Residential learning communities at the center of new engaged learning seminar

Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning recently launched its sixth research seminar that brought participants from around North America to Elon for a week. 

More than two dozen researchers, faculty and staff members from a broad range of colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada recently spent a week at Elon University crafting new projects to explore how residential learning communities are impacting students and student learning.

The weeklong event kicked off what will be two years of research across these institutions as they explore the effectiveness and challenges of residential learning communities, which are designed to help create connections among students and between students and faculty while integrating learning into the residential experience. The session is the launch of the 2017-19 Research Seminar on Residential Learning Communities as a High-Impact Practice organized by Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning.

“If we didn’t have this opportunity through the Center for Engaged Learning’s research seminar, it would be very hard to get these people together, even virtually or digitally,” said Shannon Lundeen, director of academic initiatives for the residential campus and one of the seminar leaders. “The Center is the magnet that drew everyone together.”

This research seminar is the sixth from the Center for Engaged Learning, which explores high-impact practices within the realm of engaged learning. Spanning three years, each seminar begins by bringing together participants to formulate research questions that are then explored and refined through multi-institutional research during the next two years. “We look first at the international conversations around learning, particularly engaged learning,” said Jessie Moore, director for the Center of Engaged Learning. “We look for gaps in what we know, and try to be attentive not just to the U.S. conversation, but the international conversation as well.”

The focus on residential learning communities attracted 25 participants to the research seminar, which had its first session on Elon’s campus from June 25-30. Through a mixture of large and small group sessions, the participants divided themselves into five research groups, with each group finetuning a question to explore across their institutions during the next year.

​“As they merge into these teams, they are starting to learn each other’s areas of expertise,” said Cara McFadden, assistant professor of sport management and a former faculty-in-residence at Elon, who also serves as a seminar leader.

Along with determining the questions that will be explored during the next two years, the teams are learn about the resources both at the Center for Engaged Learning and more broadly that are available to them as they pursue their research projects. They worked to develop the networks within their teams and across the seminar participants that they will need as they conduct these multi-institutional studies.

“The learning happens for participants from the time they set foot on campus,” said Jody Jessup-Anger, associate professor of educational and policy leadership at Marquette University and a seminar leader. “They are learning about each other’s programs, and they can take new practices, new ways of thinking about residential learning communities, back to their home institutions.”

Residential learning communities are becoming increasingly prevalent across the higher education spectrum, but the research and literature exploring the impact the practice has is lagging behind, the seminar leaders say. By bringing together these practitioners and researchers, the goal is to explore the advancements and challenges as they exist in a variety of campus environments and take a multi-institutional approach to the research.

“The value that’s added through residential learning communities has not been articulated with any direct measures outside one’s own institution,” Lundeeen said. “We have a lot of assumptions about why they work well at a single institution, but we don’t understand how that operates across institutions.”

Mimi Benjamin, assistant professor of student affairs in higher education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the fourth seminar leader, echoed that thought. “I think we’re seeing nationally that there’s this desire to find out what is going on in other places,” Benjamin said.

With their research questions and projects in place by June 30, the participants departed Elon but will remain connected as they launch their projects and begin collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. Next June, they will reconvene in Elon to collaboratively analyze data, share their multi-institutional results and plan for a more sharply focused research agenda in the second year. In June 2019, Elon will host a conference on residential learning communities that will provide a platform to share the results of the extensive research work of the teams.

“Residential learning communities have moved from this niche practice to a more widespread practice designed to bolster undergraduate education on campus,” Jessup-Anger said. “The hope is that at their best, these residential learning communities will bring together everything we would want an undergraduate to experience.”