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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:
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.
See also, perhaps,
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.
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.)
Learners benefit from others with and without
special expertise, intention, or being personally known
+ indicates an activity initiated by the learner (proactive-ness)
Scaffolding of procedural skills
+ Ask a tutor
Writing a textbook,
+ Asking an expert
|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
|+ Alternating roles e.g. testing each other, student reciprocal
The same but imposed by staff
Anonymised versions of student reciprocal critiquing,
+ Posting a question to a forum
+ 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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.]
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.
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.
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).
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 ]
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: http://ewds.strath.ac.uk/REAP07 (visited 15 Nov 2008)
Ben-Shahar, Tal (2007) Happier ch8. p.118
Berger, John (1968/1997) A fortunate man (Vintage Books: London)
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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"
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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)
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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).
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Wenger,E. (1998) Communities of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
James Wetz (2006) "Holding children in mind over time"
There was a Dispatches programme on it: The children left behind broadcast Monday 11 February 2008 8pm.
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Zhao,C.M. & Kuh,G. (2004) "Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement" Research in Higher Education vol.45 no.2 pp.115-138.
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