Who knew composing music or playing board games with classmates in an
underrepresented student's first quarter would make such a difference
in their decision to stay in school? Two researchers in the College of
Computing and Digital Media found that helping students develop
friendships over shared interests creates a sense of belonging and leads
to improved retention and academic achievement.
Theresa Steinbach, associate dean in the College of Computing and
Digital Media, and Amber Settle, Vincent de Paul professor in the School
of Computing, began piloting a linked-course learning community in fall
2014. The community included freshmen women pursing degrees in
technology and men of color. Together they took Python, a programing
language course, and an Explore Chicago course about the digital divide.
The results were compelling. Students who took these courses in a
community with the same group of students had retention rates that were
higher than four of the five comparison groups, and none went on
It's an example of the support envisioned in the Vision 2018
strategic plan to help students through critical transitions. The
College of Science and Health is experimenting with learning communities
In their paper presented at the Special Interest Group for
Information Technology Education conference, Settle and Steinbach
reported that students in the 2014 learning community felt significantly
more supported than students who did not participate. Students
also felt more a part of a community of programmers after the two-course
sequence and tied or exceeded the percentage of students who met high
performance criteria compared to all but one of the five comparison
Furthermore, not one of the learning community students was placed on
academic probation, while between 7 percent and 14 percent of
non-community students landed on probation.
"That's unusual," says Steinbach. "Because of that, we thought this is really working."
The findings led to hosting more cohorts in fall 2015 and 2016. More
than 70 students have participated so far, and the research continues.
Women and men of color are underrepresented in the computer science
fields, leading to isolation. This is a signification issue, especially
for women, according to Settle, because they have few role models.
"Part of it is cultural," Settle says. "In Saudi Arabia, women are over-represented in technology."
But that is not the case in the United States, where, when they first
emerged in the 1980s, personal computers were marketed to boys as toys.
"Disciplines tend to masculinize when people want to get better pay
and prestige," she adds, noting that bookkeeping became accounting in
this way and the computer science fields followed suit.
The learning community was designed to create a collegial atmosphere
and foster deeper relationships among classmates. The supplemental
activities started early in the quarter when Steinbach invited both
classes to her home. "We did ice-breakers, so the students began to know
one another," she says.
Settle hosted a mid-term celebration at her home where the group
gelled over board games including Hedbanz and Jenga. She also hosted
mid-term and finals study sessions. Because she was there, students
could ask questions about the exam, and it focused their attention on
the upcoming test, according to Settle.
"They interacted with each other and saw where people got stuck," she
explains. They recognized that they were not alone in confronting
difficult problems, and they saw how others approached them. They also
gained a sense of belonging as they bonded over common challenges.
During the quarter several students realized they shared a love of
composing music, while another group found fellow chess players and
brought a board to class outings.
"They formed groups outside of technology," Steinbach says. "I've never seen that happen in another class."
The relationships are lasting beyond the initial classes. Three of
the four officers of a new student chapter of the Association for
Computer Machinery - Women have a connection to the learning community.
Also, two women in the community joined a third who did not participate
to enter a woman-only team in a programming contest, another first.
Settle sums up the impact of the many strategies used in the
community. "I think the most effective thing we've done with the
students is to encourage collaboration."