Learning communities help students acclimate to university life

Photo by Logan Metzger, Design by Brooklyn Williams
Iowa State learning communities help students connect beyond the classroom with those in similar majors as them.

Lydia Samuelson

Editor’s Note: In the original publication of this article, the percentage of incoming students that participated in learning communities in the last school year was incorrect.The original percent was 70 percent and the correct number is 78 percent. The mistake was fixed and the Iowa State Daily apologizes for the error.

Impacting more than 87,000 students since they were established in 1995, learning communities have been helping Iowa State students comfortably adjust to life on campus for over two decades.

Learning communities gather students of similar majors, genders, races and interests to create a unique academic and social environment. These communities have various themes and topics of interest, such as Biology Education Success Teams (BEST), Bridging Opportunities in Leadership and Diversity (BOLD), InDustrial Engineers are Leaders (IDEAL) and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE).

“Many years ago, we went through the campus conversation that, you know, teaching centers also need to be about student learning,” said Amy Slagell, associate dean of the liberal arts and sciences administration. “Learning community discussions emerged from those discussions of […] ‘How do we help our students be more successful? How do we make this big place smaller?’”

Learning communities all have their own focus, which makes them unique, but most communities aim to give support to first year students in academics and social life, Slagell said.

Jennifer Leptien was named the director of the Learning Communities department at Iowa State in January 2018.

“When talking about incoming students’ concerns, what we hear often is ‘How am I going to do academically?’ and ‘Will I make friends?’” Leptien said. “Those are the two burning questions that most of the students I encounter have, and the learning community assists with both of those aspects.”

Leptien and Slagell agreed that one major way communities help students with their academics is through sharing courses.

“We have a variety of different courses that connect the learning community,” Leptien said. “Depending on which learning community students are in, [students] may be in two or more classes together.”

Common classes taken through learning communities include English 150 and English 250.

Kseniya Ratneva, freshman in animal science, and Luella Gaskell, sophomore in pre-business, are students in the Honors learning community and are taking the English 250 course through the Honors Program.

“It’s nice to talk to people who are taking similar-level coursework, especially with the sophomores on the floor,” Luella said. “They know what you do already as a freshman, so you can ask questions.”

The Honors learning community, like several others on campus, offers a residential component where students within the learning community live together to augment the social aspect of learning communities.

“We have house dinners here,” Ratneva said. “We also have events. […] There have been camping trips, and there have been outside dinners at people’s houses that live nearby. There’s been farmers market events. There’s a lot that you can do here.”

Most learning communities are focused on first-year students, but there are ways to be involved in learning communities as an upperclassman. Peer mentors — a group of over 600 students in their second year or above at Iowa State — work as role models and guides to the university.

Leptien said learning communities help determine what the role of peer mentor entails. In some scenarios, a mentor may focus on aiding with social aspects, like helping students build connections. Other scenarios may focus more on academics, such as giving advice for a course like a lab.

“Peer mentors are not tutors,” Slagell said. “It’s just nice to know someone who knows the curriculum, the space, what buildings to cut through to stay warmer, how to evaluate CyRide, which dining hall has what on what nights.”

Peer mentors also play a key part in molding the atmosphere of learning communities.

“When we train our peer mentors, they come to a two-day training in August, and we integrate conversation around the ISU principles of community,” Leptien said. “We’re reaching almost 90 percent of the incoming class through a learning community experience. That gives us an opportunity to set the tone for what it means to be a Cyclone at Iowa State and the belief system and core values at Iowa State.”

Eighty-seven percent of incoming students participated in learning communities this fall, up from 78 percent of incoming students who participated last year.

According to Leptien, this increase in students can be explained by the creation of a new learning community for open-option students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS): Helping Open Option Manage Exploration (HOME).

“We now have [HOME] for students in open option,” said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “That’s a large group of students, about 600 students, who we really didn’t have learning community options for them in the past. Over the past two to three years, we’ve really built up learning community options for students in open option. That’s really increased the number of students in [LAS] who are part of a learning community.”

New learning communities are created as faculty perceive students’ need for them, whether it is in their major or for open option. Creating a learning community is not always an easy process.

“We have some challenges,” Slagell said. “Some of our majors are ones that students find. Not all of our majors are ones that bring in 20 or 30 students every fall semester that are new, direct-from-high-school students that learning communities can really have a direct impact on. What kind of learning community can you put in place if there are three freshmen?”

Iowa State has many resources in place to help students succeed in university life, whether a student joins a learning community their first year, becomes a peer mentor in their second or never interacts with the communities at all.

“There are so many ways to get engaged on campus — this is only one model of support,” Slagell said. “Nobody accomplishes their goals all on their own.”