The University Record, October 16, 1995

Some faculty have reservations about
learning communities

By Jane R. Elgass

 Being bombarded with some 400 or more pages of written material during the summer and in their first weeks on campus makes it difficult for first-year LS&A students to think about the University in a coherent way.

To address this problem and make it possible for students to negotiate the institution, LS&A's Joint Faculty-Student Policy Committee has recommended a series of steps that will make the U-M a more personalized place for new students.

The group's report was reviewed by chair David Schoem, assistant dean for undergraduate education, at last Monday's LS&A faculty meeting and briefly discussed by those in attendance.

Schoem noted that the recommendation to establish academic communities, both residence hall- and non-residence hall-based, is one of the most important. Academic communities, he said, engage students in the intellectual life of the institution, make it easier to deliver support services and highlight the important role faculty play in the life of the students while they are here.

"If students are engaged in the intellectual life of the University," he said, "they are more likely to thrive. Plus faculty prefer students of this type."

In addition, Schoem noted, studies have shown that "students who are part of learning communities utilize support services to a greater extent."

The other recommendations:

 Develop departmental clubs for concentrators.

 Take a case management approach to advising, require periodic audits and make greater use of peer advising.

 Expand freshman interest groups.

 Expand University Course 101 offerings through learning communities.

 Utilize technology to a greater extent in orientation and advising.

 Facilitate faculty involvement for those interested in participating in student support services.

During open discussion of the recommendations, Paul Courant, professor of economics and public policy, acknowledged that students attached to small groups perform better, but questioned cause and effect.

"What's not clear," he said, "is if we create more [learning communities] will students select them. What about those [students] who are not interested?"

Schoem said that the U-M approach will not be one of attempting to funnel everyone into a group. "The aim is to create a climate in which students will not feel anonymous but rather attached in some way, to create a climate where this happens naturally."

LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg cited the success of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and the 21st Century Program and noted that "fairly reliable evidence" shows they are positive experiences for the students.

She also said that "demand for UROP vastly exceeds our ability to respond" and that the Women in Science and Engineering learning community also is successful, with a wait list.

Goldenberg expressed concern at a suggestion of simply expanding current programs to meet demand. "We don't want to defeat the essence of our success," she said. She noted that a number of faculty are showing interest in community service activities as part oftheir curriculum and that this might provide an opportunity for establishment of learning communities.

Ruth Scodel, professor of Greek and Latin and director of the Honors Program, expressed concern that "throwing together students already interested in the same thing" would cause them to miss other values held by the University.

Establishment of learning communities and interest groups, Scodel said, "should be driven by the kind of academic experience we want to provide," not by the need to make students happy. Care should be taken, she added, lest the "community takes over learning."

Scodel urged careful thought about the recommendations, with an eye on the question, "What are our values as a large liberal arts college?"

An offer of help for departments seeking to establish peer advising programs came from Patricia Y. Gurin, chair of the Department of Psychology.

The department's program serves about 600 students each term and is highly rated by them. Gurin pointed out that the peer advising is not a substitute for faculty contact, and that there is an intensive training program for the peer advisers.

She said the department would be happy to help others tailor peer advising programs to meet their needs. Goldenberg encouraged units to contact Gurin, adding that support would be available through Lincoln Faller, associate dean for undergraduate education.

Goldenberg noted that the report "is a set of suggestions to think about," adding that the College "is not moving to requirements."

Editor's Note: A more detailed article on the report of the Joint Faculty-Student Policy Committee appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of the Record