Status of the freshmen learning community initiative at Iowa State University
One type of experience in higher education today that encourages students to get involved in their learning, both in and outside of the classroom, are learning communities. Learning communities are "relatively small groups of students (and faculty) working together to enhance and integrate students' learning and to help students become well-rounded, broad based individuals" (Lenning & Ebbers, 1999, p. 15). Learning communities, when intentionally structured and centered on learning outcomes, enable students, faculty, and student affairs professionals to shape and mold the learning experience, and to do so in an energized environment. Ultimately, learning communities can increase retention, and improve student academic performance. The first purpose of this study was to increase understanding of whether freshmen learning communities at Iowa State University contribute positively to student persistence at the University and to student academic achievement (measured by grade point average).;The second purpose of this study was to explore which characteristics of learning communities at Iowa State University make a difference. This study compares the retention rates and GPA performance of learning community students based on five learning community characteristics: (1) lived together in a residence hall; (2) assigned a peer mentor; (3) enrolled in a common set of classes together; (4) experienced curricular innovation; and (5) increased involvement with faculty outside of the classroom. The results of this study showed that students who participated in freshmen learning communities at Iowa State University earned higher cumulative grade point averages and persisted at the University at a higher level than students who did not have the learning community experience. The portion of this study that looked at the effect of various learning community activities/characteristics on retention and student academic performance contradicted the findings in the literature review.;The findings in the literature review support building a comprehensive learning community experience complete with a number of activities designed to build community among students and faculty/staff, and to connect disciplines. In this study, the learning community characteristic retention and grade point average comparison numbers varied; no pattern emerged. Recommendations for future research include conducting a longitudinal study (six years to graduation) which parallels the University Retention Study and also addresses the self-selection bias and difficulty of degree program. Future research also could include studying various learning community models, and determining how student and faculty characteristics affect learning community interest and participation.