Students build foundations with learning communities

Daniel Bush

New friends, new school and a new town can be overwhelming. Students often have to start from scratch in a new environment. Joining a learning community is one way students can build a solid foundation with their peers.

Students who independently build a “foundation” often find friends at random.

Sometimes it’s “a matter of luck,” said Doug Gruenewald, program manager of vice president student affairs.

“I’ve always thought of learning communities as this ‘common sense’ approach,” Gruenewald said, “where you find common academic interests for students and then you cluster them together in some of their courses.”

From the start, learning community students are placed in a residential group with the same general academic interests. This allows students to live together in close proximity and make connections right away where others might not.

Samuel Schreier, senior in meteorology and peer mentor of the Earth, wind and fire learning community, wanted others to know the importance of learning communities. 

“I think it’s absolutely essential, especially for a smaller major,” Schreier said. “It is the best way for them to meet the staff right away, meet the upperclassmen right away in the major and meet each other right away.”

While some students prefer to be independent, some enjoy being driven by others to teach and learn the information together, said Nicole Hershberger, senior in dairy science and peer mentor of the animal science learning community.

“I think it’s a good thing at least as a freshman when they come in,” Hershberger said. “It helps you get to know all [the] options that Iowa State has and just to meet some people initially that you are going to see over the next couple years.”

Retention and graduation rates for learning community students are higher on average than for non-learning community students.

Gruenewald said the average for one-year retention rates are 8 percent higher and six-year graduation rates are 12 percent higher.

There are two different types of learning communities: residential and non-residential. Living together can sometimes make it a challenge, and Schreier thought non-residential was better.

“Sometimes when you got people living together they can kind of cause problems,” Schreier said. “It’s kind of better to have it spread out but still be able to come together.”

Hershberger agreed.

The increase in students at Iowa State has played its part in the program, as well. Trying to accommodate a large campus with a smaller community can be challenging.

“It’s certainly a challenge, because part of the concept is to have a small program,” Gruenewald said.

Both Schreier and Hershberger have found that guiding students in the right direction helps them retain the information.

“It’s just really helped me to connect with people and listen and figure out the best way to help people,” Schreier said.

“It’s been an opportunity to meet more people,” Hershberger said. “It’s really a great way to branch out and learn about other things.”

There are no requirements to get connected with a learning community. It all depends on the learning community and if it is major-specific.

There are 4,909 students involved in the 88 different learning communities at Iowa State. The learning communities are split up by colleges within the university, so there are opportunities for every student.

“It’s not like it’s a time-consuming thing,” Schreier said. “We don’t do that hard of activities. We just really get them use to living at college here [and] pointing them in the right direction to graduate.”