Learning Communities

By Kristen Linsalata
Assistant News Editor

The faculty of the Learning Communities Committee has been working to develop learning communities, an alternative approach to learning in an academic environment. This system is a preferred approach to learning on LIU Post campus, and mandatory for incoming freshman. The process began three years ago, according to John Lutz, chairperson of the English Department and director of the Learning Communities Committee.

In a learning community, students take two or more three-credit classes that share certain goals and are thematically linked together to provide a coherent experience. They are designed to explore how knowledge relates across diverse disciplines, and offer courses that can be applied towards core curriculum requirements. These particular classes promote open dialogue and intensive mentoring from professors.

“The purpose of learning communities is essentially that the courses speak to one another in some way,” Lutz said. “The overarching idea of learning communities is that the curriculum is usually divided into different disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature – but all knowledge is related. However, when students are taking courses throughout their degree, we don’t always have the opportunity to demonstrate to them all of the ways that [these] disciplines are related.”

There are two models of learning communities at LIU Post –the sophomore/junior learning communities and the freshman seminar. The learning communities’ model of the freshman seminar links a class to ENG 1, COLL 1, or both. Learning communities provide a unique way for students to accomplish their core requirements in a way that is more specifically tailored to them as an individual.

The ENG 1 classes that are provided within learning communities offer a certain theme. This Fall 2014 semester, the theme of Monsters; Gender, Sexuality & the Media; and the Stories We Tell are currently being offered as ENG 1 classes. The theme of Monsters is linked to Introduction to Philosophy: The Nature of Philosophy (PHI 8); the theme of Gender Sexuality, & the Media is linked to General Psychology I (PSY 1); and the theme of The Stories We Tell is linked to Introduction to Sociology: Transitions to Adulthood (SOC 1).

Nancy Frye, a Psychology professor and one of five members in the Learning Communities Committee, is currently teaching a PSY 1 class that is linked with an ENG 1 class taught by Laura Angyal, an Adjunct Professor of English. In ENG 1: Gender, Sexuality & the Media, students learn about gender roles, gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and how the media has the ability to socially construct norms regarding these areas. In PSY 1, questions such as how people learn new information, how people perceive and make sense of the world, and how behaviors are defined as normal or abnormal are discussed.

“On some occasions, students won’t see the connection between Psychology and English. If I can help show them that link, that’s what I want to be able to help them with,” Frye said. “[In my PSY 1 class], we just talked about classical conditioning, which is how people make association[s] between certain things, and also operant conditioning, which is how sometimes engaging in [certain] behavior[s] can reinforce you for that behavior, which will cause you to keep doing it.” According to Frye, both of these ideas have relevance to the development of gender roles and gender stereotypes. “That’s a connection that students may not spontaneously think about, but having the courses connected in a learning community, I can help show them the connection.”

“When a student is taking two classes or more classes that are [thematically] linked, both of the professors have worked together to see how their courses relate to one another. They’ve thought out the connections between their courses, and they are actively working together to present the material in ways that demonstrate how those two fields of study are related,” Lutz said.

Professors are encouraged to attend a class in their learning community so that they are able to get a better understanding of how their course relates to the course that they are linked with. “It wouldn’t be unusual to see two professors teaching in a classroom at the same time,” he said. However, students still get credit for two separate classes.”

LIU Post is not the first school to implement learning communities on campus. The educational approach of learning communities have been proven to cause a greater sense of community, belonging, fulfillment of needs, shared events and emotional connections, and a feeling of loyalty to their group, according to a study conducted by David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis, “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory,” in January 1986.

“The concept of learning communities did begin in the 1980’s; however, it has been developing over the past few decades,” Lutz said. “There are still many universities that are in the beginning stages of developing learning communities. New teaching practices sometimes take time to develop and become widely practiced. The growth of learning communities here is based on the [growing] interest of a group of faculty.”

In a traditional college environment, students are usually taught in the form of a lecture with few discussions. “This model is one that has been tried in many places and has actually proven to be effective in studies that have been done – it engages students,” Lutz said. “I personally believe that the most effective way for having people learn is to get them excited about what they are learning, and also to have them [believe] that it’s important.” Lutz continued, “Otherwise, it’s difficult [for a student] to want to learn about something that [they] don’t think is important. I think that the real purpose of offering these themed courses that combine [different] disciplines is to offer classes to students that will spark interest and excitement.”

“I remember my first year in college,” said Jeffrey Kane, LIU’s Vice President of Academic Affairs. “I felt isolated and that nobody cared about me as an individual. A lot of times in an academic setting, people are by themselves. Learning communities promote a sense of belonging for [a] student. A lot of times people think education is information, but it is actually exciting the imagination.”

Since students in the learning communities’ model receive intensive mentoring from professors and are in multiple classes with one another, a sense of familiarity, understanding and closeness can form. “Classes in learning communities are intentionally smaller than regular classes, and they’re designed to promote interaction among students and professors,” said Brian Sweeney, an assistant professor of Sociology, who teaches an Intro to Sociology class that is linked with COLL 1 and ENG 1 with the theme, “The Stories We Tell.”

“Students should expect to get to know one another and should expect to participate in class,” “Rather than sit and listen to a lecture, students should expect to discuss, debate, and analyze actively and collectively. The idea of learning communities is that we ‘learn better together’, and that knowledge is built collectively.”

Smaller classes create an intimate learning environment that promote dialogue and understanding, and allow professors and students to grow together. Learning communities are capped at 20 students, which is also the average class size at LIU Post. However, in traditional classes, sometimes the class capacity is 30 or more. In Professor Sweeney’s SOC 1 class, there are 18 students, and in Professor Angyal’s ENG 1: Gender, Sexuality & the Media class there are only 17 students.

“I’ve been in the position where I have more than one class with somebody,” said Melanie Spina, a junior Sociology major. “I think that you learn better when you’re learning with people who you know. It’s more exciting to attend class every day when there are people [there] that care about you. I’ve never taken a course in a learning community because I didn’t know about it, but if I did, I would have enrolled into one.”

For the Spring 2015 semester, a freshman seminar course will be offered that links General Psychology II, taught by Professor Frye, and Sociology 2, which focuses on the social institutions of New York, taught by Professor Sweeney. However, there will be no sophomore/junior learning communities offered until Fall 2015. “We want students to know about this opportunity and ask about it,” Lutz said. “Courses only run if they gain a certain enrollment. Since we’re trying something new, not a lot of students know about it.”

“I didn’t even know learning communities exist[ed],” said Danielle Sposato, a junior English major. “If I had known about them, I would have definitely asked my advisor about taking classes within a learning community. I know that sometimes students struggle with English, especially when they are not interested in it. With themed English classes, I think that even someone with no interest in English would enjoy it.”

Lutz is enthusiastic about the future of learning communities on campus. “Learning communities at LIU Post are expanding. I’m working on having at least 10 first-year seminars next fall and spring, and at least the same amount of upper level learning communities,” he said. “Students have the tendency to be passive because they feel as if they don’t have any choice. However, as a director of learning communities, I welcome the kind of combinations that students would find interesting.”

If you’d like to know more about learning communities, you can contact Dr. Lutz at john.lutz@liu.edu, or you can contact your promise coach or advisor. If you’d like to read more about learning communities, please visit: http://www.liu.edu/CWPost/Academics/Programs2/ Special, and click on sophomore/junior learning communities and first- year seminars.

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