Integrating Learning Communities into the Classroom

In the first week of the semester, I noticed something odd in one of my classes. Rather than spreading out over the entire room, as students usually do, a large group of students clustered together on the left side of the room. All females, this group seemed to be self-contained, and staked out a clearly defined space of their own. The other students—about half a dozen—sat scattered in the seats on the right. Things felt lopsided.

I quickly learned that this group of students all shared the same major. This, I thought, explains their cohesion. They paid attention, but seemed hesitant in their responses and maybe a bit guarded.

During the first week I realized I would need to create a unified class that would engage both sides of the room. Given the shyness of the students on the right, I worried that I might pay the cohesive side too much attention. I also sensed that it might not be a good idea to force a separation immediately. Their solidarity seemed important. I didn’t want to disrupt their comfort zone right away.

I remember telling a colleague about the group one day in September when we were comparing notes. “It’s like they’re surrounded by a force field,” I said. “I can’t explain it.”

While I gained the attention of the group and managed to navigate the class dynamics, I still didn’t learn the extent of the group’s connection until weeks later. One student then volunteered that they comprised a learning community, which meant that they all lived together, took all of the same classes together, and shared vocational goals. This seemed ideal, in some ways, for a college freshman—power in numbers—an automatic peer group with which to confer about assignments and career issues.

After I found out about the learning community, the students and I had a short discussion about its merits. They agreed that it was enormously helpful. One concern I had was that the students would not experience as much social variety in their classrooms, but they said there were plenty of other opportunities to socialize outside of class. The homogeneity ultimately seemed a small price to pay for the security of having a defined peer group, especially as first-year students.

Finally, I found a strategy that seemed to congeal the class. First, I had students form groups away from their usual seatmates. They counted off in numbers 1-4 which forced them to move around. This worked well. The students finally mixed and the small group work that day was much more lively. Interestingly, before I created these numbered groups the learning community never ventured to the other side and vice-versa. It was as if they belonged to separate countries, the divide seemed so impermeable.

I also conducted “mini conferences” to touch base with each student. It was too early in the semester for regular conferences, so I briefly discussed developing drafts individually while the rest of the class worked on a their own projects. After these conversations, I noticed a major shift in the class. The learning community no longer felt like one large student but rather a group of individuals. In just five minutes of talking, we at least had one conversation in common, and discussions felt more open.

I wondered what other strategies I would have used if I’d known about the learning community before the first day of class. Would I have designed a few lessons differently? Different icebreakers maybe? I’ve had classes full of students who have known each other and other classes full of strangers. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Even though most first-year writing courses are collaborative, writing ultimately involves a solitary relationship to the page. The final work is the work of each student and each student alone. To progress, a student ultimately must separate, in some sense, from the pack, to identify his or her own learning points and strengths. In the case of this particular class, I felt that to truly have a “new pair of eyes” on their own drafts, the learning community students needed to mix with the others, and each student needed to work as an individual.

Now that we’re nearing the final weeks of the semester, I’ve finally gotten to know each student a bit more, even though the strong learning community group dynamic remains. I had a wonderful conversation this week with one of the students in this community during conferences and was happy to see that she seems to have developed her own distinctive voice in the class.

Do learning communities in writing courses present unique challenges? Have any of you taught classes that were difficult to unify?


6 thoughts on “Integrating Learning Communities into the Classroom

  1. I’ve had a lot of experience teaching classes with learning communities and usually find them to be quite a positive experience, actually. The sense of community and shared experiences/interests of the students are elements that I can usefully draw on for running the classroom in general and for generating material that I can use in discussions (and, sometimes, assignments).

    I’ve never had the problem that you did, Tara, whether dealing with learning communities or not, likely due to a combination of things that I do. For one, I am very open about both my pedagogical choices and what I see going on in the functioning of the classroom, largely because I think that causes students to think more critically about what they do. So, in the situation you described, I would have pointed out their physical placement to the students as soon as I’d noticed it and, if I found that it persisted, teased them about it. On different days, as I positioned myself in different locations in the classroom (which I do), I would have pointed out that I could have moved them but was not doing so, instead moving myself so they have to change their perspective a bit. And when I did things to break them up, as you did, I would point out precisely what I was doing and why I was doing so.

    In my experience, the above approach, which I have done not only in multiple classes at MSU but at other institutions too, works perfectly. Students feel that I respect them in sharing my choices, aims and plans with them. It makes them more comfortable in the classroom space and, hence, also makes them much more willing to drop the barriers (or, to use your term, force fields). This semester, for example, in both of my classes where I had clusters of students forming early in the semester, before we were midway through the semester, of their own volition people came into the classroom and sat in different places. They invariably did so while commenting on it, saying something like, “See, Shil – I’m not sitting over there any more! Now you can’t tease me about it!” and joking about how different the class was in a different location and with different people around them. When students formed the same group as always when doing group work, without me even mentioning it, they would say, “I know, I know–I promise we’ll switch it up next time.” And the next time we did group work, they themselves (sometimes impelled by teasing from other students, who pointed out what was said previously even before I did) moved to different groups and positions, without me having to do anything.

    In short, my solution is two-fold: be completely transparent about my pedagogical choices and, in doing so, get the students involved as allies whom I explicitly want to have engaged in making the classroom work, just as I am. Or, more specifically, in the situation you described, I would have shared everything that you mentioned in the post above with my students. In my experience, as noted, it works extremely well.

    • Thanks, Shil, for sharing your experiences and tactics regarding learning communities. It was very helpful. I didn’t mention this in the article, but there was some gentle teasing about their placement, especially as it was so obvious. Perhaps my explanation of moving the students around could have been clearer and maybe I could have been more persistent in nudging them to mix–all things to ponder over the break in preparation for next semester! Thanks for mentioning your own transparency about methodology. I usually take a similar route but since this was my first semester here I may have been less transparent than usual. –Tara

  2. Nice post, Tara. I also had a learning community in my class this semester, though I must confess it was not anything like you describe. This group of students in my class shared some classes outside of college writing. They would sit together in a cluster, and I would often hear them talk about the other class. Any group work that I would assign, they would work among themselves. Fortunately, I had already planned on using a round robin peer review activity, and I found that that activity was a perfect way to break the ice with this group. I realized that by using this peer review session I could make this group of students see things beyond the confines of their group.

    On the peer review day of the first draft of their second essay, I had my students leave their paper and the peer review worksheet at their workstation and move one place to the right. After the students had read that classmate’s paper and answered the focused questions under a specific category on the peer review worksheet, they had to move one more time to the right, read another paper, and answer the questions under another category. Each time, the reviewer had to write his or her name on the allotted space for each round of questions, which I had developed following the grading rubric. By the time they were done, the students had finished reading five papers and answering five rounds of questions. But more importantly, they had moved from one end of the room to the other.

    At the end of the session, I asked them what they found different about this peer review session. They answered that they had to move without passing along the papers, they got to read multiple papers, and that they had to focus on specific areas of different papers each time. I asked them to look around the room from the seat where they had ended up, and they all responded that they now had a different perspective of their position vis-à-vis the room. I explained to them that the intention of the workshop was to make them familiar with the grading rubric and what was expected of them, have them read multiple papers of their peers so that they had a different perspective of how each one of them approached the same topic, and more importantly, to enable them to have a different perspective of the classroom setting. I also made them aware that almost every time students occupy the same chair that they picked the first day of class. Using this exercise, I encouraged them to experiment by choosing different partners for their group work, by moving to different location in the classroom as they chose partners to work with, and even by picking a different chair to sit in for a change.

    I will have to say, I did manage to make some of the students in the group become more adventurous in seeking out working partners, even to the extent of traveling across the room to work with a fellow student. But the learning community group dynamic has continued, but I do not think it has hurt the class dynamic.

    • What a great idea, Jeevan, and easy to execute. I will try this next semester! Thank you for reading and for your response!

  3. Tara, thanks for opening up this discussion of learning communities! I have a few observations/experiences to add:

    First, in general, my experience is that, as others have mentioned above, learning communities do lend to a kind of intimacy and comfort-level in the class that usually takes more time to develop when students do not already know each other or see a lot of each other outside of my class. However, while I’ve never seen such a clear divide before as Tara has, I have felt that learning communities aren’t ideal when all but one or two students in the class are in one together. That is, I’ve had classes in the past where all but two students knew each other well, had other classes together, etc., and the two non-learning community students simply felt left out a bit–if from nothing other than the sense of camaraderie in the classroom that took shape in general chit-chat, inside jokes, etc. It seemed difficult for them to make their way “in” to the larger group on a social level.

    Second, I tried something new this semester: I created a new syllabus around the topic of one of my class’s learning communities: Biology. There’s a Biology chapter in From Inquiry to Academic Writing–I had never used it before so I figured why not? (Selfishly, this gave me an opportunity to try out new readings and essay topics.) These readings do not discuss Biology in the ways that my students’ biology classes likely do (they’re not very scientific), but they do raise lots of interesting questions about the relationship between biology and culture in ways that seemed to help my students think about biology in new or different ways. Also, I paired the biology chapter readings with readings from other chapters, on topics including education and media, and these helped expand our approach to the biology topics. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we deliberately cater to students’ interests or majors, but it was a fun experiment and overall, the students responded well–not only were they a bit more engaged in the readings than I usually see, but they started drawing meaningful connections between our discussions and those in their other classes, which is always rewarding (for me and for them!). Also, it might be worth noting that my other learning community this semester (Leadership) didn’t seem at all slighted by the topic of the course (I used the same syllabus for both). Because the primary biology topic was enhanced with other issues, both groups seemed equally challenged with the not-so-obvious connections between the readings.

    Lastly, one semester a few years ago I had a particularly challenging experience with learning communities. I was teaching two sections of 105: one section was a learning community of English majors; the other was Physical Education majors. As you can guess, there was a major difference in these two sections! Indeed, there were such striking differences between the two: the English majors were more serious students, almost always prepared, and though Freshman, had likely been strong English students in high school, which meant that they enjoyed reading, reading critically, having discussions about the readings, and that their writing was pretty good if not strong. The Phys Ed majors were something of a mixed bag: there were a couple of very hardworking students who were always well-prepared and put in tremendous effort into their work, but most of the students were pretty lackadaisical and were consistently underprepared for discussions, etc. Further, the Phys Ed majors, for the most part, didn’t have the critical reading and thinking skills that the former group did. Really, each group was on the opposite end of the spectrum (put plainly, one was above-average, the other below-average). (I have to include here that I enjoyed each group individually, regardless of how they compared!)

    Though I had initially planned to use the same daily plans, I quickly realized that this wouldn’t work. I found that it took me twice as long with the Phys Ed majors to effectively get through activities that I had completed first in my class of English majors. Although I always adapt my teaching to each individual group of students, this is usually less drastic than it needed to be in this particular semester. I found with the Phys Ed learning community that I needed to slow my pace pretty substantially when we discussed the course readings and essay assignments. I also needed to spend more one-on-one time with this group (which I was happy to do, but hadn’t been prepared for at the start of the semester). Overall, this was a real learning experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forget it since I really had to shift gears mid-semester. However challenging, this experience helped me think about learning communities in a new context–not just within one classroom, but between multiple classrooms. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a similarly disparate pair of learning communities, but if I do, at least I’m better prepared for what to expect!

    • Thank you, Tatum, for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Wow–I can see how such your two disparate groups would have been so challenging. And yes, I sense that those few non-l.c. students feel sort of left out. I’ll be more prepared as well, especially with so many new ideas!

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