Center for Engaged Learning seminar advances research about residential learning communities

The three-year seminar culminated this summer in a conference showcasing the latest findings about the impact residential learning communities have on the educational experience, mentorship and social connections.

Researchers, practitioners and a variety of university faculty and staff gathered at Elon recently to showcase and absorb the latest research into the impact that residential learning communities are having on student experiences in higher education.

The Conference on Residential Learning Communities as a High Impact Practice held June 16-17 drew more than 100 participants from colleges and universities around the country. The event anchored a week-long conclusion to a three-year seminar sponsored by the Center for Engaged learning and focused on the examination of residential learning communities.

Since first gathering during the summer of 2017, the more than two dozen participants in the seminar have identified research questions about the impact of residential learning communities, conducted extensive data collection and sought to pull from their research themes, best practices and areas for additional research.

“One of the highlights for me was the broader conversation,” said Jody Jessup-Anger, an associate professor of educational and policy leadership at Marquette University and one of four seminar leaders. “I feel like the seminar has really provided a foundation for folks who had some interest in RLCs but didn’t necessarily have the venue or support to engage in research. Because of the seminar, we have some really interesting questions being asked about RLCs that weren’t being asked before.”

The seminar has brought together faculty members and practitioners in residence life to examine what residential learning communities look like, how they are structured, how students and faculty benefit from them and to share best practices, said Cara McFadden, associate professor of sport management and a seminar leader. “It gives us the opportunity to show that faculty and practitioners can come together to do this meaningful work,” McFadden said.

​​A focus has been on what the residential learning community can mean for the ability of students to thrive, said Shannon Lundeen, director of academic-residential partnerships at Elon and a seminar leader. That includes a student’s sense of belonging, their deeper life interactions, and “a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the nexus between academic and social life,” she said.

The work of the seminar participants has deepened the understanding of the academic and social environments within residential learning communities, said Jessie Moore, director of the Center for Engaged Learning. "We do typically need both of those components in a community," Moore said. "The more we can have both integrated, the more impactful the experience will be fore students."

The two-day conference showcased the results of the work research seminar participants have completed since first coming together in June 2017 and offered the opportunity for other researchers in the area of residential learning communities to share their findings alongside the seminar participants. The conference featured keynote addresses by Karen Inkelas, currently the research director of the Crafting Success for Underrepresented Scientists and Engineers Project and co-author of the book “Living-Learning Communities that Work.”

Among the seminar groups presenting during the conference was a five-member team that includes Jennifer Eidum, assistant professor of English and faculty director for the Global Neighborhood at Elon. The group, which combined faculty members with residence life and housing staff members, examined 87 RLCs across four colleges and universities, and looked at characteristics they had in common. Through surveys of more than 3,000 students, the team was able to look at which types of students appeared to be thriving more from their RLC experiences, and which seemed to draw less benefit from their RLC.

​Eidum explained during her portion of the presentation that many RLCs have other high-impact practices in common, such as engaged learning, connection with faculty, staff and peers, and engaging with the world at large.

“Residential learning communities end up being a very important site to not only look into what the community does on its own, but it gives us insight into these other common intellectual experiences,” Eidum said.

RLCs can create a bridge for students between their academic and social lives through the residential experience,” she said. “We want to help students realize that in the place they live, it’s all right to talk about academics, it’s OK to be smart while having fun, that it’s OK to have fun in the classroom.”

Beyond the conference, the June gathering allowed the seminar participants to further process the work they have done during the past three summers as well as to look at opportunities that lie ahead.

For a number of participants, the seminar allowed them to branch out beyond what they’ve done previously in their careers and take a deep dive into research while also building professional networks, Lundeen said. “Most of them did not know each other before,” Lundeen said. “At least 40 percent if not more never thought of themselves as researchers, and now they are presenting their findings, they are writing manuscripts.”

Mimi Benjamin, associate professor of student affairs in higher education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a seminar leader, said in some cases, the seminar participants have created new measurement surveys and tools to explore the effectiveness of RLCs that didn’t exist before.

The four seminar leaders will be editing a special edition of the Learning Communities Research and Practice Journal that will publish in May 2020 and will feature work conducted by participants in the seminar.

“This is not a bookended event,” McFadden said. “It’s almost as if the past three years have really jumpstarted the work that is going to be happening for years to come.”