Learning Communities Set Freshmen on Course for Success

Making the transition from high school to university life can prove daunting –- but incoming freshman at OBU are given the chance for the best-possible first-year college experience through specialized Learning Communities.

Nearing its first year on Bison Hill, the Learning Communities program is managed by OBU’s Success Center. The communities extend the networks created during the Welcome Week experience by assigning groups of 15-20 freshmen to three or four common courses. The courses may revolve around a theme (interdisciplinary studies) or be connected to the student’s chosen major.

“I chose to be in a Learning Community because I wanted to be able to know the people I would be in class with,” said Jessa Manner, a freshman cross-cultural ministry major from Topeka, Kan. “Learning Communities did that for me because from the very first thing that we did on campus for Welcome Week, I knew the people in my group who were also the people in my classes.”

In addition to providing students an opportunity to meet classmates and build relationships with others in their major or area of mutual interest, the groups provide students a supportive network of peer mentors and professors. Getting to know a professor with a Ph.D. firsthand makes interacting with other professors on campus less daunting, said Monica Mullins, director of student success at OBU.

“I loved how well I got to know Dr. Blue, who was my Success 101 leader,” Manner said. “I don’t think that I would have gotten that chance had I not been in a Learning Community.”

Blue, vice president for academic services, is one of six professors leading Success 101 for the Fall 2011 semester through the Learning Communities, among others who will teach in their particular areas of study. Most Learning Communities at OBU are centered on the Success 101 course, which is based on Gallups’ StrengthsFinder assessment and designed to aid new students in their transition to college.

“Learning Communities provide new students with a more seamless and comfortable avenue through which they can engage with their professors and peers early in their collegiate experience,” Mullins said. “OBU graduates regularly note relationships with their professors as a significant factor in their college experience and national research continues to demonstrate the impact of that relationship upon overall student success. However, freshmen in college can find it challenging to get acquainted with their professors due to their own apprehensions or past experiences with teachers.

“Students who participate in Learning Communities at OBU can get acquainted with their professors before classes even begin and have the opportunity to spend time outside of class with faculty from the earliest of their days on Bison Hill. This provides them with a comfort level to access the very people who can best help them succeed throughout their collegiate career and beyond.”

Statistics show that typically 90 percent of freshmen enrolled for a fall semester return for the spring semester; Mullins said for students engaged in Learning Communities, the number rises to 96.7 percent. She said the students are engaged in quality interactions –- not quantity interactions -– with one another and their professors outside the classroom.

OBU’s Learning Communities have been enhanced by a recent $15,000 grant from the AT&T Foundation, Mullins said. Most of the funds will be used for the activities which occur outside the classroom such as field trips related to the areas of study, museum visits and weekend retreats. She said thanks to the grant, the activities will not be cost-prohibitive to the program, and the students will welcome that they are free.

“My experience with the Learning Community was great,” said Dr. Jerry Faught, Dickinson associate professor of religion. “We went hiking in the Wichita Mountains with our group in early September, and we bonded with our students and they bonded with each other on that trip. I suppose that when students see their professors boulder-hopping in shorts that the professors don’t seem so intimidating.

“We professors developed personal relationships with the students that enhanced the classroom environment in significant ways. I noticed that the students in the Learning Communities developed a level of comfort with fellow students and with professors early on in the semester that affected learning in a positive way.”

Mullins said every OBU professor approached about participating in a Learning Community has accepted the opportunity -– many offering creative ways to enhance their individual groups. Most of the faculty members who lead a Learning Communities plan interactive experiences for their group outside the classroom, such as the hiking excursion, special meals and other creative activities. They also plan team-building exercises, such as visiting a corn maze or tackling the challenging rock wall in OBU’s Recreation and Wellness Center.

“Students participated in several activities outside of class that added to their experience,” said Dr. Gina Kraft, assistant professor of kinesiology and leisure studies, who taught in the same Learning Community as Dr. Faught and participated in the hiking trip to the Wichita Mountains.

“I feel like I bonded particularly well with several of the students on the trip,” Kraft said. “Such activities allow them to see their professors and each other in a more relaxed environment than the classroom. We got to see more of each others’ personalities and each others’ true selves than we would ever get to experience only in the classroom. I feel like I was more of a ‘real human being’ to my students afterward, while knowing them much better as well.”

One hundred and ninety of OBU’s incoming freshmen in the Class of 2015 can take part in the Learning Communities offered in during the Fall 2011 semester, Mullins said. Priority deadline for Learning Community applications is Friday, April 15, although applications will be accepted following that date as long as openings exist.

“I would highly recommend being in a Learning Community because the curriculum is the same as it would be if you were not in a Learning Community and you only have something to gain,” Manner said. “Meeting people and getting connected on day one helps make the transition into college very nice!”

The interdisciplinary Learning Communities to be offered during the Fall 2011 semester include “The Unified Life,” “American Stories,” “Faith Seeking Understanding,” “A Culture for Dialogue and Debate,” “Vocation and Calling” and “Pop Culture: Engaging Media-Made America.”

Learning Communities by major will include “The Business Life” for business majors, “Body and Soul” for kinesiology and leisure studies majors, and two offerings for science majors: “Team Newton” and “Team Einstein.”

For more information about OBU Learning Communities, e-mail success@okbu.edu or call (405) 878-2258. For details about course offerings or to apply, click here.