Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

On Learning Communities

In Faculty, Teaching on September 24, 2012 at 5:01 pm

One Experiment in Forging Learning Communities

by Paul LoCasto, Associate Professor of Psychology

Below I describe a small pilot experiment outlining a specific, high-impact learning community appropriate to the learning paradigm conversations we have been having in the College of Arts and Sciences and at Quinnipiac University in general. It is meant as one potential answer to the question—‘What might a learning community look like at Quinnipiac University?’ Developing out of the philosophy of the College of Arts and Sciences Action Plan, the purpose of the Experimental Program is to educate students in a process of self-directed growth necessary to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. This requires students to build a sense of personal responsibility for their own lives and the world they live in. They begin to do this by considering the issues and obstacles in constructing a life—including a work-life—that will sustain meaningfulness across a lifespan; by grappling with “ideas that would make the world, and their own lives, intelligible to them” as E.F. Schumacher (1973) has put it. Through a process of deep learning, students recognize that they are the architects of their own lives and engage in self-directed, intelligent living. A student of the experimental program asks “show me how to think and how to choose”—(as quoted in DelBanco, 2012, p.15) rather than ‘tell me the answer’.

Deep learning is the mechanism through which self-direction develops. For the Experimental Program (EP), deep learning is ultimately self-directed; benefits from ‘learning cycles’ that are longer and deeper than typically implied in traditional 50-75 minute classes; requires cycles that both progress across material but also refer back to themselves and prior cycles in order to build meta-cognitive skills (i.e. habits of mind); benefits from cycles that require both doing and also thinking about what they have done (i.e. “experiment and reflect”—the ‘gift of time’); most easily develops when content is integrated and centered around a problem or point of inquiry ; develops from particulars to first principles; is based upon fundamental reading, writing, and speaking skills; requires students to ‘learn about learning’; and benefits from a redefinition of traditional teacher/learner roles.

Learning Cycles & the Development of Self-Directed Learning

A fundamental principle of the proposal developed here is that the structure of the experimental program works with the learner’s own forces (e.g. desires, goals) rather than by imposing our own specific learning goals. Given this, faculty primarily act as models of mature learning rather than experts or authorities. As students’ begin to practice the mature learner’s habits of mind they must become aware of their own cycles—what Harrison (1977) refers to as cycles of “advance and retreat” what the EP refer to as periods of “experimenting and reflecting”—as they migrate from an externally driven process toward an internally driven process of learning. As this process unfolds, there is a gradual transference of responsibility for learning until students are “fully and firmly responsible for what [they] learn, what learning activities [they] engage in, with whom [they] work, and what cycle of work and rest [they] use to pattern [their] day” (Harrison, 1977 p. 78).

Gradual Transference Across Learning Cycles

The number and nature of the learning cycles employed are not fixed but instead are dependent upon the goals and purpose for which they are being used. Below a three cycle structure is used to broadly outline the progression towards self-directed learning- one that can then be adapted to other programs with similar aims.

Cycle 1—structured method and content. During this cycle, the goal is to help students uncover mature learners’ habits of mind which they then internalize and use as they become more self-directed. This first cycle includes sustained modeling and practice of techniques critical to the work required of all students in the later cycles of the course. The purpose of the assignments and material is always transparent to the learner.
Cycle 2—sees increasingly exercised choice in terms of what and how and when students learn. There is a fecund balance between structure and ambiguity; between the authority of the teacher and the students’ emerging self-direction. Students are increasingly involved in the design and content of the learning that takes place. As they develop further as mature learners, students have “skill and knowledge, and they see themselves as participants in their own education” (Grow, 1991, p. 133).
Cycle 3—From a traditional perspective, an outsider might describe this cycle as being “radically destructured time and space” (Harrison, 1977, p. 75) in terms of what is to be learned and how. This is because the structure is provided internally by the individual learners themselves. There is no rigid ‘classroom’ in which specific, already determined content is to be learned during a prescribed time frame. The learning space, on the other hand, can be objectively seen as a “structured learning resource system” (Harrison). The space and people within it are resources that the self-directed learner makes use of as necessary for her learning goals.

How the Pilot Experimental Program will Work

In this iteration, two rich metaphors are used to educate toward self-direction; building a sense of personal responsibility for their own lives and the world they live in. One, the metaphor of building a community and its implications for building a career—one’s course or progress through life. Two, the EP explores the metaphor of cartography or mapping including non-physical place (e.g. cognitive, emotional space) that can be used to map students’ growth and learning as well as mapping various relationships between themselves and their surroundings. They will not only map their physical place alongside psychological and emotional space but also their experiential learning across semesters. Members of the experimental program are ‘explorers of the world’—which constitutes not only particular knowledge or ways of thinking but extends into a way of being in the world.

With a group of students working alongside dedicated faculty as guides, mentors and models of ‘mature learners’, common markers of an instructional paradigm (e.g. 50-75 minute classes, emphasis on accumulating facts along the way to credits, delivery of these facts via traditional textbooks and lectures, and student disengagement from any integrative practices that lead to understanding) are exchanged for a more integrated, immersive approach that requires students to develop as self-directed learners as they engage with and attempt to discover solutions to real-world problems.

The Experimental Program is envisioned to span the fall and spring semesters of a student’s freshman year. Given the goals discussed above, the program can initially support a total of 25-30 students. The entire Experimental Program would meet, as official contact time, for 3 hours each day in a space conducive to integrated, inquiry-based work. There would be four professors involved in the program- with varying roles. The program would be the equivalent of 9 credits each semester. The “capstone” experience for both semesters would be a sustained and detailed presentation to the greater university community.

The project based nature of the program requires students demonstrate their expertise and understanding in self directed projects that are assessed by the learning community of which they are a part. The power that comes from a student’s ability to link how knowledge is constructed in one discipline to how things work in another is a hallmark of this educational model. The result is a student who is prepared to investigate, question, and create new solutions in the workplace, the community and in their own life.

The fall semester will begin with an introduction to the purpose, philosophy and ‘big questions’ of the experimental program. Students will be introduced, via modeling by faculty as ‘mature learners’, to the fundamental skills and habits of mind necessary for success. Students will begin inquiries that lead to structuring a self-directed approach to learning. The middle of the semester will revolve around the analysis of various communities (both historical and contemporary) in an attempt to uncover the assumptions and motivating principles (values) of its construction and growth, its affordances, and the behaviors/reactions it elicits. The end of the fall semester will use these analyses to identify the ‘first principles’ or ideas that they will need to consider when determining the construction of their own communities in the spring semester. This will culminate in the creation and defense of an ‘annotated syllabus’ for the spring semester.

The spring semester will be dedicated to the construction of a community/city. This semester-long project will act as a creative exercise that will put into practice the skills and understandings acquired in the first semester. What’s required here is a clear delineation of the values and purposes of the community that each team chooses to construct, a realistic and practical deployment of the tools necessary to construct a detailed model of this community, and a thoughtful analysis of the outcome which would explain why the choices made along the way have promise as human communities. For example, if students construct a “green” city, what values are implied here for a city that is now priced above the affordability of economically struggling families? In this way, students are forced to read values not only into the city itself, but also see the city as a map of their own values. The result will be similar to what Clifford Geertz (1973) has called a “thick description”.

This project also works as an interdisciplinary endeavor where students must consider issues fundamental and important to a wide-array of disciplines. What are the sociological/ historical/geographical/psychological/etc. implications of the city’s design? In the second semester, as more self-directed and mature learners, students will begin to put into practice their new skills as they begin to independently consider their city construction. As such, they are also working to hone the very skills that they will leave the experimental college with and take into the traditional classroom. Finally, the project also works as “glue” to help show students the relatedness between disciplines. While the traditional college structure speaks of interdisciplinary importance, the institutional structure makes achievement of such a perspective difficult. Students attend multiple subject based classes with no discussion of the links between these subjects. In contrast, the second-semester project demonstrates how all real problems require that students consider multiple disciplinary implications for each of their construction decisions. This creates a situation that forces students to think interdisciplinary, a skill that will “thicken” their experiences in more traditional subject-based classes later in their college experience.

There is more that could be described here- for instance, the daily and weekly ‘rhythms’ of cycles or the structured encouragement to go outside the classroom for experiences and knowledge to bring back and inform our work. However, I hope I have been able to outline the justifying philosophy behind the EP approach and why it is a high-impact learning community. As I said in the beginning, this is just one potential answer to the question—and hope that if nothing else, it gets you to consider other fruitful answers.


Axelrod, J. (1967). An experimental college model. Educational Record, 48 (Fall), 327-337.
Delbanco, A. (2012). College: What is was, is, and should be. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching Learners to Be Self-Directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125–49.
Harrison, R. (1977). Self-directed learning, a radical approach to educational design. Simulation and Games, 8(1), 73-94.
Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers. New York: Cambridge Adult Education.
Meiklejohn, A. (1932). The Experimental College. Harper. Retrieved from http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/UW.MeikExpColl
Schumacher, E. F. (1999; 1973). Small is beautiful :Economics as if people mattered : 25 years later … with commentaries. Point Roberts, Wash.: Hartley & Marks Publishers.
University of California A. S. S. C. On Education. (1966). Education at Berkeley: Report. University of California. Retrieved from http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt8b69n9jf&chunk.id=d0e501&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text


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