Learning Community Partnership Aims to Improve Student Learning, Retention

The Office of First Year Courses is partnering with the Department of English & Theatre at Eastern Kentucky University to enhance student learning and retention.

In a pilot project this fall, First Year Courses and the English department are offering linked sections of ENG 101 and GSD 101 to undeclared students. In addition to the students taking the classes together, faculty members are meeting weekly to discuss curriculum and student concerns. Academic advisers have been assigned to each of the 12 cohorts, and a Housing representative attends the meetings, “so that we can quickly intervene with at-risk students,” according to Erin Barnett, associate director of First Year Courses.

The partnership stems from the university’s commitment to student success, Barnett said.

“We began to explore ways to improve student learning and retention,” she said. “The literature tells us that faculty-student interaction and peer-to-peer interaction are essential components of a student’s institutional commitment, although simply taking classes with the same group of students is not sufficient. That’s why we created opportunities for faculty to collaborate on assignments.”

Through the pilot project, students are taking two required classes with the same peer group and are encouraged to attend out-of-class activities with their classmates and instructors. At the same time, faculty, advisers and housing staff are taking the initiative to meet one on one with students who are demonstrating difficulties in the classroom or adjusting to college life.

“EKU has a reputation of being an institution that cares about the individual student,” Barnett said, “so this project takes that philosophy one step further, with the added benefit of helping students see the connections between their courses.”

On a broader scale, the project is a “true collaboration” between Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Academic Affairs, according to Barnett. In addition to First Year Courses and English & Theatre, several other areas on campus are playing significant roles: Academic Advising, Housing, Student Life, EKU Reads, the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity, and EKU Libraries.

This year’s EKU Reads selection, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat,” by Hal Herzog, is being used to link the curriculum between ENG 101 and GSD 101. The 168 undeclared students are participating in service projects related to animal issues, getting an exclusive small-group session with the author, and will participate at the end of the semester in a “Thoroughbred Racing Symposium,” at which administrators and other campus partners will serve as judges.

“The Racing Symposium is an opportunity for the learning community students to demonstrate their critical thinking and communication skills to the campus community,” Barnett said. “This final, culminating project in GSD 101 is an example of integrative learning between the English class and the Student Success Seminar. In addition to reading the book, students are writing essays, participating in discussions and conducting library research related to animal ethics.”

One outcome observed already is improved class attendance. “It has also played a role in classroom dynamics,” Barnett noted, “with students interacting with each other more.”

Dr. Kevin Rahimzadeh, associate chair of the Department of English & Theatre, said: “Our English 101 instructors have been enormously pleased, so far, with the pilot program. Nearly to a person, they see higher levels of student community and classroom participation. One instructor has even gone so far to say that his learning community class is the best he has ever taught in nearly two decades of composition instruction.”

Barnett said that plans call for expanding the program to additional departments in Fall 2013.

"At the end of the day, we hope that by participating in the learning community and building relationships with other students, faculty and advisers, these students will be more likely to graduate from EKU in four years,” Barnett said. “By getting them off to a strong start with an established support network, we hope they will feel at home at Eastern. Besides retention, we also hope the students will be more comfortable working with faculty, more likely to get involved on campus, more likely to see connections between the subject matter of their courses, and know where to go when they are struggling academically or socially.”

Published on September 24, 2012