Peer Review, Fall 2001
The Challenge of Learning Communities
as a Growing National Movement
By Barbara Leigh Smith, Co-Director National
Learning Communities Project, Evergreen State College
Learning communities have become a growing national movement.1
Four or five hundred colleges and universities now offer them,
and the number continues to increase. They are found in virtually
every state, in both public and private colleges and universities,
and in a diverse range of institutions. Learning communities
are a broad structural innovation that can address a variety
of issues from student retention to curriculum coherence,
from faculty vitality to building a greater sense of community
within our colleges. On some campuses, the learning community
effort is very large; on others, it is small. On most, it
is fragile, even if it has been in place for several years.
At this juncture it's appropriate to ask why learning communities
have become so pervasive and what challenges this growing
national movement faces. These questions are timely for learning
communities are at a transition point. On the early adopting
campuses, they are facing classic second-stage reform effort
issues of succession and institutionalization, and the movement
itself faces challenges as it becomes larger and more diffuse.
How and Why Learning Communities Became Pervasive
The learning community movement has numerous roots and branches
and a long history of start-up, failure, and rebirth at another
time and place. The basic ideas underlying learning communities
are not new. The roots lie in the 1920s with the establishment
of a short-lived program at the University of Wisconsin, the
Meiklejohn Experimental College (see Brown 1981; Cronon and
Jenkins 1994; Powell 1981). The seeds of many of the current
value conflicts that threaten learning communities were sown
in this earlier time.
Meiklejohn lived in a time when the elective system became
popular and research-focused specialized academic departments
were gaining ascendancy. Meiklejohn thought the structure
and values of the emergent research university were becoming
antithetical to the task of preparing students for democratic
citizenship, a goal integral to the very notion of public
education. He saw the division of the curriculum into smaller
and smaller units of credit and the growth of specialized
academic departments as critical structural issues that would
ultimately drive both relationships between students and faculty
and the content of the curriculum. He predicted that narrow
departments would make it difficult to raise important interdisciplinary
issues and the fragmented nature of the curriculum would frustrate
committed teachers trying to create a sense of deep engagement
and community. "General education" (education for citizenship),
he rightly surmised, would become nobody's business.
Meiklejohn's solution was to establish the "Experimental
College," an interdisciplinary, team-taught, two-year lower
division curriculum focusing on democracy. The curriculum
was both historical and contemporary, looking at the roots
of democracy and the issues facing twentieth-century America.
The Experimental College tried to build community and create
a seamless interface between the living and learning environment.
The pedagogy stressed active learning, seminars, and assignments
that asked students to put the theory they studied into practice,
a radical notion at the time. Teachers were seen as advisors
and facilitators of learning rather than as distant figures
on a lectern.
It was not an easy sell. Enrollment was lower than anticipated.
The students were often seen as unruly, and Meiklejohn and
the faculty spent much time fighting the values and power
structure of the university. Despite being a favorite of the
new president of the university, the program was abandoned
after five years. Although it didn't last very long, the program
had an enormous impact on its students. Recent histories describe
it as a high point in the university's history, referring
to it as "Camelot on the Lake" (Cronon and Jenkins 1994).
The next major chapter in learning community history is
in the 1960s when the higher education system nearly doubled
in size and the community college system was broadly established.
This was a time of innovation with various experiments with
structure. Cluster colleges were one attempt to humanize the
scale of higher education and promote community. Many traditional
institutions established innovative programs and sub-colleges
such as the residential college at Michigan, the Centennial
Program at the University of Nebraska, and Fairhaven College
within Western Washington University. Innovative new colleges
were also founded including the Evergreen State College, the
University of California-Santa Cruz, and Empire State College.
Interdisciplinary approaches were an important aspect of
these innovations, but only a few significantly altered traditional
organizational structures. As a result, they often contained
internal contradictions and faced substantial compatibility
challenges as they developed. Very few survived into the 1990s
with their founding values intact. Throughout this period,
there was debate about whether these innovations could scale-up
and become cost effective. This issue remained unsettled until
well into the 1980s when institutions like the Evergreen State
College proved that they could. Meanwhile, mainstream institutions
picked off their innovations, broadly appropriating ideas
such as student-centered learning, writing across the curriculum,
active learning, and interdisciplinary programs.
Several of the most important programs in this era were
in California. In the mid-1960's the Meiklejohn model was
resurrected by a former student, Joseph Tussman, at the University
of California-Berkeley and at San Jose State College by Merv
Cadwallader, a friend of Tussman's. These programs were also
short-lived but they became seedbeds for future endeavors.
Cadwallader carried the idea to a number of other institutions,
including The Evergreen State College. Tussman wrote an eloquent
account of the rationale for curricular restructuring in his
book Experiment at Berkele (now reprinted as The
Beleaguered College, 1997).
Learning communities resurfaced with the establishment of
the Evergreen State College, a new institution holistically
designed around the structural notions underlying the Meiklejohn-Tussman
integrated curriculum (for an account of this see Jones 1981;
Jones and Smith 1984; Smith and McCann 2001). About five years
later, a number of institutions on the east coast, notably
SUNY Stony Brook and La Guardia Community College also developed
new curricular restructuring models. These adaptations made
the idea of learning communities applicable to a broader range
of institutions, especially research universities and community
colleges. Patrick Hill, then at SUNY Stony Brook, was passionate
about the growing social and intellectual atomism and the
mismatched expectations between students and faculty in research
universities, but he was also a pragmatist who appreciated
incremental change and local adaptations.
There was a joining of the East and West Coast learning
community effort when Hill became provost of the Evergreen
State College in 1983. The momentum for learning communities
dramatically increased in 1985 with the establishment of the
Washington Center for Undergraduate Education at the Evergreen
State College. Led by Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor,
the Center helped develop and disseminate a language about
learning communities along with a variety of models that could
be locally adapted. It became a support system for people
interested in learning communities.
A number of other factors contributed to the pervasive reach
of the learning community effort. The significant research
of Vince Tinto, a major figure in the area of student retention,
was critical. In the early 1990's Tinto undertook a major
study of the impact of learning communities and collaborative
learning (Radcliff and Associates 1995). He looked at the
learning community programs at two very different institutions-the
University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College-producing
the first in-depth study. The results clearly demonstrated
their effectiveness and showed that involving and academically
challenging campus environments could be purposefully built
on commuter campuses. At the same time, Alexander Astin's
important book, What Matters in College, appeared.
Between Astin and Tinto, both the dimensions of the problem
of undergraduate education and some solutions were
offered. The leadership of people such as Astin, Tinto, Peter
Ewell, John Gardner, Carol Schneider, and Pat Cross was also
important in spreading the word about learning communities.
They spoke to different audiences in academic and student
affairs, in research universities and community colleges,
and broadened the reach of the learning community effort.
The last fifteen years have been a time of broad discussion
about teaching and learning. Many powerful pedagogies have
emerged on the national landscape: service learning, assessment,
writing across the curriculum, inquiry-based approaches to
the sciences, multicultural education, collaborative and cooperative
learning, and problem-centered learning, to mention just a
few. These reform efforts have a common aim of promoting active
learning and what has been referred to as "deep learning."
Numerous funding agencies and national organizations and conferences
have supported these teaching and learning reform efforts
and featured learning community work over the last decade.
Many innovations fail to develop broad reach simply because
they become too intramural, operating in isolation of potentially
related enterprises. What's notable about the learning community
effort is that it has often joined forces with these other
efforts, providing a broader structural platform for implementing
these other powerful pedagogies. This has both deepened learning
community pedagogy and aims, and broadened the audience and
base of potential allies. This could go further.
Recently, regional nodes of leadership have started to emerge
beyond the early adopters. Delta College in Michigan and William
Rainey Harper College in Illinois now jointly sponsor an annual
learning community conference, and several convening campuses
are now emerging in California. An extensive relationship
has been established between IUPUI, George Mason University,
Portland State University, and Temple University and other
urban universities. A National Learning Community Project
at the Evergreen State College funded by Pew Charitable Trusts
should deepen this trend toward regional collaboration.
Learning Communities Past and Present
The history of learning communities is an evolving story of
reformers and innovators doing their work. It is a story about
the power of personal commitments and relationships in building
reform efforts. It is also a story about the power of institutional
structures, processes, and value systems in shaping our institutions.
There is continuity over time with a number of themes in this
learning community history. The themes of democracy, access,
and classrooms as community particularly stand out. Early
learning communities dating back to the early twentieth century
were concerned with the role schools play in preparing students
for responsible citizenship. The question "education for what"
was at the forefront. This influenced the curriculum content
and the educational practices. Early learning communities
were also concerned about making higher education widely available.
These were not enclaves for the elite. Continuing to expand
access was seen as critical to the evolving American experiment
Another way to look at this history is to note that, across
these generations of leaders, we also see dramatically different
leadership styles, organizational strategies, and settings.
Learning communities in the latter part of the twentieth century
are characterized by collaborative leadership models-models
which came in with the feminist movement, the civil rights
movements, and the reform efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.
There has been a shift towards movement thinking and community
organizing strategies in the contemporary learning community
movement. The effort is more purposefully inter-institutional
with the rapid dissemination of ideas and strategies across
institutions. There is also a systematic effort to build bridges
to related enterprises and to broaden leadership across the
movement. In many institutions the learning community effort
has become robust precisely because the organizers have been
savvy about working with the existing organizational structures
and adapting them to their needs.
The Challenges Learning Communities Face
While the learning community movement is certainly succeeding
by some measures-if only sheer size, it also faces significant
challenges. The most obvious challenge is that of transition
and succession as the early adopters move on. All institutions
face this challenge. Other challenges are deeper and perhaps
more important. I will close by briefly describing four: the
challenge of student learning and faculty development; the
challenge of diversity, the challenge of institutional change,
and the challenge of purpose.
The Challenge of Student Learning and Faculty Development
We know that learning communities can be a powerful platform
for both student learning and faculty development. We need
to figure out better ways to put what we know about student
learning into our learning community designs. Unless learning
communities build upon the best approaches to student learning,
the structural changes will only produce minimal improvements.
Too many learning communities are little more than block registration
devices, with little alteration of the teaching and learning
Learning communities across the nation are under-investing
in faculty development. So it isn't surprising that pedagogical
approaches have changed little. With the imminent retirement
of about half of the nation's faculty, this is a very good
time to invest extensively in faculty development and to rethink
the ways in which we support the development of excellent
teachers. Learning communities can be a powerful faculty development
structure, especially if they involve team teaching or team
planning, which provides a natural setting for the day-to-day
coaching that can lead to genuine growth and development.
There is no shortage of good literature to draw upon. John
Bransford's book How People Learn or Lionel Gardner's
Redesigning Higher Education for Dramatic Gains in Student
Learning are good places to start.
The Challenge of Diversity
The challenge of diversity is a multifaceted issue about who
participates in learning communities (students and faculty),
what the curriculum is and where it is located, and how the
teaching and learning environments are structured. Learning
communities continue to struggle to address the multiple issues
of diversity. At the same time, they have great promise. We
know that they can provide a powerful means of serving an
increasingly diverse student population. Some schools have
used them strategically to address serious retention issues
in parts of the curriculum that are not serving students well.
Many schools are targeting learning communities on developmental
education since this is a graveyard for too many students.
These efforts often lead to dramatically improved student
The Challenge of Institutional Change
If the learning community movement is to have lasting impact,
the challenge of institutional change needs serious attention.
Across the nation we see persistent weaknesses in terms of
leadership structures, resource investments, faculty development,
real curriculum integration, assessment, and pedagogical change.
Effectively addressing institutional change requires a more
comprehensive point of view. Eventually the learning community
effort must move from being an innovation or an interesting
project to being a reform. Being a reform requires
structural change, reworking roles and relationships, and
generally re-engineering the organization so that learning
communities are appropriately supported.
The Challenge of Purpose
Learning communities often begin in a flurry of enthusiasm
without clear goals or planning. There's nothing wrong with
this; it is typical of innovations. But if the effort is to
last and have a significant impact, the institution needs
to eventually come to a common understanding about their goals
and organize appropriately to support them. The question I
want to raise here is about whether our vision is large enough.
Learning communities re-emerged in the last twenty years
in a period of rapid expansion of the higher education system
and a climate of widespread experimentation with new approaches
to teaching and learning. At the same time, the education
system as a whole has come under increasing public scrutiny.
This is a time of rising criticism outside the academy and
also a time of growing crisis within the nation's colleges
and universities. At no time have the questions "education
for what" and "education for whom" been more pressing.
The learning community effort now stands at a crossroads,
at the institutional level and as a national movement. As
it is now a large-scale effort, pointed questions need to
be raised about how quality can be maintained and strengthened
as this endeavor continues to scale-up. If we look back at
earlier learning communities, it is very clear what they were
about. They had big goals in terms of their vision of society
and the role of the academy. They saw learning communities
as a means for developing the capacity to live in a democratic
society. Now, these very issues are being raised again in
a variety of ways -through the service learning movement,
through the multifaceted diversity work, and through the larger
national conversations about the direction of higher education.
The learning community movement is poised to be a major player
in this conversation. By re-engaging some of these fundamental
issues of purpose and squarely facing the multiple challenges,
today's learning communities may find new strength.
1 As we use it, the term "learning community"
refers to the purposeful restructuring of the curriculum
by linking or clustering courses that enroll a common cohort
of students. This represents an intentional structuring
of the students time, credit, and learning experiences to
build community, and foster more explicit connections among
students, faculty, and disciplines (Gabelnick, MacGregor,
Mathews, and Smith).
Brown, Cynthia Stokes, ed. 1981. Alexander Meilkejohn:
Teacher of Freedom. Berkeley: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties
Cronon, E. David and John W. Jenkins. 1994. The University
of Wisconsin: A History 1925-1945. Vol. 3. Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press.
Gabelnick, F., J. MacGregor, R. Matthews, and Barbara Leigh
Smith. 1990. Learning Communities. San Francisco:
Jones, R. and Barbara Leigh Smith. 1984. Against the
Current: Reform and Experimentation in Higher Education.
Cambridge, Mass. Schenkman Press.
Jones, R. Experiment at Evergreen. 1981. Cambridge,
Mass.: Schenkman Press.
Powell, John Walker, ed. The Experimental College.
1981. Cabin John, Md.: Seven Locks Press.
Ratcliff and Associates. 1995. Realizing the Potential:
Improving Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment.
Penn State University: National Center on Postsecondary
Teaching, Learning and Assessment.
Smith, Barbara Leigh and J. McCann, eds. 2001. Re-Inventing
Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning
and Experimentation in Higher Education. Bolton, Mass.:
Tussman, Joseph. 1997. The Beleaguered College: Essays
on Education Reform. University of California: Institute
of Governmental Studies Press.