Learning Communities

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Learning Communities

Led by researchers from MDRC, NCPR is evaluating learning communities, in which groups of students enroll together in two or more courses. The evaluation is being conducted at six community colleges around the country, with some colleges' programs focused on developmental math, others focused on developmental English or reading, and one with a career focus. These courses are linked with student success courses, other developmental courses, or college content courses in different configurations across the sites. Transcript-level data are being used to evaluate the impact of assigning students to a learning community, using a number of outcome measures that include progress through developmental education, credit accumulation, and persistence.

Study intake began in mid-2007 and was completed in September 2009. The participating colleges have operated 161 learning communities over the course of the project, and nearly 7,000 students have been randomly assigned. A report titled Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community Colleges(PDF) discusses strategies that colleges used to expand their programs while working to improve their quality. Evaluation findings from one college were released in a June 2010 report titled Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Reading: An Impact Study at Hillsborough Community College(PDF). The learning communities at this site became more comprehensive over the course of the study. While Hillsborough's learning communities program did not have a meaningful impact on students' academic success for the full sample, evidence suggests that the program had modest positive impacts on some educational outcomes for the third (fall 2008) cohort of students. 

The most recent findings from this study are presented in Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Math: Impact Studies at Queensborough and Houston Community Colleges (PDF). Students in these learning communities attempted and passed their developmental math classes at higher rates than students in a control group, and they began the next semester a step ahead in the math sequence. However, in the one or two semesters following, program participation impacts on developmental math progress were far less evident, and neither college's learning communities program had an impact on persistence in college or cumulative credits earned.

Results from the other sites will be released over the next year.  In 2012 a final report will be released, presenting further follow-up on the impact of learning communities on students' educational outcomes, and synthesizing the findings across all six colleges.

For more information, please contact Dr. Mary Visher at 510-844-2247.


The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education: A Synthesis of Findings from Six Community Colleges. By: Mary G. Visher, Michael J. Weiss, Evan Weissman, Timothy Rudd, and Heather D. Wathington, with Jedediah Teres and Kelley Fong (July 2012). 
This is the final report of an impact study on one-semester learning communities and includes findings from analyses that pool data across five project programs as well as the results for developmental education students at a sixth program at Kingsborough Community College, operated earlier under MDRC's Opening Doors demonstration. Across the six programs, almost 7,000 students were randomly assigned, about half into 174 learning communities, and tracked for three semesters. On average, the programs produced a modest impact on credits earned. Full Report (PDF) | Executive Summary (PDF)

Breaking New Ground: An Impact Study of Career-Focused Learning Communities at Kingsborough Community College. By: Mary G. Visher and Jedediah Teres, with Phoebe Richman (July 2011). 

The low completion rates of students in community colleges have been well documented. Among students who enroll in community colleges hoping to earn a credential or transfer to a four-year institution, only about half achieve this goal within six years. Many factors contribute to these low success rates, including lack of financial support, lack of motivation and direction, competing demands from family and jobs, and inadequate college-readiness skills. In an effort to address some of those barriers and to increase the number of students who achieve their education and career goals, community colleges are turning increasingly to learning communities -'" in which cohorts of students are coenrolled in two or sometimes three courses that are linked by a common theme and are taught by a team of instructors who collaborate with each other around the syllabi and assignments. Full Report (PDF) | Executive Summary (PDF) |Download the Brief Version

Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Math: Impact Studies at Queensborough and Houston Community Colleges. 
By: Evan Weissman, Kristin F. Butcher, Emily Schneider, Jedediah Teres, Herbert Collado, and David Greenberg, with Rashida Welbeck (February 2011). 

Learning communities, which co-enroll small groups of students into linked courses, are a popular strategy for helping developmental students at community colleges succeed. This report examines the impacts of one-semester learning communities for developmental math students at Queensborough Community College and Houston Community College. At both colleges, students in learning communities attempted and passed their developmental math class at higher rates than students in a control group. However, this impact generally did not translate into increased cumulative progress in math by the end of two or three semesters. Download the PDF | Download the Brief Version


Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Reading: An Impact Study at Hillsborough Community College. By: Michael J. Weiss, Mary G. Visher, and Heather Wathington with Jed Teres and Emily Schneider (June 2010).
This report presents results from a rigorous random assignment study of a basic learning community program at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa Bay, Florida. Hillsborough is one of six community colleges participating in NCPR's Learning Communities Demonstration, whose goal is to determine whether learning communities are an effective strategy for helping students who need developmental education. Hillsborough's learning communities co-enrolled three cohorts of students (for a total of 1,071), in groups of around 20 students, into a developmental reading course and a "college success" course. Findings from this study show that overall, the learning communities program did not have a meaningful impact on students' academic success; however, the program became more comprehensive over time, and evidence suggests that it had positive impacts on the educational outcomes for the third cohort of students. Download the Full Report (PDF)* | Download the Executive Summary (PDF) | Download the Brief Version

*Note: A corrected version of this report was posted on August 5, 2010. As originally posted, in Table 2.2 on page 17 and in the text on page 18 there was an error in the reporting of the sample who were the first person in their family to attend college. These numbers should have read: 31.1 percent of the full sample, 29.6 percent of the program group, and 34.0 percent of the control group. 

Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community CollegesBy: Mary Visher, Emily Schneider, Heather Wathington, and Herbert Collado (April 2010).
The Learning Communities Demonstration is a large-scale, random assignment evaluation of learning community programs at six community colleges being conducted by the National Center for Postsecondary Research and MDRC. During the first year of the demonstration, all six colleges expanded their learning community programs and, in the process, faced similar challenges in selecting courses to link, recruiting and supporting faculty, filling the learning communities with eligible students, and helping faculty use instructional strategies such as curricular integration to enhance learning. By spring 2009, the colleges operated more than 130 learning communities serving around 3,000 students. This report describes the strategies the colleges used to scale up their programs while working to improve their quality, and the many complex challenges that are likely to be faced by any community college intent on scaling up effective learning communities--including scheduling, faculty engagement with and approach to teaching, and balancing developmental courses with traditional college-level courses. Download the PDF
The Learning Communities Demonstration:  Rationale, Sites, and Research Design (An NCPR Working Paper) By: Mary G. Visher, Heather Wathington, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, and Emily Schneider with Oscar Cerna, Christine Sansone, and Michelle Ware  (May 2008).

Learning communities are a popular strategy that community colleges nationwide have embraced in support of developmental students. In a learning community, a cohort of students takes two or more courses linked by integrated themes and assignments that are developed through ongoing faculty collaboration. While the number of learning community programs continues to grow, rigorous studies measuring their effectiveness are limited. To address this need for evidence, the Learning Communities demonstration, launched in 2007, uses random assignment to test models of learning communities at six community colleges. This working paper describes the study's design, including a summary of the theoretical and empirical research relevant to learning communities, descriptions of the sites and their learning community models, the random assignment procedures, and plans for data analysis. Download the PDF



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