Learning communities offer many benefits

Frances Myers

Friday in the Memorial Union, the Learning Communities January Institute allowed peer mentors and faculty and staff coordinators of learning communities to exchange ideas on topics like bullying, building community, learning styles, technology, leadership and service learning.

Iowa State’s learning communities are designed to help ease first-year students’ transition into a college setting.

“A learning team is a small group of students who typically take a common course during the fall semester and may live near one another in the same residence hall,” said Kelsie Kahnk, senior in marketing and peer mentor of the business learning community. “It’s a way to interact with others who have similar academic interests, learn together and enhance your experience at Iowa State.”

Learning communities have been a part of Iowa State since 1995. They were started in order to improve students’ graduation rates and retention rates, as well as students’ satisfaction and enjoyment with being involved in a learning community.

“Everyone who works directly and indirectly with leaning communities has been very student-focused and committed to seeing our students succeed,” said Doug Gruenewald, co-director of learning communities.

Today, the average one-year retention rate for learning community students is 89 percent, eight percent higher than non-learning community students, according to an ISU news release. The release also stated that the average six-year graduation rate is 74 percent, 12 percent higher than non-learning community students.

Today Iowa State offers 84 learning communities with 70 percent of first-year students participating.

Learning communities can help first-year students feel more comfortable as they adjust to life on campus. Because the groups are made up of students with similar classes and living in the same residence halls, familiar faces can sometimes provide the comfort that helps students make it on their own.

“It’s a great way to get to know people and make friends in your major of interest right away,” Kahnk said.

Finding that comfort can enable students to pursue more success in their collegiate endeavors.

Kahnk initially joined a learning community when she was a freshman at Iowa State.

“Getting so familiar with the staff and operations of the College of Business really made me comfortable,” Kahnk said. “Because of this comfort I had, when watching presentations over all the clubs, I was motivated to get involved and explore the college further. I applied for many clubs, and it eventually lead me to where I am today: President of Business Council and awarded ‘Exemplary Mentor’ last year for my work in mentoring learning teams.”

In the 15 years learning communities have been present at Iowa State, the program has been quite successful. For the past nine consecutive years they have been placed in the top four percent of the U.S. News and World Report’s top 25, out of more than 600 colleges and universities.

“The faculty and staff who coordinate the individual learning communities are incredibly dedicated, well beyond their job descriptions, to working with students,” Gruenewald said. “We also have awesome peer mentors who provide excellent leadership to their fellow students.”

“Iowa State’s learning communities not only allow students to do well but excel during their college career,” said Carly Cummings, senior in agricultural business and peer mentor of the agricultural business learning community. “We have dedicated faculty members that want to see students succeed in their endeavors and are willing to help them along the way. We also provide support for new students through peer mentors who know firsthand what it is like to be a new student entering such a large university. As peer mentors, we are able to lend a helping hand and set a positive example for incoming students.”

Being part of a learning community is easy because it really does not require students to go out of their way to be involved.

“Each learning community is different, but they often include co-curricular activities, social events, career exploration, community and service learning projects, increased faculty and staff contact and organized study groups,” Gruenewald said. “Almost anything you can think of has probably been part of a learning community because their activities are developed by the students, mentors and coordinators of the program. Each program is different and each year is different.”

As the program continues and grows, many more students are bound to experience the positive impact learning communities are having at Iowa State.