Learning communities promote academic and social support

One of the greatest challenges facing new college students is building a network of peers and mentors for academic and social support. With the help of learning communities, a growing number of Iowa State University students are starting college with a solid support network from Day One.

Participation in learning communities by College of Human Sciences students has more than tripled over the past decade, from 182 students in 2005 to 635 students in fall 2014. Nearly 90 percent of College of Human Sciences freshmen belong to such groups aimed at helping them succeed in their first year of college.

“A learning community gives new students an opportunity to already be connected right away when they step on campus,” said Dawn Fiihr, academic adviser in apparel, events, and hospitality management and co-coordinator of Directions, a learning community for events and hospitality management students.

Fostering academic excellence

Learning communities are designed to provide students with ready access to friends and mentors at the very beginning of the college experience. They unite members around a common theme, such as a student’s major or specialty. They also foster academic excellence by encouraging students to take common classes together.

Social activities help students meet friends with common interests. In some learning communities, students live together on the same floor of a residence hall. Some students in learning communities participate in service learning projects such as Iowa State’s annual Day of Caring.

Students in learning communities interact with faculty more than other students and report higher levels of student satisfaction and engagement, said Doug Gruenewald, co-director of Iowa State’s learning communities. They’re also more likely to graduate. Seventy-five percent of Iowa State students in learning communities complete college within six years, compared to 62 percent of students outside of learning communities.

Learning from peer mentors

Learning communities offer new students the unique opportunity to learn from peer mentors.

“Learning is a social activity,” Gruenewald said. “There’s a lot of research out there showing that students often learn best from other students.”

Brityn Thompson, a junior majoring in early childhood education, said her learning community experience was instrumental in helping her adjust to college life. She went on to be a peer mentor for her learning community during her sophomore year.

“That first semester of college is really scary,” Thompson said. “The learning community helps provide you with people and resources to make it an easy transition. I learned a lot about our college, how our college works, and how helpful everybody can be.”

Students aren’t the only ones who gain confidence from their learning communities. The built-in support system provided by learning communities also reassures parents that new students are surrounded by people who can help them be successful.

“Parents know their son or daughter won’t be lost at a large institution,” Gruenewald said.

Options for students in all disciplines

The College of Human Sciences offers learning communities for students in all disciplines: from those who are undecided about their major; to adult non-traditional students; to women in science and engineering; to those majoring in food science and human nutrition; kinesiology; elementary education; hospitality management; human development and family studies; and apparel, merchandising, and design.

With 80 learning communities, Iowa State University has one of the largest learning community programs in the nation. Overall, about 5,682 Iowa State students participated in learning communities in fall 2014.

“Iowa State reaches out on many different levels to try to make it a welcoming community,” Gruenewald said. “If you’re comfortable where you are, if you like where you are, and if you’re connected to other people, your whole experience is going to be more positive.”


Doug Gruenewald, learning communities co-director, Iowa State University, 515-294-5165, dgrenwld@iastate.edu

Dawn Fiihr, academic adviser, Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management, Iowa State University, 515-294-3459, dmfiihr@iastate.edu

Brityn Thompson, junior, early childhood education, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Iowa State University, 952-431-2313, britynt@iastate.edu

Meghan Brown, graduate assistant, College of Human Sciences, Iowa State University, 515-294-9424, hsnews1@iastate.edu