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Learning Communities Improved Retention and Academic Performance

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 pursuing degrees in technology and men of color. Together they took Python, a programming 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 academic probation.

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 as well.

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 groups.

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.

Relationship Building

The learning community was designed to create a collegial atmosphere and foster deeper relationships with 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 aboard 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 in entering 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."