Last changed 24 Aug 2010 ............... Length about 9,000 words (60,000 bytes).
(Document started on 13 Feb 2008.) This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at You may copy it. How to refer to it.

Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [localed] [dropout] [rival ideas on dropout] [this page]

Learning communities and teacher monitoring

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page was the precursor to (and is a longer, less fluently written, version of) a paper published online in the proceedings of LICK 2008: "Learning and community". That paper was finalised about 16 Nov 2008. Although it is more fluently written, this web page is already accumulating new material not in the paper.

This page explores a particular aspect of supporting learning that may reduce dropout and that is one of several possible reinterpretations of Tinto's integration concept. I will call this aspect "teacher monitoring" to emphasise a contrast to conventional intuitions of nurturing, being comfortable, etc. This notion has important connections to that of learning community, but also challenges many interpretations of that phrase.

This page is thus about 3 things, and we'll have to see the extent to which they actually belong together:

Contents (click to jump to a section)


This section explores some of the various meanings of "learning community" in an attempt to counteract its rather anti-social usage to date. It also lists some of the important ideas related to community and learning, even when they have not used the term (e.g. "community of practice", "social and academic integration"), in order to bring out the range of ideas and issues we should perhaps consider together.

I shall begin with a whinge; or, to put it positively, a helpful warning to the reader. The use of the term "learning community" is annoying in the educational literature to date. Almost every author fails to define what they mean, acts as if unaware that other authors use it to mean other things, and that their use of the term is also different from its current normal meaning outside the educational literature. This lack of precise and agreed meaning also entails that it is not a technical term. It is reasonable to suspect when you see the term, unless it is accompanied by a definition, that the author is jumping on a bandwagon, has not read the literature widely, and is not making a reasonable professional effort to communicate to anyone other than themselves and their clique. It is ironic that a common technique used by communities, e.g. teenage gangs, to differentiate themselves from other groups, is to coin special usages of various terms, which they prefer that others do not understand; but that most educational usages of "community" refer only to positive and helpful aspects of community and do not discuss the unhelpful and divisive aspects, which in fact they are practising themselves.

We begin by noting that in current UK usage (e.g. in newspapers), "community" refers to people who live near each other e.g. in a town, and are organised together by law, government, and shared services. They therefore have significant interests and activities in common, but usually have not chosen the other members and frequently have little or no personal relationship with each other. A university is like this too. However most usages of "community" in the educational literature deny the negative, presuppose the positive, and in fact refer to interventions to increase inter-personal interaction, which is not inherent in the concept and reality of community. The contrast comes out in phrases such as "care in the community" which now in the UK refers to mentally ill people being required to live outside institutions, and not infrequently in the face of protests by "the community" itself.

There is a use of the metaphor of "learning community" to refer to how the school relates to the community around it e.g. see here. There are several distinct ideas here:

Possibly the single largest use of the term "learning community", in the literature, certainly in that dealing with HE, refers to interventions to increase student interaction in ways relevant to learning.

One of these is an intervention to reduce dropout by improving the first year experience: introducing what are effectively book groups that get first year student both to read the same thing, and to discuss it. The idea explicitly behind it is creating shared experience with one's new peers.

  • Alexander, B. B., Penberthy, D. L., McIntosh, I. B., and Denton, D. 1996. "Effects of a learning community program on the first-year experience of engineering majors" In Proceedings of the 26th Annual Frontiers in Education - Volume 01 (November 06 - 09, 1996). FIE. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 377-380. PDF
  • Goldberg, Barbara M.I. (2000) "Effects of a First Semester Learning Community on the Academic and Social Integration of Nontraditional Technical Students at a Commuting Institution" online access

    See also, perhaps,

  • Zhao,C.M. & Kuh,G. (2004) "Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement" Research in Higher Education vol.45 no.2 pp.115-138.

    Illich's (1970) book Deschooling society argued for an education system without teachers: learners would find others with (for the moment) the same learning objective, and learn with them: a system wholly peer, not teacher, based. Cardinal Newman (1852) too has some remarks about how peers are more important than "exams and professors" for true education, though he thought academics who cared about tutoring would be even better. They didn't use the phrase "learning community", but represent the idea that learning is, or should be, fundamentally about peers learning together. [This is arguably the most natural, and deepest, use of the term: not a community with some learning round its edges, but a community formed entirely for the purpose of learning.]

    Another meaning of "learning community" in the current educational literature is small groups of HE teachers meeting, say, once a month for reciprocal discussion about each other's personal research projects on teaching. These aren't about normal students' learning. They should perhaps be called "teaching community" rather than "learning community" (Macdonald,I.; 2001), or again "Disciplinary Commons". On the other hand, they are about peer learning, and how peers stimulate personal reflection, and share good practice: clearly good for promoting professionalism.

    Newman also emphasises the importance of academics forming a cross-discipline community (again without using that word; today we over-use "collegiality" to express the thought): the importance of respecting what others know as a corrective to assuming that anyone who thinks differently from us is wrong and is stupid to be wrong. Thus he thinks fundamental to a university is that it includes scholars of ALL types of knowledge together in order that this fundamental feature of peer interaction is provided for the academics themselves.

    Jean Lave developed the concept of "communities of practice", conceived of as the locus of learning analogous to apprenticeship: the communities here are defined by "practice" or activity, with learning occurring by joining in the activity of more experienced practitioners. This seems at bottom, although from a very different disciplinary starting point, essentially the same general view as that of Vygotsky, in that learning is seen as essentially social, but as essentially not between peers but between more and less knowledgeable people, e.g. teacher and pupil. One of the relatively rare cases of applying that in HE for/to students is described in Dunlap,J.C. "The effect of a problem-centered enculturating experience on doctoral students' self-efficacy" The interdisciplinary journal of problem-based learning vol.1 no.2 pp.19-48. It is a good fit there, since this was a course for turning graduates into researchers, able to participate in that community.

    Social constructivism (Gergen, 1985) also sees learning as bound to communities. However many quite different ways in which one person may influence another's learning for the better have already been identified. A general belief that communities matter to learning doesn't say which of these ways do not matter and which do matter, and how, and why; and so is little help for the practical business of improving teaching and learning. The next section explores this variety of ways.

    Tinto's concept of integration, subdivided into social and academic integration, seems closely related in spirit, if not in terminology, implying that whether a student stays or drops out depends upon whether they feel part of the community in a university.

    The diverse ways other people can help individuals learn

    There's a big set of ways in which others can help us learn. However two big questions are a) is it teachers or peers who are important for this? and b) does a feeling of community matter? There are unintentional and impersonal ways (you overhear something that sticks in your mind and makes you think; Shakespeare wasn't writing for me personally, probably couldn't even imagine someone like me); and then there are things that make you feel part of a community.

    One area of answer is the role of peers individually. Another may be the role of a cohort or group. Another is what teachers can usefully do.

    A generic and abstract meaning of "community" is to refer to the way learning is often, perhaps always, promoted by interaction with other people around learning. That is, the social aspects as opposed to the individualistic cognitive aspects of learning. It's mysterious as a whole because, as constructivism rightly emphasises, there is an important sense in which learning is essentially private, something each learner does internally for themselves, and that no-one else can directly do for them. On the other hand, it seems clear that teachers have an enormous effect on learning: children who stay away from school seldom learn much unless their parents devote themselves to teaching them. So the general question is, what is it that people do for learners that makes a big difference?

    Another important issue here is how intentionally cooperative these ways of helping are. In any community, in many ways the members are indifferent to each other, in some ways they are in conflict or competition, but in some other ways they are importantly inter-dependent. Learning is certainly like that too. Learning is at bottom a private affair internal to the learner's mind, that no-one else can possibly do for the learner: it is NOT like building a house where labour can be divided. However other people can make a big difference, although whether they intend to varies. When two students revise together by taking turns in devising test questions that the other must try to answer, they put in equal work and end up learning similar content. When two people discuss a concept, they certainly put in similar time and effort, but the research evidence shows they typically take away rather different understandings even though both benefit a lot. This means the previously more advanced learner learns from the process even though the other "had" nothing to teach them. When you look up an entry in Wikipedia or see how much work another student has done or which books they have taken out of the library, you benefit even though they didn't intend that you personally would benefit, nor have you in any way helped them. But we can say that you have benefitted from community.

    The important functions can be categorised in 3 ways by whether they are provided intentionally or not, whether the provider has a personal relationship with the learner or not, whether the interaction has approximately equal learning benefits for both or not. These 3 binary categories in reality have intermediate or mixed instances as well, but the main point here is to illustrate how extensively other people may be important to learning even though unintentionally, with no special expertise, or no special relationship with the learner. (Below, "+" marks a fourth binary categorisation: As with all learning activities, it is possible to find cases where the learner is passive in allowing the activity to be provided for them, and other cases where the learner is proactive, taking the initiative in organising or arranging for the activity. A fifth binary categorisation, illustrated but not systematically developed here, is between the basic content level of concepts to be learned, and the management level of deciding on what learning activiites to perform.)

    1. Telling (intentional transmission). Since the invention of writing there has been no need for copresence nor for any personal relationship between teacher and learner for this function. [unequal, intentional, no personal relationship 101]
    2. Scaffolding of procedural skills (Woods et al., 1978). This does require an expert-novice pairing, the intention to help on the part of the expert, "contingent" behaviour by the expert i.e. they have to pay attention to the learner not follow a fixed script, and so have a personal relationship. [unequal, intentional, a personal relationship 100]
    3. Teacher monitoring (see below). [unequal, intentional, personal relationship 100]
    4. Alternating roles (create a question, make an answer, ...). This is about either alternating roles in learning tasks that require two people, or about division of labour e.g. a team of detectives, or dividing up reading and doing reciprocal briefing in an HE study group. [equal, intentional, personal relationship 000]
    5. Challenge: having your ideas challenged makes you improve them. This is often done in pairs and seems personal, and like sharing. However detailed work by Howe and others shows that in these interactions ideas are mostly not transmitted, but rather learning happens later, the crucial thing being the sense of an unresolved problem lodged in the learner's mind as the result of the other's challenge. As a learning aid, it is unintentional in the sense that each participant's motivation to discuss is not necessarily to help the other (they may even hate them, but more often are seeking to maintain their own ideas rather than assist another). [equal, not intentional, personal relationship 010]
    6. Help with managing the learning and teaching process. Especially in HE, one of the major ways students "use" each other is in checking out ways of studying, and even more, setting themselves levels of effort and attainment. Not without good reason, they do not trust what the staff say they wish students to do as much as they do observations of what their peers are actually doing and achieving. Many reading lists and lists of learning objectives are far beyond what any student could cover in the time available (Snyder, 1971): so a big help in deciding on their own objectives is what other students are doing. Though learners may deliberately help others, much of this can be by lurking on discussions, comparing one's marks to lists or averages, etc. The "reader" benefits, but the other may not be aware their actions and achievements have been seen by others. [(on average) equal, unintentional, no personal relationship 011]
    7. [equal, unintentional, not personal 011] Peer reviews, arguing with other wikipedia contributors/editors. Peer reviews for journals etc. are unintentional in that the primary purpose is not to teach the author being reviewed.
    8. Wikipedia. This is meant to inform others who are strangers to the contributors, but is assembled from peer (non-expert) contributions and editing. Case studies, published portfolios, autobiographies etc. are also often in this category of sharing experiences rather than dictating expert, authoritative knowledge. [equal, intentional, not personal 001]
    9. [equal, intentional, not personal 001+] Students doing reciprocal peer critiquing anonymously or with strangers.
    10. [unequal, unintentional, personal relationship 110+] Role model; Spying on someone you know, or just learning from their example without them caring what you pick up.
    11. [unequal, unintentional, no personal relationship 111+] Learning by eavesdropping on strangers, snooping on private texts, historical investigations, spying on adults or others. Imitating masters e.g. of skateboarding, becoming Prime Minister, etc. Learning from observing without being noticed.

    Learners benefit from others with and without special expertise, intention, or being personally known
    + indicates an activity initiated by the learner (proactive-ness)
    Helper's expertise: Intention
    to teach
    Personal relationship Not personal
    Unequal, staff Intended Teacher monitoring,
    Scaffolding of procedural skills
    + Ask a tutor
    Writing a textbook,
    + Asking an expert
    Unintended Role model (using a teacher as),
    (+) Imitating or observing someone more knowledgable whom you know
    + Eavesdropping on strangers,
    Using a celebrity or hero as a role model,
    + Studying the career of a politician to gain similar success
    Equal, peer Intended + Alternating roles e.g. testing each other, student reciprocal critiquing,
    The same but imposed by staff
    Anonymised versions of student reciprocal critiquing,
    + Posting a question to a forum
    Unintended Peer discussion,
    + Borrowing lecture notes,
    + Spying on, imitating, or observing a classmate you know
    Anonymous peer review,
    + Comparing your marks or actions to the class norm,
    + Listening to classmates' questions and comments,
    + Mutual help with the process e.g. ask where the classroom is.

    Teacher monitoring

    One aspect of "community" is currently coming to prominence in the movement to break up secondary schools into smaller units of about 350 pupils, rather than over 1,000. The idea is that, although the majority of pupils do fine in huge schools with different teachers for each subject, disaffection and failure rates are heavily influenced by whether there is a staff member who effectively monitors each pupil's work as a whole and knows both pupil and their family well. Chinese schools do this; it is a growing movement in the USA; some are calling for it in the UK. It may not be about tutoring on the subject matter itself, but about a) whether the child feels part of a community, noticed. b) Whether their work is monitored so that even if they express difficulties only by not doing things, rather than by asking for help, this is quickly responded to.

    A report on this is
    James Wetz (2006) "Holding children in mind over time" PDF.
    There was a Dispatches programme on it: The children left behind broadcast on channel 4 at 8pm, 11 February 2008.

    Key questions here for me are:

  • Does "community" really mean teacher-pupil not peers? Students complain if no teacher knows their name, and really value it when they do; and this appears to be independent of whether they have good friends in the class.

  • Do staff have two tasks, best thought of as quite separate rather than assuming that doing one will cover the other automatically? The successful schools aren't merely smaller, but rather they ensure that for each child there is one teacher looking out for them across all subjects i.e. a separation of the functions of specialist content teaching and of monitoring each pupil's work as a whole. This latter function involves: a) monitoring each pupil's attendance of school and each class; b) monitoring their work e.g. are they completing their homework in all their subjects; c) knowing their family. In many ways this may simply be reinstating a function that teachers in the UK too used to make a point of doing, but now have "forgotten": being a "home room" teacher. Apparently in China, secondary school classes are 50 (not 30) BUT they have strongly in place one teacher keeping an eye on all of each pupil's work independently of specialist subject teachers. This issue seems to be about feeling of community, of entrainment, of being noticed, of support when needed.

  • But is it about "caring" or is it really "monitoring"? It may be more about "being known" or being noticed than being loved. And perhaps we all have a need to have our actions noticed and taken as a gesture even when we don't, and don't feel able to, start a conversation ourselves. Certainly, we probably don't want to be where no-one notices we are angry unless we say "Hey, I'm angry", or that we are deeply upset unless we say "Hey, these are tears, I need help here". Babies would probably live only a few days in such circumstances, but adults too are not entirely free, not just from a wish but from the need to be noticed without asking for it.

  • Perhaps (another throwback to Tinto's "integration") it is not exactly being known, or noticed, or monitored exactly, but more being recognised. This is one view of a doctor's (or shaman's) role: not to cure, but to recognise the disease: the person and the situation they are in, even if no worthwhile intervention can be made. For all modern medicine's emphasis on cure, we still are all fated to die. A far older, but still entirely contemporary, role for doctors is to recognise and certify this. Berger, John (1968/1997) A fortunate man (Vintage Books: London)
  • This is really the same point as is made in quite other contexts about how the most important feature of personal relationships is not validation, praise etc. so much as being known as we really are. [ Tal Ben-Shahar (2007) Happier ch8. p.118]

    This function ("monitoring") seems similar to the principle of "time on task" and Gibbs' version of that as a principle of assessment design. Here however it is not about designing the course, but monitoring student execution of the design so as to detect promptly those who are falling away. It rings bells with discussion in HE about addressing first year and retention issues there. It is interesting that the discussion about secondary schools, though using different language, is also about supporting the transition from primary school, about requiring pupils to be more self-managing but catching early those who have difficulty with this and focussing staff support there. In effect this is about scaffolding not the learning of the content, but the increase in self-regulation required: and to progressively withdraw that scaffolding, but "contingently" i.e. only for those pupils who can now manage.

    Lorna McEachan suggested to me a parallel with schemes used by employers to reduce staff turnover. In many companies too, most "dropouts" occur within the first few months. These months can be thought of as an induction scheme, whether designed or not. The general aims are the same: to make employees/students feel valued, and to give them feedback. The chief means for this are: have their manager talk to them regularly; give them feedback on how they are doing, fill them in on how they fit into the wider picture at the organisation; spread this over not 1-2 days but 90 days (because no-one takes it all in in one lump before they know what any of it means in practice). I.e. this sense of "learning community" is relevant to dropout / retention. AND it suggests a strong connection between educational dropout and the measures large companies adopt to reduce employee attrition.

    Thus what I've called "teacher monitoring" seems to be important, especially in addressing dropout / retention. But what view does it imply about "learning community"?

    Practical actions in the spirit of such teacher monitoring have been shown to reduce dropout in HE, and are discussed here.

    Being accountable

    I called the issue "teacher monitoring" to emphasise a contrast between it and connotations of non-judgemental support. This terminology also emphasises a perspective in which the teacher is active but the learner passive. It is however possible to think of this in terms of a much more active learner: in terms of the learner being visible, accountable, and so active. Shulman, in discussing his notion of signature pedagogies, does this. His discussion explicitly comments on how students in these particular pedagogic situations cannot hide, are fully "visible" and "accountable"; and how they may well find this terrifying at first, but with familiarity, terror normally reduces to a productive anxiety: again, this stresses a difference from an unchallenging approach.

    In summary: Shulman first describes a professional (e.g. doctor, lawyer, school teacher) as needing:

    Shulman offers only 2 examples of signature pedagogies: law education, and the clinical rounds part of medical training: he is NOT discussing general pedagogic recipes for all disciplines, nor even for most of the teaching in even a single discipline. Signature pedagogies are rare, and even within a discipline, not the sole or chief way of teaching. However he does suggest that perhaps EVS (Electronic Voting Systems or "clickers") are establishing another; and similar arguments would imply that perhaps Just In Time Teaching may also be a candidate.

    The characteristics he lists of signature pedagogies are:

    The relevant characteristic here is being accountable. This could be seen as an extension of teacher monitoring: but where the learner is more autonomous, less dependent on a teacher taking special pains to monitor them, more self-monitoring.

    This suggests that where learning and teaching not only offer but demand and enforce engagement and participation from the learners, then they may fulfill implicit requirements that lead to improved retention. Feeling highly accountable, then, is the proactive learner counterpart of teacher monitoring.

    Emotion, learning and retention

    This web page is in part an argument against simple assumptions that you have to be friends to learn together, that stress is bad for learning, that being nice to students is important for their effective learning. On the other hand, it is obviously true that some students fail and drop out with, or because of, emotional problems, and one interpretation of "integration" could be that it means making students feel more at ease in the university in general and groups in particular. How can we relate these points?

    Social interaction is part of HE e.g. in small tutorial groups. Clearly, this has an socio-emotional side, distinct from the emotions associated with individual work. From the viewpoints of a) designing good HE b) improving retention, what is the relevance of this?

    There's a spectrum of possible positions here. By "ignore emotion" below I mean, not that a teacher would ignore emotion as a communicative component any more than they should ignore a student question, but that no particular emotion is itself a learning objective (unlike in a drama, where getting the audience to experience a specific emotion often is the aim).

    1. Academic life is not essentially about emotion but about the business of learning (even though of course all human life has concomitant emotions, just as life and learning require breathing, a glucose supply for brain cells, etc.). [Ignore emotion: not our business, pathology aside]

    2. As the literature on constructive interaction by Howe and others shows, learning is enhanced by peer interaction under the right conditions (see above). This doesn't depend on whether the peers like each other, or agree about anything. And in fact some disagreement is a prerequisite for it to be productive. [Ignore emotion: focus on the conceptual content]

    3. [Teacher monitoring] When learner interaction with staff is important, it is about recognition and feeling you belong, not about being supportive in the sense of unconditional approval. [Ignore emotion: focus on the management of learning activities and student effort]

    4. When you do address emotions and learning, it is easy to damage learning by being nice indiscriminately: Mueller & Dweck (1998), Ecclestone (2004). It has long been clear that communicating high expectations (Rosenthal & Jacobson; 1968, 1992) is very important for learning outcomes, regardless of whether these are expressed kindly or cruelly. Dweck (2000) however has explored particular, often dysfunctional, ways in which attitudes, emotions and expectations about learning may be linked. Essentially, Dweck shows that if a learner believes academic success depends upon a fixed aptitude, and praise for having high ability tends to implant this attitude, then any failure (low mark) is met by abandoning attempts to learn the topic, rather than by a search for how to do better in it.

      Shulman provides some penetrating commonsense here. Emotions fluctuate: that is what they are for, to signal a felt judgement about our momentary situation relative to our expectations and goals. He describes how an infant may burst into tears at a stranger playing peek a boo one moment, yet a minute later be trying to engage them in the same game again. Stress is not bad, but something we all try to optimise: absence of stress is boring, just as overload (terror) is disabling. A skilled teacher will not be trying to remove stress (expectations of doing better), but will attempt scaffolding: adjusting demands both up and downwards to keep them in the zone of best functioning. [Pay attention to emotion: some learner attitudes and some teacher practices are actively damaging to learning by addressing feelings in the wrong way, while others promote it.]

    5. If you do wish to address the emotional responses and feelings of learners, as Cartney & Rouse (2006) do, then this is better seen as personal development: PDP. This requires a different use of groups than academic learning does. This may in its own way improve retention, just as some PDP may. [Focus specifically on emotion and emotional development in relation to education]

    Learning regardless of personal relationships

    The table above illustrates that many of the ways in which others assist learning do not involve a personal relationship in the specific sense of the teacher adjusting what they do in response to the learner. Since the invention of writing, it has been unnecessary for the teacher to know the learner in any way. Although a letter writer often adjusts what they say to a specific reader, and some authors talk of "knowing their audience", it is impossible to say that Shakespeare or Newton changed what they wrote from knowledge of me. Similarly for every type of peer interaction, there are ways for a learner to benefit both with and without the other intending or even knowing about them.

    The underlying issue here is what is the relationship of the social and the academic -- of Tinto's (1975) two types of integration thought to be important in reducing dropout -- of personal social relationships and productive learning? A personal relationship is founded on knowing specific things about the other, and most importantly, the history of the interactions. If you act identically with a person, regardless of anything they do or say, it cannot be a personal relationship. This is "contingency": the dependence of one party's action on the other's previous action(s). This has also been shown to be important in some teaching: Wood, Wood, & Middleton (1978) showed that optimal tutoring on a procedural task was "contingent tutoring", where the tutor's next intervention was varied depending on the last action by the learner. However this isn't the only (nor the most common) way in which one person can help another's learning; and furthermore, their strategy doesn't depend on prior knowledge of the learner, but on responding to what they are doing currently.

    Reasons to doubt that the social precedes the academic

    Much of this runs counter to the intuition which many learners and teachers have, that the social precedes the academic, and that to get a group or class to work together, they must first be introduced socially (by "ice breakers" in the small scale, cheese and wine events for large classes, etc.). This is widely accepted advice in e-learning e.g. Salmon's (2000) stage 2. However as the review by Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems (2003) reveals (perhaps inadvertently), while the e-learning field believes "that social interaction is a prerequisite for collaboration and collaborative learning", such advice is only an advance relative to "taking social interaction for granted" i.e. to technologists' naive surprise that simply providing the technology (e.g. a discussion board) is not sufficient to induce academically productive peer discussion. It is better than doing nothing, but not only is there no evidence that it is optimal, but it is not even as advanced as best non-technological practice. For example a long established, although not widespread, practice is the reading party, where a group of learners and staff spend several days together engaged in joint academic tasks. These are frequently mentioned as their best learning experience by students who have participated in one, and also produce strong group bonding.

    This should be no surprise since the social psychology literature on group functioning has long established that the causality predominantly goes in the contrary direction. Not only is social attractiveness (the bond between group members) independent of personal attractiveness (the bond between two individuals outside any group context), but the need to collaborate on a task creates group cohesiveness even when this means reversing strong prior hostility, as Sherif's experiments and theory of Realistic Conflict established. (See for example the textbook by Hogg & Vaughan, 2008.) This implies that the best way to get a group of learners to bond is to give them a joint task. In other words for learning, the academic precedes the social. This makes sense of quite common student complaints about ice-breaker activities as wasting their time (after all, students' purpose is to learn, not to pay universities to help them with their social life), and more importantly of Trotter's (2006) study of two courses with contrasting dropout rates. One course provided a social activity at the start and had a high dropout rate; the other did not, but did start the course with group projects (which gave the students a directly relevant activity while "incidentally" interacting with each other) and had a low dropout rate.

    It seems likely, then, that a more careful consideration of the literatures relevant to learning and community could yield better suggestions about supporting academically productive peer interaction. Certainly Baxter (2007) obtained impressive learning gains based on online "virtual" student groups where there was no provision for meeting face to face nor for prior small group social interaction, but had repeated joint group projects which led to considerable and useful peer interaction.

    In fact there is a perverse pressure in the (e-learning) literature not to report successful practice that doesn't need special measures, ice breakers etc. If you invent a procedure to solve a problem of getting students to interact, then it's easy to publish. If they interact anyway then it isn't published: in effect, only the rescues of failed learning designs are published. In our department, for the first 2 years or so there was little student interaction on the VLE, but now there is: but no staff member has done anything to make that happen by "e-moderating" etc.

    Furthermore, the literature on conceptual learning through peer interaction shows that there is no special need for prior social bonds, but on the contrary there is a need to arrange for both a difference in opinion and public statements of that difference to counteract the tendency for groups to agree verbally regardless of their actual private opinions (Howe, Tolmie, & Rogers, 1992). Here the social need not precede the academic, and even tends to obstruct it. This may be why so often student study groups assembled on a basis of prior friendship seem to be less productive than those formed for strictly academic purposes.

    Practical advice

    The previous subsection gives reasons to doubt the assumption that the way to get learners to interact with each other as peers is first to get them to bond socially. If we accept that doubt, then what would constructive advice be?

    1. If I have to facilitate discussions, this it is a poor learning design. Change the design so the students are doing a joint task in which collaboration and so communication are built in.
    2. If I still have to facilitate discussions, then the real function is not to break the ice but to establish the "tone" for the discussion:
      • topic: what it is appropriate to talk about
      • So each person feels allowed to speak.
        Build a "history" between the people: it needn't be personal in the sense of non-work content, but is a history of exchanges between just those 2 people.
      • "Safety": so it feels tht is is safe for me in particular to speak about this topic in particular. (Generalities about safe spaces etc. are probably rubbish: whether I feel safe to speak shifts in a second depending on the topic, who is in the room at that moment etc.)
    3. If I still have do introductions, then at least make the content of ice breakers relevant to the academic task to hand.


    Overall, the main point is that a learner can be helped by other people without having a personal relationship with them. More specifically, even where the help does depend on a personal relationship, this may follow not precede the interaction, and need not depend on personal liking or a relationship outside the group.

    More generally, besides reconsidering our teaching practices to take community more seriously, perhaps the most important attribute for a graduate to acquire is a realisation that our learning can be enhanced by people that we don't know or even that we don't like: that the social and the academic are not bound together in any simple way, and that the lifelong learner is not dependent on personal relationships. This readies a graduate both for workplace group working and for learning with peers through the realisation that both parties benefit and no altruism or loyalty is required (although it is often engendered).

    "Community" again

    Communities matter to learning in several separate ways.

    Summary / conclusion

    "Community" is a phrase that seems to fit several distinct issues in learning. They have been researched separately and should probably be regarded as separate phenomena or issues. This is not to say that they don't interact, and in practice have synergistic effects. On the contrary, really successful learning designs typically will succeed in doing all these issues well in an integrated way that makes them look apparently part of each other. However it does mean that acting to achieve one issue does NOT mean you are bound, or even likely, to achieve all. They are NOT interchangeable. The great learning designs succeed at all the issues and make it look seamless, but less inspired designs act on some important issues yet fail to cover them all.

    This applies also to Tinto's notion of "integration": both "community" and "integration" allude to a feeling of belonging, and to a relationship between social and academic aspects; but both in fact have many different and in some cases opposing interpretations.

    The idea and practice I called "teacher monitoring" raises the point that the aspects of community that have a positive effect on learning may not be about being kind. Just as real communities are by no means uniformly benign, and perhaps could never be if they are to maintain cohesion and discipline, so learning communities are not entertainment services, whose only purpose is to give pleasure and comfort. The ways in which learners are aided by other people are extremely diverse, and so too may be the ways that promote student retention.

    "If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn".
    [from a letter by Doris Lessing, replying to a reader who had been seriously disturbed by reading one of her novels. Quoted in Alan Yentob's "Imagine" TV programme on Doris Lessing, broadcast Tues 27 May 2008, 10:35pm on BBC1 ]


    Alexander, B.B., Penberthy, D.L., McIntosh, I.B., & Denton, D. 1996. "Effects of a learning community program on the first-year experience of engineering majors" In Proceedings of the 26th Annual Frontiers in Education - Volume 01 (November 06 - 09, 1996). FIE. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 377-380.

    Baxter, J. (2007) "A Case Study of Online Collaborative Work in a Large First Year Psychology Class" The REAP International Online Conference on Assessment Design for Learner Responsibility, 29th-31st May, 2007 Available at: URL: (visited 15 Nov 2008)

    Ben-Shahar, Tal (2007) Happier ch8. p.118

    Berger, John (1968/1997) A fortunate man (Vintage Books: London)

    Brown,A.L. & Campione,J.C. (1990) "Communities of learning and thinking, or a context by any other name" in D.Kuhn (ed.) Developmental perspectives on teaching and learning thinking skills vol.21 in the series Contributions to human development pp.108-126 (London: Karger)

    Cartney,P. & Rouse,A. (2006) "The emotional impact of learning in small groups: highlighting the impact on student profession and retention" Teaching in Higher Education vol.11 no.1 pp.79-91

    Collis, B., & Moonen, J. (2005) An on-going journey:Technology as a learning workbench University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands. Available

    DfEE (1999) Schools Plus: building learning communities (London: Dept. for Education and Employment (1999) available at: (visited 17 Oct. 2008)

    Dunlap,J.C. (2006) "The effect of a problem-centered enculturating experience on doctoral students' self-efficacy" The interdisciplinary journal of problem-based learning vol.1 no.2 pp.19-48.

    Dweck, C.S. (2000) Self-Theories -- Their role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Essays in Social Psychology (Philadelphia: Psychology Press)

    Ecclestone,K. (2004) "Learning or therapy? The demoralisation of education" British journal of educational studies vol.52 no.2 pp.112-137

    Gergen, Kenneth J. (1985) "The Social Constructionist Movement in Modern Psychology" American Psychologist vol.40 no.3 pp.266-275

    Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2004) "Conditions under which assessment supports students' learning" Learning and Teaching in Higher Education vol.1 pp.3-31.

    Goldberg, Barbara M.I. (2000) "Effects Of A First Semester Learning Community On The Academic And Social Integration Of Nontraditional Technical Students At A Commuting Institution"
    online access

    Hogg,M.A. & Vaughan,G.M. (2008) Social Psychology 5th edition (Harlow, UK: Pearson)

    Howe, C.J., Tolmie,A., Greer,K. and Mackenzie,M. (1995) "Peer collaboration and conceptual growth in physics: task influences on children's understanding of heating and cooling" Cognition and Instruction vol.13, pp.483-503.

    Howe, C.J., Tolmie, A., and Rogers,C. (1992) "The acquisition of conceptual knowledge in science by primary school children: Group interacting and the understanding of motion down an incline" British Journal of Developmental Psychology vol.10 pp.113-130

    Illich,Ivan D. (1970) Deschooling Society (Calder & Boyars: London)

    Kreijns,K. Kirschner,P.A. & Jochems,W. (2003) "Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research" Computers in human behavior vol.19 no.3 pp.335-353

    Lave,Jean & Wenger,E. (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation (CUP)

    Lave,Jean (1991) "Situated learning in communities of practice" ch.4 pp.63-82 in L. Resnick, J. Levine, and S. Teasley (eds.) Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition pp.63-82 (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association)

    Macdonald,I. (2001) "The Teaching Community: recreating university teaching" Teaching in Higher Education vol.6 no.2 pp.153-167

    Margolis,J. & Fisher, A. (2002) Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (London: MIT Press)

    Miyake,N. (1986) "Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding" Cognitive Science vol.10 no.2 pp.151-177

    Mueller, M.C. & Dweck, S.C. (1998) "Praise for Intelligence can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol.75, No.1, pp.33-52

    Newman,J.H. (1852/1976) [ed. I.T.Ker] The idea of a university (OUP: Oxford).

    Nicol,D. (in press /2008) "Assessment for learner self-regulation: enhancing achievement in the first year using learning technologies" Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education

    Putnam H. (1975) "The meaning of meaning" in Mind, language and reality (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

    Rosenthal,R. & Jacobson,L. (1968, 1992) Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development (Irvington publishers: New York)

    Salmon,G. (2000) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (London: Kogan Page)

    Shulman,Lee (2005) "The signature pedagogies of the professions of law, medicine, engineering and the clergy: Potential lessons for the education of teachers"

    Shulman,Lee (2005) "Pedagogies of uncertainty" Liberal Education vol.91 no.2 pp.18-25 [fuller version of the same paper]

    Snyder,Benson R. (1971) The hidden curriculum (MIT press; Boston, Mass.)

    Tenenberg, J. and Fincher,S. (2007) "Opening the Door of the Computer Science Classroom: The Disciplinary Commons" SIGCSE '07: Proceedings of the 38th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 2007

    Tinto,V. (1975) "Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research" Review of Educational Research vol.45, pp.89-125.

    Trotter,E. (2006) "Enhancing the early student experience: the student voice" Pedagogical Research in Higher Education (PRHE) conference 'Pedagogical Research: Enhancing student success' Slides available at: (visited 13 Nov 2008)

    Trotter, E. & Cove, G. (2005). Student retention: An exploration of the issues prevalent on a healthcare degree programme with mainly mature students. Learning in Health and Social Care, 4(1), 29-42.

    Trotter,E. & Roberts,C.A. (2006) "Enhancing the early student experience" Higher Education Research and Development 25(4) 371-386

    Wenger,E. (1998) Communities of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

    James Wetz (2006) "Holding children in mind over time" PDF.
    There was a Dispatches programme on it: The children left behind broadcast Monday 11 February 2008 8pm.

    Wood, D., Wood, H. & Middleton, D. (1978) "An experimental evaluation of four face-to-face teaching strategies" International Journal of Behavioral Development vol.1 pp.131-147.

    Zhao,C.M. & Kuh,G. (2004) "Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement" Research in Higher Education vol.45 no.2 pp.115-138.

    Web site logical path: [] [~steve] [localed] [dropout] [rival ideas on dropout] [this page]
    [Top of this page]