Learning community

(Not relevant to this topic)      Characteristics of learning communities   Creating inclusivity in your unit
    Communication as the foundation   Faculty programs to foster community
    UoS coherence & alignment   Other resources

Why develop a learning community?

A sense of being part of a learning community helps students to learn more effectively, by providing support and encouragement, as well as an awareness of how their discipline area sits within the larger professional community outside the University.

Main characteristics of supportive learning environments

An inclusive learning environment builds connections and support networks between peers from diverse backgrounds, or with different experiences and needs, and helps students to recognise what can be learnt from these situations.

Students share responsibility for learning, through collaborative work amongst peers, which involves sharing discoveries and evaluating information in ways that foster learning skills.

Students have meaningful interactions which help them to learn and to work effectively, and which extend beyond the unit group or the social cohort, into the faculty and the professional community.

Students gain an understanding of the connections between their prior learning or life experiences, the other areas in which they are studying, and the context of their learning within the larger community. This gives a sense of continuity to their role as learners.

Communication as the foundation

Good communication between teachers and students and among students themselves is one of the most effective ways to give new students a sense of belonging to a learning community.

Connecting in class

  • There are some excellent tips on how to open lines of communication between lecturer and students, and amongst students themselves, in class situations on the Including Students page from the Business School.
  • Remember that you can use your eLearning site to communicate information to students and to encourage the communication between them through online discussions and forums.

Connections between students and faculty

  • Staff/student liaison organised within your faculty are an important link between the cohort and teachers, particularly if a department does not teach first year subjects, or the first year classes are very large.
  • You can also organise focus groups to evaluate your unit, or gather feedback from a large cohort. See Other methods of evaluating your teaching in our section on Evaluating your teaching for more information.
  • Keep a look out for students who would make good faculty liaison/student representatives/ focus group interviewees, and ask them to be involved, as well as suggesting their names to degree coordinators, sub-deans etc.
  • If you are a first year advisor in a department that does not teach first year subjects it can be hard to get to know your students unless they have problems. Make sure that the lines of communication are open between yourself and your service teachers, or unit coordinators of first year topics. This may involve formal meetings, or emails, or any other method that allows you to monitor the student cohort.
Learning community - Nursing

Building connections

Unit of Study (UoS) coherence and alignment

First year students feel more involved in their learning when they understand the connections between their units of study, as well as subjects in later stages of their course.

  • In the case of foundational units that cross faculties, first year students may need help in order to see the coherence between these units. This requires some work between coordinators, program directors and so on, to ensure alignment both within and between units. See our section on UoS alignment for more information.
Creating a sense of inclusivity in your unit

In a university environment where first year students may feel anonymous, at least in the beginning, students have to develop a sense of being involved in a learning community. One way to do this is make diverse groups of students feel recognised and included in the larger group. To do this you need to have an understanding of the background and composition of the cohort, as well as some awareness of how to deal with diversity in your unit in ways that gives students a sense of identity and connectivity.

  • Use statistics to find out about the cohort. Information about the origin of students can be obtained through the FlexSIS system. Although you may not have access to this database your Faculty’s student administration, or your head of department should be able to help you. You can request a ‘report’ from FlexSIS, which takes a few weeks but will give a read out of socio-demographic information, which can help you to plan topics that engage your students’ areas of interest. In smaller classes you can use group activities or quick questionnaires to learn more about individual students. When classes are large, statistics may be the most effective way get to know your students.
  • It may be important to consider the characteristics of the cohort when designing your UoS. Things to consider include: the proportion of non-native speakers and the nationalities of students, mature students who have work experience, enrolment numbers, and, where applicable, the students’ majors. Colleagues who have taught your UoS in the past may be a good source of information about what type of students have taken this unit in the past.
  • Consider teaching strategies that help students connect to each other, such as groupwork, or online discussions on Blackboard9 (don’t forget to monitor these, or organise for your sessional staff to do so).
  • You can also incorporate information gathered about your cohort into your teaching content, thus making the subject matter relevant to the group. It is best to maintain individual’s anonymity in these circumstances, and to focus on general information rather than anything sensitive or very specific. One example of this approach has been used by Lorraine Smith in Pharmacy. In tutorials, students completed a 'personal profile' containing questions about why they chose pharmacy, if anyone in their family practiced pharmacy, where they'd like to be in 5 years time,etc plus some general demographic info. The collated data were then used in a lecture later on in the semester about lifespan development (specifically, early adulthood). In this way, the examples that the teacher used, of the challenges and hopes and aspirations of early adulthood, was directly related to the cohort.
Learning community - Education

Programs within the faculties can foster learning communities

Below are some exemplars of programs which are designed to develop a sense of a learning community amongst new students.

The Nursing School’s CALD program
The CALD program at Sydney Nursing School is a response to the cultural and linguistic diversity of their student cohort. The program has a number of aims, which include assisting students to adapt to the learning environment and to gain an understanding of cultural differences in the management of illness; to provide academic and practical advice and support; and to develop the students’ social network. In 2009, the creator Maureen Boughton received an ALTC citation for the program.

The Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources first-year-community strategy
In this faculty several first year units are service taught outside the faculty and so the coordinator of the faculty-based UoS has developed a semester-long program to ensure that students feel part of a learning community.

  • Introductory lectures focus on big picture issues and the basics of survival to generate broad interest in the faculty.
  • Students are allocated to groups each of which has early contact with a staff/senior student mentor from the faculty.
  • Activities, discussions and a problem-based learning module utilise the group structure which is supported with informal assessments with group competition and ‘awards’, over subsequent weeks of the semester.
  • Students undertake excursions, which also involve group based tasks, again with a staff/senior student mentor where possible.
  • A final lunch with informal group ‘awards’ on an excursion finishes the semester.

Other resources

The Merlot Pedagogy portal describes learning communities as ‘the process by which individuals come together to achieve learning goals.’ See their page on Learning communities for resources including how to plan and manage a learning community, and how they impact on student learning.

See other sections on the FYE site for more information about the topics above. These are listed in the feature pane on the right.