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Wayne State University

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Sep 9 / Monica Brockmeyer

Learning Communities in Action: Meet Christy Nolan





Meet Christy Nolan

Recently our Student Success office interviewed Christy Nolan about his involvement in Learning Communities and what they mean to students.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I am the Director of Campus Recreation. I have a passion for student development and enjoy those teachable vignettes when students have an “aha” moment and then really take off in their initiative, accountability, and possibilities. My doctorate is in Education, specifically Higher Ed Administration. My area of expertise is in experiential learning and student engagement with peers and faculty.

Describe your learning community.


The Freshmen Quests Learning Community is a two-phased LC. Phase I (August) consists of a three-day, two-night canoeing and camping trip led by upperclassmen. We travel on the AuSauble River from Roscommon to Mio, MI. The freshmen see upperclassmen, just a little older than them, taking on real responsibility and leading all aspects of a 44-mile back-country adventure. Faculty and staff are alongside the freshmen every step of the trip and serve in the role of expert in a specific content area, but more importantly, the faculty serve as mentors and friends to the freshmen. The goals of Phase I are for the freshmen to have fun, to make friends, realize that faculty and staff are genuinely vested in their success, and learn all the information that cannot possibly be fit into orientation.

Phase II (September-December) consists of a two-credit course in the fall term. The course focuses on critical thinking, writing at the college level, leadership ability, communication style, and the assessment of one’s personality style. Academic and social aspects of college are presented as intertwining and not separate entities. This enables the freshmen to better account for their academic obligations in college and studying shifts to a social activity with friends instead of something that is avoided or viewed as a burden. The goals of Phase II is for freshmen to understand their abilities, know and make use of resources on campus, and for the freshmen to learn to be accountable for their college journey. There are many resources and mentors available to the freshmen, however, the freshmen must be an active participant in their success.

FQ pic 1

FQ life jacketsFQ pic 2

Why did you initiate this learning community?

The LC was initiated specifically to address retention at the institution. It was discovered that the LC can fulfill a variety of roles for the department and the institution. For my department, it functions as a three-day interview for students. We learn who works well under pressure and adapts to change and uncertain surroundings. The LC also functions as a window for other departments to look through and understand the student development opportunities that take place within recreation programs and facilities.

What are your learning outcomes and how do you measure them?

Assessment of the LC is accomplished with both quantitative and qualitative methods. First, every participant completes an online survey that is created in partnership with Campus Labs. Secondary and more in depth assessment is conducted through 1 on 1 interviews with participants. The qualitative results may be viewed in my dissertation. I am currently collaborating on publishing the collective result of those methods.

What I’ve found in sifting through the data (both quantitative and qualitative) is that when students believe there is an event that is significant in their lives (not just a single moment), then they are open and more receptive to the advice and information we provide during the trip. When faculty, upperclassmen and new students all participate in this trip, and it is perceived by the student as a significant life event, the student is receptive to the information and is likely to act on the resources we provide. This leads to academic persistence and retention (see Figure 1).

Nolan’s model of learning community impact

What advice would you give to faculty members who are interested in starting an LC?

The advice I have for those who have never considered an LC start up? Retention and quality of the students’ experience is everyone’s responsibility on this campus. An LC is an avenue to be more connected to your students, and perhaps, understand some barriers to their success. Faculty are the key to LC success. The more actual faculty are engaged with students, the more robust the student experience and performance becomes.

FQ group talking

Can you share any student and/or faculty “aha” moments or breakthroughs you’ve seen in your learning community?

The moment/s that stand out for me come when students report just how powerful of an experience their participation in the LC can be. Students report that participation in this LC is a life changing event. They report that they make connections that last a lifetime. Additional learning outcomes show that students report significant self-discovery and learn that regardless of the diversity present on campus, most students have the same concerns about attending college for the first time.

If you’d like to engage with Christy Nolan regarding his research and learning community program, please leave a comment below or contact him directly at

Aug 22 / Monica Brockmeyer

WSU Learning Communities


On any given new student orientation day, you will find current students, faculty, staff and advisors bustling around campus assisting new students (and families) through the transition to Wayne State. And above the bustling crowd, you will hear an exuberant “Woo-hoo!” from WSU’s learning community coordinator, Amy Cooper.

learning community (LC) is a group of students, faculty and peer mentors who learn together, leading to discovery of themselves as learners as well as of the world around them.  Learning communities can be organized around a course, a program, or theme.   Peer mentors are key to the success of learning communities — they help create environments where students and peer mentors can work together to ask questions, solve problems and learn from each other, as well as to get to know each other and have fun.

“When talking to faculty interested in creating a learning community, the first thing I tell them is that no two LCs look alike”, says Amy. “We all have a common end in mind – to enhance student learning and increase our retention rate and student success among all students. But how we get there varies by course, teaching style and learning style.”


Nationally, learning communities are known to be a particularly effective high-impact practice (Kuh, 2008) at colleges and universities.  High-impact practices — due to the levels of engagement and learning that they promote — support student learning, student success, and retention that lasts long after the end of the duration of the high-impact experience.  The success of a learning community is multifaceted and depends on factors such as engagement, teaching pedagogy, learning styles, learning outcomes/goals and support.  But the foundation for the success is in the quality of the relationships they support — relationships among students, between students and peer mentors and between students and faculty.

When learning and community “come together in effective ways, they represent the most effective pedagogical concept that have been developed in the last twenty years. Further, they (LCs) create a framework where faculty, staff and students can learn together, which is known to be the most powerful concept in education” (Shapiro, 1999).

Based on national best practices, Wayne State learning communities have the following student learning objectives across various programs:

  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Improve ability to apply knowledge and solve problems
  • Make appropriate use of student services
  • Develop ability to collaborate with others
  • Experience a successful transition to the university and successfully identify and pursue their goals

Wayne State has continued to invest in this collaborative program over the past seven years because learning communities have proven to increase our student retention rate. Since 2006, students in our learning communities have been retained from their first to second year at a rate that averages 8.5% higher than students who have not joined learning communities during their first year.

We know that learning communities are a best-practice when it comes to student success. And we know that students are looking for supportive ways to engage at a large, research university so they have a successful experience.

Scaling the learning communities program is an objective outlined in the 2011-approved Retention Report, as well as noted in the current WSU Strategic Plan, and we are interested in continuing this success. We have a great framework from which to start, with more than 40 learning communities this coming academic year; and we can do much more to diversify our program offerings to meet the needs of all WSU students. For those interested in creating a learning community or working with students in a learning community, contact Amy Cooper at or 313-577-2254. A call for 2015-16 Learning Community proposals will be out later this fall. You can always visit the learning communities website to review proposal documents, assessment requirements and a list of all current communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about learning communities, I recommend two great books:  Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change, and Implementing Programs, by Shapiro and Levine and Sustaining Learning Communities by Laufgraben and Shapiro.   I have two copies of each book to give away, so if you want one let me know in the comments below.  Just tell us a few sentences about your goals, thoughts, questions or challenges with respect to learning communities.  I’ll randomly select two recipients for each book from the comments that are posted by the end of Monday, August 25.



Kuh, George D., High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008.

Laufgraben, Jodi Levine, and Nancy S. Shapiro. Sustaining and improving learning communities. John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Shapiro, Nancy S., and Jodi H. Levine. Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change, and Implementing Programs. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104, 1999.


Aug 20 / Monica Brockmeyer

Welcome to the WSU Student Success Blog!


Welcome to the Student Success Blog!  Since 2011, the Undergraduate Student Success Initiative (USSI) has been promoting student learning and success, with the expectation that we will build on our previous progress to improve our retention and graduation rates.   However, Student Success means so much more than retention rates, GPAs and graduation rates.

At Wayne State University our mission is to create and advance knowledge.   Therefore, the first element of student success is STUDENT LEARNING.  As an institution of excellence and opportunity, our goal must be that students learn a great deal while they are here with us.   Secondly, we know that colleges and universities — particularly urban research universities like Wayne State — are uniquely positioned to engage with the most pressing questions and provide the knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary for the 21st century.  As a result, the second element of success is LEARNING THAT MATTERS – matters for the students, for our communities, our workforces, and the world.   Finally, the advantages that accrue to degree completion are well documented, and so the third element is LEARNING THAT LEADS TO A TIMELY DEGREE.

students under tree

There’s no silver bullet leading to these results.  Instead, the evidence shows that student success is the result of multiple re-enforcing investments in our students, faculty, other members of the WSU community, and campus.

The USSI commits to improvements in six major areas:

  • Curriculum, particularly General Education
  • Undergraduate Academic Advising
  • Undergraduate Teaching and Learning
  • College Readiness
  • First-year experiences and High Impact Practices
  • Financial Support and Financial Literacy

In addition to these six areas, the Office of Student Success in the Provost’s office is partnering with schools, colleges, departments, and many other units across campus on a variety of initiatives and programs to support student success.  In this blog, I’ll be highlighting activities that are under way that promote learning and success across the campus and updating you on the implementation of the USSI.  I’ll introduce you to faculty leaders who are bringing best practices to the classrooms and challenging our students to greatness.  I’ll share data about our progress.  But more than that, I’ll be looking forward to hearing from the whole campus community about the issues, challenges, and opportunities we face and what each of us can do to promote and support student learning, success, and retention.

I look forward to our communication in the coming months.    Please share your comments, thoughts, ideas and questions in the comments area below.