October 23, 2006
Sacramento State Bulletin

Learning Community Program proving popular

First-time freshmen just out of high school sometimes find college a bewildering and lonely experience. As a result, they often only spend a semester or two on the campus before leaving.

But Sacramento State’s University Learning Community Program is beginning to change that experience by giving first-time freshmen reasons to stay in school.

“All students need support in college but first-time freshmen need to feel they are not alone as they are going through this big transition in their life,” said Lynn Tashiro, coordinator for freshmen programs at Sacramento State.

Tashiro said that the University Learning Community Program is fast becoming one of the University’s most successful efforts in improving the retention rate for first-time freshmen.

According to an annual assessment of the program conducted by Tashiro, the students in the program have a slightly higher one-year continuation rate than first-time freshmen overall at the University, and their grade point averages tend to be higher than those of all first-time freshmen.

“We think the University Learning Community Program is making a difference because it connects students with each other, their instructors and the academic and social life on campus,” she said.

The program, which started on the Sacramento State campus seven years ago, has expanded rapidly in recent years. It is has grown from 16 learning communities in fall 2004 to 20 communities in fall 2005 to 23 during the current fall semester. Enrollment by first-time freshmen has climbed to more than 500 from 350 students two years ago.

Tashiro said that the University Learning Community Program works on the premise that first-time freshmen are more likely to succeed and continue their education at Sacramento State by taking classes together as a group and becoming close friends while also receiving academic and social support.

During freshmen orientation, students learn about the program and are invited to join.
They can choose from a wide range of communities depending upon their academic interest. The communities, which average about 20 students each, focus on subject areas such as culture and government, child development and teaching careers, careers in criminal justice, business careers, and cultures in world history and ethics in contemporary life. Some are especially popular. Since fall 2003, the nursing community cluster was expanded to accommodate two sections of 25 students each. All the sections were filled during freshmen orientation.

Faculty teaching the courses work together to link topics and assignments to other courses in the cluster. For example, the popular cluster “Page, Stage and Screen,” which examines literature, theater and film, may weave together the themes from Arthur Miller’s work The Crucible. “In an English class you might talk about the literary value of the work,” Tashiro said. “In the theater course you might interpret the script and aesthetics of a film production. The idea is to help students see how what they are studying is related.”

The concept works in a similar way with clusters such as “Growing Older in Our Society,” “Cultures and Identities” and “Academics for a Multicultural Society.”

“This is a good introduction to college for the students. They are learning about academic subjects and issues on a new level. At the same time they are also learning how to become successful college students,” Tashiro said.

She said one of the most important aspects of the program is the use of peer mentors, upperclass students hired to advise and mentor freshmen students through their first college semester. Students in the program call upon their mentors for everything from how to manage their time to how to overcome homesickness. “The mentors play such a valuable role in the program. With the mentors, the students know that they are not alone,” Tashiro said.

Surveys show that students believe the program works. “Students strongly agree that the learning community program encourages positive academic interaction with classmates in the classroom and that it improves study habits,” she said.

Tashiro expects the University to add more learning communities as additional faculty and academic departments join the program.



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