The Learning Communities Study Group advised that St. Olaf focus on a particular kind of curricular experience as it sought to increase student access:
A learning community . . . is characterized by duration (extending over at least 2 terms), intensity, intentionality and interdisciplinarity [and]… activities outside the classroom. These activities could involve living together, but non-residential options, where students meet outside of class for other activities, both social and intellectual, should also be available. These could also include travel, academic civic engagement, and advising.
It advised that learning communities should be multi-term, integrated courses that are (ideally) team-taught, interdisciplinary, and should include GE credits, preferably with at least one foundational attribute (FYW, BTS-B, AQR, ORC, WRI, SPM) and with a credit-added incentive (at least one more GE credit than course credits, so a two-course sequence would have at least three GE attributes).
It recommended that, to enhance student access to learning communities, St. Olaf could:
- Provide sufficient numbers and varieties of opportunities to meet student demand for first and second year experiences, and focus primarily on first year students.
- Where possible, expand the capacity of current programs.
- Explore the possibility of a fine arts related learning community.
- Ensure that communication to new and potential students includes accurate information about all learning communities.
- Explore new models of learning communities. Some examples include
- Topical Conversations, extending over two or three terms, as a sequence of courses that are connected by a timely theme (as such, the “Top Con” theme would change every few years).
- Common Interim Courses, where interim courses would pursue a common thematic focus and thereby allow multiple courses to share resources such as plenary speakers, field trips, service projects, skill workshops, cross-pollinating discussion; the interim course could be paired with different fall semester courses.
- Enhance support for participating faculty members, and link that support to expectations for a certain level of continued participation.
- Enhance administrative resources.
- Budget for the additional costs linked to the co-curricular activities of the expanded offerings.
Achievements and Actions:
- The total enrollment in learning communities increased from 395 in the fall of 2011, to 401 in the fall of 2012, to 443 in fall 2013, as the result of the following:
- An additional section of Asian Conversations was added, and staffing models now allow for wider participation among faculty members.
- An Environmental Conversation pilot entailing a three-course sequence that links pairs of WRI 111 and REL 121 courses with a shared interim section of ENVST 137. 2014/15 will be the second of a two-year pilot of the learning community. Students enrolled in the Environmental Conversations also have a residential component.
- Additional funds, through the Wright endowment, support faculty development and course activities in the Great Conversation.
- Two other learning communities are the subject of on-going faculty discussion.
- Admission has worked with the directors of the Conversations to improve the information distributed to prospective and newly admitted students, with care given to represent those learning communities offered in the second year.
While we have steadily advanced the opportunities for students, we still turn qualified applicants away.