things at once on as many levels.
A methodology used nationally and brought to SAU in 1999, learning communities infused a new style of learning into St. Ambrose's curriculum. They encompass a broad range of educational practices but are most simply defined as linked courses, taken concurrently by a cohort of students, that are typically connected by an organizing theme, giving meaning to their linkage. "Sharing the curriculum this way provides students with a coherent, interdisciplinary general education experience that promotes a deeper type of learning than in stand-alone courses," says Legg.
For example, "Smart Art Start," which Rick Mendoza took his freshman year, links courses in drawing and theatre, and asks students to consider how the visual and performing arts come together as a combined form of creative expression. Wrapped into most learning communities are courses in information literacy and the New Student Seminar, which teach students research skills and help them transition into college life, as well as provide them with even more opportunities to interact within their cohort.
Legg explains that communities such as Rick's intentionally restructure student learning to foster more explicit intellectual connections between students and faculty and the disciplines being studied. "Once students get a taste of success for learning together, they never back off," he says. "The more students demand of themselves, the more they demand of the faculty.
"And when students start challenging faculty that's when you have a ball game."
The beauty of learning communities is that, as a curricular structure, it can be applied to any content and any group of students, Legg continues. Most often, however, they are designed to meet the needs of first-year students and those who require developmental academic assistance.
For the past few years, professors Carol Lyon and Michael Hustedde have taught "Reading, Writing and Study Skills for Success" to students who do not test out of 100-level English and writing courses. For Hustedde, who is St. Ambrose's director of writing, there is a definite difference between his learning community students and those in the other 100-level courses he teaches throughout the year.
"There is a relationship that develops between faculty and students in learning communities that is difficult to replicate in a traditional classroom atmosphere," Hustedde explains. "Because we see the students for so many hours a week, especially in areas of academic concern, I have plenty of opportunities to talk to them other than just during my office hours."
Clearly, students in Lyon and Hustedde's learning community benefit from the closer association with other students and their instructors. Its influence is most easily seen in those who go on to make the dean's list their first semester at St. Ambrose, Hustedde says.
Because their learning community class times were back-to-back last fall, Lyon and Hustedde often combined class periods so they could show a movie, run a group activity or take a field trip. "Students often couldn't tell whose class they were in. They just meshed together," says Lyon, who also served as director of the Student Success Center last year. "I loved it when they said their favorite part of my class was something they actually did in Michael's.
"I have students from a learning community of mine three years ago who still wander in and out of my office as if it were their home," she continues. "We pick up on previous conversations like you would in a family. The students depend on their instructors not only for academic instruction, but also for personal support."
Hustedde quips, "It's like they have a second mom."
Learning communities do more than co-register students around a topic; they also change the manner in which students are taught. Each year, more than 40 faculty and staff members at St. Ambrose participate in learning communities, which in many cases means reorganizing course syllabi and classrooms to promote the shared, collaborative learning experience.
"Faculty repeatedly tell me how exhilarating it is to pursue interdisciplinary ideas with colleagues, to open windows to other disciplines and to gain new perspectives of their own," Legg says. And it is out of this pursuit that some of the, well, quirkiest communities emerge.
Take art professor Kristin Quinn and chemistry laboratory director Andy Axup. Both admit to having a couple of the more messy offices on campus, and both are nearly always dealing with chemicals-Quinn in her painting, and Axup in chemistry experiments.
So last spring they created "Marvelous Molecules and Magnificent Masterpieces," exploring the interactions between the science of the studio and the art of chemical composition, and how the demands of the art community drive the need for new chemistry, while chemical advances challenge artistic creativity.
Like Lyon and Hustedde's cluster, Quinn and Axup scheduled their courses back-to-back, allowing them to teach across a four-hour time period twice a week. "The students were really sick of us," says Axup, "but it gave us a lot of flexibility."
During the semester, the learning community, made up solely of art majors, learned such techniques as how to make Egyptian paint and how to blow and form glass. They even paid a visit to the Scott County Landfill to see where hazardous paint materials end up. "I wish you could have seen them when we said we were taking a field trip to the dump," Axup says. "They wouldn't admit it, but they doubted us."
For Quinn and Axup, having the students doubt and even second-guess them was what made their first learning community teaching experience so rewarding.
"In a different way, seeing two professors working to do something totally new-totally experimental-was invigorating for the students," says Quinn. "The sheer nature of this subject-it's always going to be a work in progress, with us trying things and modifying them. We destroyed the students' notion that everything works right the first time. And for a group of future artists, that's a good thing."