For educators, watching students learn is second only to watching them use what they’ve learned to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. After all, your ultimate goal is to prepare them for life after the school’s out, right?
Of course, there’s more to all this than just delivering the information your students need to pass their tests and earn their degrees. To reach this ultimate goal — and for students to reach theirs — your educational institution needs to create an environment in which meaningful learning is always taking place.
This is why learning communities have become such a hot topic in the educational world today.
What is a learning community?
The term “learning community” has different meanings depending on the context.
In terms of curriculum planning, a learning community is a program composed of multiple, interrelated courses designed for a specific cohort or student group. The idea is to bring all members of the cohort, and all faculty members, under one roof, so to speak, to create a more cohesive learning environment for the student.
In a broader sense, a learning community is a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes, and who interact with one another for the purpose of learning and using what they learned for good. In short, we’re talking about social learning in a more holistic sense.
Read more: Classroom collaboration: Learning together
As we’ll discuss, the best way to ensure success within a learning community program is to build an actual learning community within your educational organization.
The benefits of creating a learning community
Whether we’re talking about curricular learning communities or more holistic learning communities, the benefits are similar.
However, a learning community in name only — that is, one that makes mere surface-level changes toward a more integrated curriculum — simply will not experience these same benefits.
At any rate, creating a true learning community is beneficial to all involved parties:
- For students, learning communities lead to improved academic performance and an increased sense of purpose and belonging. This enables students to apply what they’ve learned to their future careers and lives and use these learnings for fruitful purposes.
- For educators, learning communities allow for the effective and efficient transmission of knowledge and wisdom — which, of course, is what teaching is all about. Because the knowledge and wisdom being shared are amplified by other learnings within the community, educators inherently become even more effective. Also, belonging to a learning community means sharing ideas. This allows educators to improve their teaching methods and enhance their own knowledge of the subject matter.
- For educational institutions, success on the students’ and teachers’ parts means higher retention and graduation rates. This, coupled with past graduates’ overall positive outlook on their educational experiences, will lead to an improved reputation for the institution — allowing the learning community to continue growing as time goes on.
Again, if your organization isn’t actively striving to become a true learning community, there is no way for your team to fulfill your educational duties to the fullest possible extent.
But, by creating a community in which education and growth are the driving factors, there is no limit to what the members of the said community can do.
4 Key steps to building a thriving learning community
With the above in mind, let’s look at four things you must do to create a learning environment that guarantees student success.
Develop shared learning goals and responsibilities
In a learning community, everyone within the community is continuously learning, and knowledge is continuously being shared. This is in stark contrast to the traditional school setting, in which knowledge is transferred from teacher to student in a more linear fashion.
Though they’re certainly not equals, both teachers and students within a learning community need to see purposeful learning and knowledge transfer as their main objective. Both parties also need to understand what they need to do to ensure the learning community moves forward as a whole.
Looking at curricular learning community programs, both teachers and students must understand how each course interconnects with one another — and why these connections are so important to their learning.
For teachers, this paves the way for better communication and collaboration between subject experts. This, in turn, leads to a more cohesive and comprehensive learning experience for the student — who will more clearly understand the “why” behind their assignments and their learning.
It’s also vital that educational institutions as a whole share common goals for learning and growing, too. The aim is to instill in students the importance of lifelong learning, and the idea that learning doesn’t stop at the classroom door. To make this happen, all members of the learning community must create shared learning goals — and continue striving toward them at all times.
De-silo classes, teachers, and students
As we just discussed, learning communities aim to make intentional, purposeful learning a natural part of life. Put another way, the goal is to avoid falling into a regimented, compartmentalized approach to teaching and learning (which has proven to be ineffective by today’s standards).
The key to doing all this: de-siloing courses, teachers, and students.
In terms of coursework, it’s essential for the learning taking place in each class to help students form meaningful connections between ideas, concepts, and overall knowledge.
Educators must also decompartmentalize their approach to teaching, in general. The goal is to transform from “a teacher of (English, History, etc.)” to “an educated leader of a learning community” — and in doing so, supercharge their ability to prepare their students for success.
This goes back to sharing responsibility for student outcomes. In a learning community, teachers are responsible for their students’ overall success — not just success within their class. This makes collaboration with other teachers within the community an absolute necessity.
Finally, students must also be able to openly engage with all members of the learning community for educational purposes. This applies to both other students, as well as to teachers. In connecting with peers working on different projects, or with educators specializing in various fields, students will be exposed to a vast amount of ideas and perspectives that will drastically enhance their learning experience as a whole.
De-siloing the educational experience for both student and teacher is critical to the development of your learning community. In creating a more integrated and connected educational environment, you’ll enable truly organic learning to occur within each student you serve.
Use the best approach for your learning community
In developing a curricular learning community, and eventually expanding the community to the entire organization, teams typically use one of five common approaches:
- Linked or clustered courses, in which students take classes to learn the required material, as well as lessons to learn how to use and apply the content
- Thematic clusters, such as the program revolving around scientific advances mentioned earlier
- Federated learning communities, which combine thematic learning with mentorships (with higher-level students taking on the role of mentor for students just entering the program)
- Interest groups, which typically center around a cohort’s learning needs in addition to thematic coursework (e.g., a program consisting of three related courses, as well as a discussion group that meets regularly to tie course learning to students’ non-academic lives)
- Developmental clusters or workshops that focus on enhancing basic academic skills within struggling learners as they prepare for more advanced studies
Obviously, the cohort’s educational needs are the main deciding factor here. But you also need to consider which approach your academic team is best suited for.
- What areas do your team members specialize in? What knowledge and abilities do they bring to the community?
- What resources do we have access to within our organization and our geographic community?
- How can we use what we know, and the resources we have on hand, to create a cohesive curriculum and overall learning environment for our students?
As your team’s understanding of best practices within learning communities matures, you’ll be able to add more programs and try new approaches based on the needs of incoming students. Eventually, you’ll create a fully integrated learning community where all members empower each other through education and knowledge.
Make ongoing, data-driven improvements
As we said earlier, it’s unfortunately all too common to see educational institutions abandon their learning community initiatives and slide back into a traditional, linear mode of teaching.
This happens when teams forget that students aren’t the only ones who need to be learning to create a true learning community. For the community to continue growing, teachers and administrators need to also be continuously learning and growing, as well.
Read more: How to succeed with online PD for teachers
Educational leaders must make specific improvements to their learning community that will positively impact student performance. For this to happen, educator teams need to become entirely data-driven.
On the quantitative side, this means paying attention to metrics such as GPA, retention and passing rates, and graduation rates for students within your learning community programs (vs. the national averages for these metrics). You can also evaluate cohorts’ professional success post-graduation to determine the impact your program had on their lives.
To get a complete sense of the value of your learning community, you’ll need to collect qualitative, experiential data from your students as they go through your programs. Some key areas of concern here include:
- How engaged students feel throughout classes and the overall learning experience
- Students’ levels of commitment to their studies and the learning community as a whole
- The perceived value of the connections made between peers and teachers alike
- Students’ levels of involvement in extracurricular activities within the learning community
And, of course, you also want to get a clear idea of your students’ overall outlook of the program, your organization, and education as a whole.
You can then use this data to identify strengths and weaknesses within your educational initiatives — and use what you learn to enhance your learning community for teachers and students alike.
Every educational institution needs to create an environment where learning can happen at any time, in any circumstance, thus encouraging students to participate int heir own learning. By following the above steps, schools and universities can build strong learning communities, benefitting both students and educators, as well as the institution itself.
Emil, founder of knowledge base software company Helpjuice, is an organizational learning expert & author of Knowledge Management: A Theoretical and Practical Guide for Knowledge Management in Your Organization.