Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice

posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 1

multiple curving arrows of different colors to represent a community forming

What used to be an innovative trend in teaching and learning is now a “credible and proven curricular model” (Laufgraben, J. L., & Shapiro, N. S., 2004, p. xiii). Learning communities are high-impact instructional practices that engage people to work together toward a common goal—students working with students, faculty working with faculty within the same discipline or from different disciplines, or students working with faculty. Learning communities can have a “high-impact” on student outcomes through the “integration of learning across courses” and disciplines (LEAP, n.d.). Although each learning community may take on a slightly different focus, they consist of a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in a learning endeavor toward a common goal during a prescribed period of time. The typical time period for a successful learning community in an academic setting is one semester.

A number of characteristics, components, and features have been identified which make up a learning community (Burden, 2003; Cox, M. D., 2007; Iowa State University, 2006; Wilson & Ryder, n.d.; Wojcicki, E. 2002).

  • Membership in the community is often voluntary
  • Members in the community share common goals, objectives, values, and vision
  • Community members share connectedness and trust
  • Community members develop and encourage a supportive learning environment
  • Community members are encouraged to have open and autonomous communication
  • Instructors act primarily as a facilitator and then as a motivating and caring instructor
  • Students assume leadership roles, self-regulated learning, and support everyone in the community

Getting Started with Learning Communities

Consider the following steps to initiate and sustain a high-impact learning community in your own teaching and learning activities (Leigh Smith, MacGregor, Matthews and Gabelnick, 2004).

  1. Seeing the opportunity in the idea through existing models taking place in academic departments, at other institutions, or learning about them from attending conferences.
  2. Establishing a collaborative leadership team by having a willing and able person or persons lead and be responsible for the learning community, which is vital to its success. A faculty member, an administrator, or another individual can serve in this role who can work with the broader leadership team made up of stakeholders in the learning community.
  3. Defining learning community goals will assist in the formation of appropriate activities for successful outcomes and help students learn and promote creativity, vitality, and collaborative cultures. Learning community constituents have different goals and should have students’ learning in mind. Goals will evolve over time and the learning community and everyone connected to it should be open to and learn from changes that can take place.
  4. Choosing a curricular structure that can 1) take place within courses that are unmodified where students enroll in courses together which are not modified on behalf of the community. Students will, however, enroll in another course or courses which integrate and perpetuate the learning community. Learning communities can also be structured in 2) linked or clustered classes, where instructors who teach different courses collaborate to link content to each other’s courses. This structure could link an introductory skill building course to a more content-intense course; link “foundation courses for a major,” to related courses toward a minor; or link general education courses “around an interdisciplinary theme” (Leigh Smith, et al., 2004, p. 77).
  5. Team-taught learning communities are taught by a number of faculty members who can be from the same general discipline (English Composition and American Literature, for example) or from unique disciplines (Humanities, Composition, Art). This structure can be created around a central theme related to a particular content, an academic college, or a problem/issue. Students receive one syllabus which integrates each of the courses around the central theme.
  6. Recruiting students who want classes that are relevant to their interests, fit in their busy academic and personal schedules (fit into a semester rather than longer commitment), “count” toward their academic majors, and can be transferred to other schools. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) suggest that learning community developers consider these points rather than creating a learning community that is interesting to them rather than their students.
  7. Marketing and promoting learning communities through marketing plans that include information about the value of the learning community, how it fits students’ personal and academic needs, and when and where the learning community will take place.
  8. Advising students about transitioning to and functioning within a learning community can act as recruitment efforts. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) suggest that advisers be included when planning learning communities for their perspective on students’ personal, academic, and scheduling needs.
  9. Registration and scheduling strategies that can focus on getting student buy-in to actually commit to a learning community by promoting its purpose, its overall goal, and how students will benefit from it. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) state that learning communities can help students adjust to college life, can assist students in registering for bundled courses, and provide a means to make new friends and study partners.
  10. Assessing student learning using strategies that should be well thought out and start at the beginning of the learning community experience and include both formative (throughout the learning) and summative (at the end of learning) formats. As with any teaching strategy, assessment methods should evaluate the goals and instructional objectives (the purpose of the learning community) and meet the needs of all the stakeholders – the students, the instructors, the administrators, the institution, the curriculum, and any other people who are involved in the learning community.

Learning Community Models at NIU

Leigh Smith et al. (2004) identify four learning community models, all of which are offered in some format at NIU.

  1. Paired or Clustered Courses. The College of Education, for example, requires student cohorts to enroll in courses in their senior semesters, which are sequenced in blocks that allow them to learn through integrated course content.
  2. Cohorts in Large Courses or TLCs (Themed Learning Communities). “Themed Learning Communities are a group of two or three courses taken the same semester and consisting of the same group
    of students [in which they focus] on a common theme across several different classes and disciplines”
    (Northern Illinois University, 2015b, para. 1).
  3. Team-taught Programs. The College of Business offers UBUS 310, Business Core: Lecture, a 9-credit hour course for undergraduate business students. This course is team-taught and introduces “students to the three primary functional areas in business…[with an] emphasis on interdisciplinary application of the business principles, and the cross-functional relationships between functional areas in business” (Northern Illinois University, 2015c, para. 4).
  4. Residence-based Learning Communities. These are models that intentionally link the classroom-based learning community with a residential life component. A sample of NIU Living-Learning Communities include Leadership and Service Community; LGBTQA Community; Fine Arts House; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Careers House; Business Careers House; Fine Arts House; Health House; Health Professions House; and Teacher Education and Certification House. The NIU “Living-Learning Communities promote academic success… [and strengthen] connections between students and faculty within a chosen course of study.” (Northern Illinois University, 2015a, para. 1).


High-imapct learning communities create interdisciplinary learning environments that can assist students in becoming partners in their own learning. Learning communities encourage students to take an active role in their learning through open communication, creative thinking, negotiation, and mutual respect of each member of the community.

(This article was adapted from the Instructional Guide for Faculty and Teaching Assistants found at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/index.shtml)


Burden, P. R. (2003). Classroom management: Creating a successful learning community. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cox, M. D. (2007). Website for developing faculty and professional learning communities (FLCs) to transform campus culture for learning. Retrieved from http://www.units.miamioh.edu/flc/

Iowa State University (2006). Learning Communities. Retrieved from

LEAP (n.d.). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/HIP_tables.pdf

Laufgraben, J. L., & Shapiro, N. S. (2004). Sustaining & improving learning communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leigh Smith, B., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R. S., & Gabelnick, F. (2004). Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Northern Illinois University (2007a). Housing and Dining. Academic residential programs. Retrieved from http://niu.edu/housing/llc/

Northern Illinois University (2007b). Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning. Themed learning communities (TLC). Retrieved from http://www.niu.edu/engagedlearning/themed_learning/pdfs/2015-2016/tlc_fall_15_informational.pdf

Northern Illinois University (2007c). Undergraduate and Graduate Catalogs. UBUS 310. Business Core: Lecture. Retrieved from http://catalog.niu.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=9&poid=1373

Wilson, B., & Ryder, M. (n.d.). Dynamic learning communities: An alternative to designed instructional systems. Retrieved from http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/dlc.html

Wojcicki, E. (2002). Characteristics of an effective classroom culture. Retrieved from http://gallery.carnegiefoundation.org/collections/castl_k12/ewojcicki2/outcomes/characteristics_culture.htm

For more information on Learning Communities, please read the full article in our Instructional Guide for University Faculty and Teaching Assistants at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/index.shtml and refer to the resource list.

New Clicker Device on Campus

Turning Technologies' full-keyboard "QT" deviceIn Spring 2015, Turning Technologies began selling a new student response system device, their “QT” model. This QT device replaces the previous NXT model that was sold the last few years. The full keyboard on the QT makes providing text-based answers easier, useful for those times when short answer or essay questions are preferred over multiple choice or true/false questions. This makes it easier to use short answer and essay questions for higher-stakes in-class quizzes and exams using clickers.

While the device is different, the cost to students remains the same at the NIU Bookstore. The only necessary change to the existing clicker system is on the faculty side, as the older, grey radio receivers need to be replaced with newer black-and-white receivers. If you are still in need of a new receiver, please contact Peter Gowen (pgowen@niu.edu or 815-753-5882) or Cameron Wills (cwills@niu.edu or 815-753-3239) in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, and we will get you a more up-to-date Instructor Kit.

The QT device also presages a future update to the TurningPoint desktop software used to create and run polls using the clicker system. More details will follow, as that update draws nearer.

For more information on using clickers in your classroom, please visit http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/assess/clickers/index.shtml.

Spring 2015 Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Getting Credit for What You Do

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Laurie RichlinLaurie Richlin, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Education, Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine presented two, half-day workshops on getting credit for what you do. Upon check-in for both workshops, participants were presented with a copy of Dr. Richlin’s book, Blueprint for Learning: Creating College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning, which details much of what was presented during the institute.

During the morning workshop, Getting Credit for What You Do: Designing an Evidence-Based Course, Dr. Richlin discussed ways faculty can demonstrate how well their teaching facilitates their students’ learning. Using a worksheet and through discussions, participants had the opportunity to document their teaching/learning decisions and results so that their colleagues and intelligent non-experts can understand what they are doing. Participants were lead through the evidence-based course design process, which allowed them to identify traditional activities and ideas they felt were appropriate for documentation.

In the afternoon workshop, Getting Credit for What You Do: Creating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, participants, after having documented their work, were shown how and why to share their findings about effective ways to help students learn better in their discipline and the university. “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) promotes teaching as a scholarly endeavor and a worthy subject for research, producing a public body of knowledge open to critique and evaluation” (Michigan State University Office of Faculty & Organizational Development). During the workshop, Dr. Richlin described how to turn teaching strategies and results into presentations and publications. She offered anyone who attended either workshop to contact her to answer questions about her workshops or give a preliminary review of a manuscript.

For more information on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, read The Status of the Scholarship of Teaching in the Discipline (2007) by Paul D. Witman and Laurie Richlin.

To learn about current and practical applications of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, consider attending the 2015 Midwest Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching, on April 10, 2015, hosted by Indiana University South Bend.

Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers the Teaching Effectiveness Institute twice each year, at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. Day one of the fall Teaching Effectiveness Institute is offered as a one day workshop, which is designed to introduce faculty to the basic principles of teaching, information about teaching-related support resources available at NIU, and ways faculty can address students’ learning needs.

The second day of the institute is offered either as a one, all-day workshop or two, half-day workshops that center on a more focused topic presented by an outside expert in the field. The Fall 2015 Teaching Effectiveness Institute will take place on Thursday, August 14 and Friday, August 15. Look for more details about the institute on our webpage later this spring semester at www.niu.edu/facdev.


Michigan State University Office of Faculty and Organizational Development (n.d.). Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). Retrieved from: http://fod.msu.edu/oir/scholarship-teaching-and-learning-sotl

Richlin, L. (2006). Blueprint for learning: Constructing college courses to facilitate, assess, and document learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.

Witman, P. D. and Richlin, L. (2007). The Status of the Scholarship of Teaching in the Discipline. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1013&context=ij-sotl

Online Teaching Effectiveness Institute featured High Impact Practices and Portfolios


During the first day of the Spring 2015 Teaching Effectiveness Institute, faculty and staff participated in two one-half day professional development sessions offered in a fully online environment. 47 faculty from across 25 academic departments participated in the morning session High Impact Practices: Fostering Student Engagement, Success, and Retention, which featured presentations from NIU faculty and staff who currently use high impact practices to support teaching and learning. Speakers representing a range of departments including Julia Spears, Stephanie Zobac and Michaela Holtz of the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning; Denise Rode, First- and Second-Year Experience; Courtney Gallaher, Department of Geography/Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Alicia Schatteman, Non-profit Management School of Public Administration & The Center for NGO Leadership and Development shared examples and lessons learned while using high impact practices at NIU.

22 faculty from across 14 academic departments participated in the afternoon session Portfolios for Student Career Success, which introduced faculty and staff to pedagogy, instructional design and career development concepts related to the effective use of portfolios. The institute developed and presented by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center staff highlighted connections between pedagogical principles and portfolio design as well as the importance of collecting authentic artifacts of students’ best work to support development of portfolios that can be used throughout college and students’ careers. Workshop participants were also given a “sneak peak” at the Blackboard Portfolio tool that is currently under development.

BB_collaborate_apps_imageThe online sessions were hosted using Blackboard Collaborate to offer participants the opportunity to engage from the comfort of their home, office or other site using computers or mobile devices. The cross-platform strategy provided ease of access for all participants using a variety of IOS and Android devices and reduced the carbon footprint by eliminating the need for travel. An online Blackboard Learn community is also available for faculty to continue engaging with colleagues on best practices related to HIPs and portfolios.

Fast Facts:

The online institute provided significant savings potential for participants. Over 3,900 miles driven, 103 gallons of gasoline (cost savings of $394), and 3,293 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions were potentially saved by faculty participating online rather than driving to campus for the institutes. Faculty indicated that they would welcome the opportunity to attend online institutes in the future.

A snapshot of responses from participants indicated that the programs were well received. Comments include:

Presenters had great, concrete ideas for high impact learning practices.

Great program! Met the needs of a wide variety of faculty members. I also appreciate the ability to participate from home! 🙂

Portfolios may help students see connections among the different things they learn within a program curriculum.

High-Impact Practices for Student Success

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High Impact PracticesHigh-Impact Practices (HIPs) are specific learning experiences that can have a high impact on students’ engagement and retention. These practices have been researched and tested in the field of higher education (Kuh, 2008). Successful HIPs engage students in a range of activities in which they interact with faculty and peers, experience diversity, focus on reflection and feedback, and participate in real-world applications. In addition, high-impact practices are closely tied to higher order learning opportunities in which students are fully engaged in their learning by analyzing, synthesizing, and creating new ideas and concepts of what they learn in and out of the classroom (Stephen F. Austin State University, 2014).

The LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative of the Association of American Colleges & Universities identifies ten high-impact educational practices that have been shown to improve academic performance (LEAP, n.d.). The ten practices are described below followed by a representation of how these practices are being implemented at NIU.

First-Year Seminars and Experiences
“First-year experiences place a strong emphasis on critical inquiry, frequent writing, information literacy, collaborative learning, and other skills that develop students’ intellectual and practical competencies” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • NIU’s First- and Second-Year Experience (FSYE) helps freshmen, sophomores, and transfer students by implementing and supporting programming that ensures student academic, personal, social, and career success

Common Intellectual Experiences
Students enroll in “a set of required common courses or [in] a vertically organized general education program that includes advanced integrative studies and/or required participation in a learning community” (LEAP, n.d.).

Learning Communities
“Students take two or more linked courses as a group and work closely with one another and with their professors. Many learning communities explore a common topic and/or common readings through the lenses of different disciplines” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • Themed Learning Communities consist of two or three interdisciplinary courses taken in conjunction to analyze themes and connections for an integrative learning experience
  • Living Learning Communities are part of the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management — the goal is to strengthen connections between students and faculty within their course of study

Writing-Intensive Courses
“These courses emphasize writing at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum, including final-year projects. Students are encouraged to produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • Writing Across the Curriculum is a pedagogical movement based on the premise that students learn critical thinking best when they actively engage in the subject matter of a course through writing
  • NIU’s Writing Across the Curriculum and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center co-sponsor Designing a Writing-Enhanced Course, which is offered each May as a day-long workshop for faculty to incorporate writing and critical thinking into their courses

Collaborative Assignments and Projects
“Collaborative learning combines two key goals: learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences” (LEAP, n.d.).

Undergraduate Research
“The goal is to involve students [from all disciplines] with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • Research Rookies links undergraduate first-year, sophomore, and transfer students with faculty mentors in their major or area of interest to conduct small-scale research projects
  • Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry & Research program (USOAR) is a program for students from all colleges, departments, and majors that funds student-generated research projects on campus, somewhere else in the United States, or overseas

Diversity and Global Learning
“[The emphasis is on] courses and programs that help students explore cultures, life experiences, and worldviews different from their own, [which often] are augmented by experiential learning in the community and/ or by study abroad” (LEAP, n.d.).

Service Learning and Community-Based Learning
Students participate in “field-based ‘experiential learning’ with community partners [as] an instructional strategy—and often a required part of the course. The idea is to give students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community” (LEAP, n.d.).

Internships “provide students with direct experience in a work setting—usually related to their career interests—and give them the benefit of supervision and coaching from professionals in the field” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • NIU Career Services offers many resources (Huskies Get Hired!) and events to connect students with internship and co-op opportunities in order to gain real-world experiences
  • Many departments require and/ or make available direct work experiences to students before they graduate

Capstone Courses and Projects
“These culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned” (LEAP, n.d.).

  • Many departments include capstone courses and projects as part of their curriculum such as the Comprehensive Exam-Portfolio from the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment in the College of Education. Included in this high-impact practice are portfolios, which are valuable at many stages of a student’s academic career.
  • NIU’s campus-wide electronic portfolio (ePortfolio) initiative supports and connects students by integrating general education and baccalaureate goals with authentic assessment and career preparation

Although HIPs are not new practices to higher education in and of themselves, bringing them together under the umbrella of high-impact practices allows faculty and students to easily select characteristics within those practices that best meets the need of academic goals. When successfully implemented, high-impact practices affect students in meaningful ways www.sfasu.edu:

  • Students spend considerable amounts of time on meaningful tasks
  • Faculty and student peers interact about substantive matters
  • Students experience diversity through contact with people who are different than themselves
  • Students receive frequent performance feedback
  • Activities have applications to different settings on and off campus
  • Authentic connections are made with peers, faculty, community, and/ or the university

If you are interested in learning more about high-impact practices, plan on attending one or both workshops of the Spring 2015 Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Thursday, January 8, 2015. In the morning session, NIU faculty will share some of the high-impact practices they have implemented in their courses. During the afternoon session, we will focus specifically on Portfolios and how they can impact student career success.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (n.d.). About LEAP. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap

Kuh, George D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access To Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://keycenter.unca.edu/sites/default/files/aacu_high_impact_2008_final.pdf

LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) (n.d.). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/hip_tables.pdf

Stephen F. Austin State University, Office of High-Impact Practices (2014). Retrieved from http://www.sfasu.edu/hip/


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