Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice

multiple curving arrows of different colors to represent a community forming

What used to be an innovative trend in teaching and learning is now a “credible and proven curricular model” (Laufgraben, J. L., & Shapiro, N. S., 2004, p. xiii). Learning communities are high-impact instructional practices that engage people to work together toward a common goal—students working with students, faculty working with faculty within the same discipline or from different disciplines, or students working with faculty. Learning communities can have a “high-impact” on student outcomes through the “integration of learning across courses” and disciplines (LEAP, n.d.). Although each learning community may take on a slightly different focus, they consist of a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in a learning endeavor toward a common goal during a prescribed period of time. The typical time period for a successful learning community in an academic setting is one semester.

A number of characteristics, components, and features have been identified which make up a learning community (Burden, 2003; Cox, M. D., 2007; Iowa State University, 2006; Wilson & Ryder, n.d.; Wojcicki, E. 2002).

  • Membership in the community is often voluntary
  • Members in the community share common goals, objectives, values, and vision
  • Community members share connectedness and trust
  • Community members develop and encourage a supportive learning environment
  • Community members are encouraged to have open and autonomous communication
  • Instructors act primarily as a facilitator and then as a motivating and caring instructor
  • Students assume leadership roles, self-regulated learning, and support everyone in the community

Getting Started with Learning Communities

Consider the following steps to initiate and sustain a high-impact learning community in your own teaching and learning activities (Leigh Smith, MacGregor, Matthews and Gabelnick, 2004).

  1. Seeing the opportunity in the idea through existing models taking place in academic departments, at other institutions, or learning about them from attending conferences.
  2. Establishing a collaborative leadership team by having a willing and able person or persons lead and be responsible for the learning community, which is vital to its success. A faculty member, an administrator, or another individual can serve in this role who can work with the broader leadership team made up of stakeholders in the learning community.
  3. Defining learning community goals will assist in the formation of appropriate activities for successful outcomes and help students learn and promote creativity, vitality, and collaborative cultures. Learning community constituents have different goals and should have students’ learning in mind. Goals will evolve over time and the learning community and everyone connected to it should be open to and learn from changes that can take place.
  4. Choosing a curricular structure that can 1) take place within courses that are unmodified where students enroll in courses together which are not modified on behalf of the community. Students will, however, enroll in another course or courses which integrate and perpetuate the learning community. Learning communities can also be structured in 2) linked or clustered classes, where instructors who teach different courses collaborate to link content to each other’s courses. This structure could link an introductory skill building course to a more content-intense course; link “foundation courses for a major,” to related courses toward a minor; or link general education courses “around an interdisciplinary theme” (Leigh Smith, et al., 2004, p. 77).
  5. Team-taught learning communities are taught by a number of faculty members who can be from the same general discipline (English Composition and American Literature, for example) or from unique disciplines (Humanities, Composition, Art). This structure can be created around a central theme related to a particular content, an academic college, or a problem/issue. Students receive one syllabus which integrates each of the courses around the central theme.
  6. Recruiting students who want classes that are relevant to their interests, fit in their busy academic and personal schedules (fit into a semester rather than longer commitment), “count” toward their academic majors, and can be transferred to other schools. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) suggest that learning community developers consider these points rather than creating a learning community that is interesting to them rather than their students.
  7. Marketing and promoting learning communities through marketing plans that include information about the value of the learning community, how it fits students’ personal and academic needs, and when and where the learning community will take place.
  8. Advising students about transitioning to and functioning within a learning community can act as recruitment efforts. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) suggest that advisers be included when planning learning communities for their perspective on students’ personal, academic, and scheduling needs.
  9. Registration and scheduling strategies that can focus on getting student buy-in to actually commit to a learning community by promoting its purpose, its overall goal, and how students will benefit from it. Leigh Smith et al. (2004) state that learning communities can help students adjust to college life, can assist students in registering for bundled courses, and provide a means to make new friends and study partners.
  10. Assessing student learning using strategies that should be well thought out and start at the beginning of the learning community experience and include both formative (throughout the learning) and summative (at the end of learning) formats. As with any teaching strategy, assessment methods should evaluate the goals and instructional objectives (the purpose of the learning community) and meet the needs of all the stakeholders – the students, the instructors, the administrators, the institution, the curriculum, and any other people who are involved in the learning community.

Learning Community Models at NIU

Leigh Smith et al. (2004) identify four learning community models, all of which are offered in some format at NIU.

  1. Paired or Clustered Courses. The College of Education, for example, requires student cohorts to enroll in courses in their senior semesters, which are sequenced in blocks that allow them to learn through integrated course content.
  2. Cohorts in Large Courses or TLCs (Themed Learning Communities). “Themed Learning Communities are a group of two or three courses taken the same semester and consisting of the same group
    of students [in which they focus] on a common theme across several different classes and disciplines”
    (Northern Illinois University, 2015b, para. 1).
  3. Team-taught Programs. The College of Business offers UBUS 310, Business Core: Lecture, a 9-credit hour course for undergraduate business students. This course is team-taught and introduces “students to the three primary functional areas in business…[with an] emphasis on interdisciplinary application of the business principles, and the cross-functional relationships between functional areas in business” (Northern Illinois University, 2015c, para. 4).
  4. Residence-based Learning Communities. These are models that intentionally link the classroom-based learning community with a residential life component. A sample of NIU Living-Learning Communities include Leadership and Service Community; LGBTQA Community; Fine Arts House; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Careers House; Business Careers House; Fine Arts House; Health House; Health Professions House; and Teacher Education and Certification House. The NIU “Living-Learning Communities promote academic success… [and strengthen] connections between students and faculty within a chosen course of study.” (Northern Illinois University, 2015a, para. 1).


High-imapct learning communities create interdisciplinary learning environments that can assist students in becoming partners in their own learning. Learning communities encourage students to take an active role in their learning through open communication, creative thinking, negotiation, and mutual respect of each member of the community.

(This article was adapted from the Instructional Guide for Faculty and Teaching Assistants found at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/index.shtml)


Burden, P. R. (2003). Classroom management: Creating a successful learning community. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cox, M. D. (2007). Website for developing faculty and professional learning communities (FLCs) to transform campus culture for learning. Retrieved from http://www.units.miamioh.edu/flc/

Iowa State University (2006). Learning Communities. Retrieved from

LEAP (n.d.). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/HIP_tables.pdf

Laufgraben, J. L., & Shapiro, N. S. (2004). Sustaining & improving learning communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leigh Smith, B., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R. S., & Gabelnick, F. (2004). Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Northern Illinois University (2007a). Housing and Dining. Academic residential programs. Retrieved from http://niu.edu/housing/llc/

Northern Illinois University (2007b). Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning. Themed learning communities (TLC). Retrieved from http://www.niu.edu/engagedlearning/themed_learning/pdfs/2015-2016/tlc_fall_15_informational.pdf

Northern Illinois University (2007c). Undergraduate and Graduate Catalogs. UBUS 310. Business Core: Lecture. Retrieved from http://catalog.niu.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=9&poid=1373

Wilson, B., & Ryder, M. (n.d.). Dynamic learning communities: An alternative to designed instructional systems. Retrieved from http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/dlc.html

Wojcicki, E. (2002). Characteristics of an effective classroom culture. Retrieved from http://gallery.carnegiefoundation.org/collections/castl_k12/ewojcicki2/outcomes/characteristics_culture.htm

For more information on Learning Communities, please read the full article in our Instructional Guide for University Faculty and Teaching Assistants at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/guide/index.shtml and refer to the resource list.

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One comment

  1. Couldn’t have asked for anything better today! Thanks for this amazing article. The insights helped me sort out a lot. Made notes and shall be using the tips right away! 🙂

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