Do Your Living-Learning Communities Offer a Comprehensive Immersion Experience?

August 4, 2011. Living-learning communities offer high potential for boosting the academic success and the education of the whole student, but they also present your campus with unique challenges because of the coordination they require between academic affairs and student services at your institution. The National Study of Living-Learning Programs (NSLLP) has begun documenting how living-learning programs influence the academic, social, and developmental outcomes for college students, as well as what characteristics are shared by those programs that show the greatest impact.

This week, we interviewed two chief researchers from the NSLLP -- Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Karen Inkelas, associate professor and director for the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at the University of Virginia.

Brower and Inkelas suggest that while many institutions have organized living-learning programs, few offer a truly integrated, comprehensive, and immersive learning experience for the students. Here is their advice.

Intentionality is Key

"Depending on the goals you have set for the program, you really have to do the hard work (and the fun work) of thinking through how those goals play out in every interaction within the residential learning community."
Aaron Brower, U of Wisconsin-Madison

Inkelas notes that most frequently, the work of running a living-learning program gets compartmentalized. The faculty teach the program, the resident assistants handle issues that traditionally fall under the RA's purview, the housing office handles the budget, and the student conduct office handles student behavior issues. However, because the success of a living-learning program requires the integration of the residential and learning experiences, it is critical that these various functions work toward a shared and articulated goal, rather than at cross purposes to each other.

"What successful programs have in common is intentionality," Inkelas remarks. "Down to every nook and cranny. At these programs, someone has thought through how programming, staff training, handling of discipline issues, and even the physical environment -- right down to where the garbage can is placed -- how all of these are designed to support the goals of the program." (If, for example, the academic focus of the program is sustainability, then the placement and use of the garbage can may be quite important!)

In a residential learning community, each piece of the environment matters -- and each piece of the environment represents a learning opportunity.

Two Examples of the Integrated Approach

Here are two examples. In these two scenarios, disciplinary and budget issues are addressed in ways that support the learning goals of the living-learning program.

One living-learning program has as its academic focus the study and practice of participatory democracy, and this includes a significant community-building component. At some point during the term, an incident of homophobia occurs in the living-learning community. Delegating the issue to the RA or to the student conduct office to address in isolation would miss a learning opportunity and a community-building opportunity. Brower notes that hall forums and structured discussions could allow the community to address the issue in ways that prompt students to engage with issues of how to handle conflict in a participatory democracy.

Another living-learning program is focused on entrepreneurship and business ethics. "Rather than have an administrator decide whether to charge a fee to live in the living-learning community," Inkelas suggests, "make the decision a learning opportunity for your business students." For example, bring in faculty to lead discussion about the ethics of the decision: Does charging a fee exclude some students from the opportunity to participate in the program? Is it fair to redistribute wealth from the affluent to the poor? In wrestling with these questions and participating in the decision-making process, the students can engage in more active learning.

What Doesn't Work

Inkelas diagnoses the problem as stemming from a lack of integration between student and academic affairs: "When only one side is heavily invested in the program, or when the discrete parts of the living-learning program aren't integrated and working together, you don't see the kind of gains that you could."

Inkelas offers this additional example, noting that most living-learning programs do not provide separate training for their resident assistants. The result is that many RAs remain unaware of the special characteristics or goals of the community -- unless they were themselves former residents of the community. Inkelas recommends providing intentional training for RAs that is tailored to the goals and needs of the living-learning program.

According to Brower and Inkelas, this level of intentionality requires:

  • Very specific and clear goals for the academic experience in the residential learning community
  • Cross-functional communication and partnership
  • Real leadership in the program director or program team ("this has to be someone who is really thinking about the program intentionally," Inkelas advises, "a person who can address both big-picture planning and small-picture details")