This essay aims to evaluate and review the student retention policies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (JJC) and the Queensborough Community College (QCC) in the light of Vincent Tinto's (1998) widely cited theory.
Learning communities were introduced at the Queensborough Community College (QCC) in the academic year 2001-02. Soon, there were eighteen learning communities at QCC with a maximum of twenty five students enrolled in each. The project targeted incoming freshmen and returning students with fewer than 15 credits who had been placed into developmental classes. Interested students were randomly assigned to the learning communities program, which included linked classes (with a focus on developmental math).
In the mid 1980s, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is a branch of the City University of New York (CUNY), was experiencing problems with retaining entering freshman students. The students were quitting following a semester of study or after one year of study. A special committee was created, which agreed to establish a pilot program they called Linkage. R. Grappone writes on the design of this learning community, in a 1987 article, “The basic logistics entailed block-registering the students. The groups were to travel together through three courses in different areas...Instructors were asked to coordinate assignments, where possible, with the hope of each link in the chain enhancing its counterpart. Since these students were targeted due to various factors associated with freshman retention, librarians on the John Jay staff provided the structural and intellectual support these students needed.” (Robert, 1987). As an added support component, a part-time librarian’s position was created for the program, which served as a liaison between the various groups. This so-called “Freshman Librarian” would operate from the library as a combination research advisor, academic counselor and tutor for the students. Equally important, Grappone, who accepted the job of Freshman Librarian at JJC, also stressed to these students the importance of comprehending and utilizing the library as an integral part of their education. The underlying target of the librarians as well as the administrators and instructors was achieved. The success of the Linkage program became apparent following its first semester. In all the classes that took part, instructors found grade point averages significantly higher than in non-linked classes. Student registration the next spring showed a higher percentage of re-registration than among the non-linked students. Furthermore, Grappone elaborated how the interaction and increased responsibilities coupled with the influence in shaping assignments created the integrated approach sought by many academic librarians. The enthusiasm of the participating faculty and the benefits to the students helped make that model program a viable tool for putting to use in student retention programs.
Vincent Tinto’s Learning Communities Model:
The model states that, in their most elementary status, learning communities are a type of block scheduling or co-registration that allows students to pursue courses together. The same students enroll for two or more courses, forming a kind of study team. In some cases, usually referred to as "linked courses", students will register in two courses together, most likely a course in math or writing with a course in science or, in the case of writing, a course in selected literature. In larger universities, starting students may take two or more lecture classes with two hundred to three hundred other students but stay together for a smaller discussion section or what is commonly referred to as a Freshman Interest Group. In other cases, students enroll together in three or more courses in which they themselves constitute the entire class. They therefore become a "community of learners" all of whose members are studying the same material.
Learning communities are usually set up around a central theme which connects the courses. The aim of doing so is to ensure that the sharing of a curriculum grants students a coherent interdisciplinary experience that encourages more profound learning than is possible in stand alone courses.
How CUNY is Using Learning Communities?
Queensborough Community College:
A Learning Community at QCC consists of two or three courses linked together. The classes are designed with a common theme in mind or, as in the case of courses in specialized majors, based on courses that strengthen the students’ requirements or individual needs. Students who take one course are automatically registered for the other. The teachers who hold these courses overlap course material in order to introduce concepts in both of the courses, in the context of different disciplines. This approach helps in better understanding of course material for most students.
A first or second semester student at QCC whose placement test results qualify him/her for the course English 101, can opt to be part of a Learning Community. If the student needs Basic Skills courses in writing or reading, (s) he can enroll in Learning Communities for Basic Skills students, besides the linked courses for Basic Skills students.
Two professors lead the first semester classes, which are called the First Year Experience (FYE). Because the strengths are small and the students take two classes with the same students, they get to know their instructors and peers. Classes fulfill the college’s requirements for general education (such as Math, History, Sociology or English). Students discuss, collaborate and explore major themes and concepts in both classes in unique ways. FYE Learning Communities ready students to communicate more effectively at college level in writing and in speech, which can be expected to create a solid foundation for improved academic performance.
Those students for whom English is a non-native language or who are bilingual can register themselves in an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) course that is thematically linked to a content course of Sociology, Counseling or Ethnic Studies. The program is aimed to help build a conductive learning environment where students form warm relationships with professors and peers. While getting involved in individual and group assignments and research projects, students acquire academic language skills and familiarity with academic content. Moreover, tutoring services are available to aid EAP students try to meet their educational and professional aims.
Populations Enrolled in the Learning Communities Program at CUNY and the Results:
At Queensborough Community College, there are eighteen learning communities with a maximum of twenty-five students enrolled in each. At John Jay College of Criminal Justice, there are twenty-four different learning communities – seventeen for regular students and seven for EAP students. No more than twenty-five students can register themselves in a single learning community.
Have the learning communities at CUNY achieved their goal? The students enrolled in the communities answer this question themselves. All the students who were asked about their experiences at the learning communities agreed that the atmosphere of the class got friendlier, more interesting and comfortable, the student-teacher relationship improved and their comprehension and understanding got better . This positively affected the number of students who successfully made it through university.
It is evident from the views expressed by students of CUNY participating in the learning communities that being part of a shared learning experience leads them to develop their own supportive peer groups during the first year. Created in class, these groups extend beyond the classroom in such ways which many students see as a critical part of their being able to persist in college. For most students, the friendships in the learning community continue beyond the program over of the academic year to create a net of affiliations that molds the remaining of their educational careers. For a few, the friendships were simply a part of the program and short-lived. But even those students spoke highly of their experience and of the worth of the support the friendship provided.
Besides giving support, the shared learning activities of the learning community and the affiliations which formed therein serve to more actively involve students in learning. Put plainly, students in the learning communities spend more time actively indulged in learning activities and more time interacting with faculty and students about educational matters than similar students did in the traditional classrooms of the college. Such involvements often extend well beyond the classroom so that students spend more time on the task even after class. Listen to the voice of Jason, a CUNY student, as he describes his learning experience in the program:
“I feel like the instructors [in my learning community] really care about me and knowing this motivates me to do the work.”
The shared learning activities of the learning community resulted in involvements in learning which transcended the demarcations that usually mark student experience. The social affiliations that the students created in the shared learning environment of the classroom appear to propel their engagement in learning within and beyond the classroom. In short, they study more, even after class, because they enjoy studying together.
The learning community therefore serves as an entry-point for wider involvements beyond the classroom which improve student learning. The implementation of learning communities in John Jay and Queensborough has without doubt achieved its intended purpose – student retention.