National Study of Living Learning Programs


Connecting Theories of Student Development to Key Features of Living Learning Programs

In this section, we describe connections between the student development theories and NSLLP findings presented earlier, with a central focus on the ways in which the various theories explain our key findings and the implications they hold for L/L programming.

Lessons fromHolland’s Theory of Vocational Personality

For many faculty, staff, and paraprofessionals already working in living learning programs, the basic lesson of Holland’s Theory of Vocational Personality is no surprise: a given student’s “fit” with his or her academic and social environment can have a substantial impact on whether or not that student will flourish. Indeed, the general dictum that fit breeds comfort, and comfort success, is borne out by the results presented earlier: students’ reports that their hall was academically supportive was related to a wide range of important STEM outcomes, as was their frequency of conversations with peers about academic issues and other measures of hall social environments. This simple lesson has powerful implications for designing living-learning programs, which work best when there is a coherent, educationally-purposive culture shared by all participants.

Specifically, we encourage practitioners to:

Accurately and actively market the features and goals of your program to potential incoming students

Given the level of commitment membership in a living-learning program represents, potential incoming students need access to realistic portraits of participants’ day-to-day lives. We recommend this go beyond posting prior-year curricula or participant biographies to a program website, although both of these can be useful to some students. Depending on the culture of your institution, potential strategies may include:

  • collaborating with the Housing office to host “overnight” programs, in which interested students spend the evening in the residence hall among current students, getting a preview of life in the community, or
  • working with colleagues in Admissions to have student representatives from your program available on “junior/senior visit” days or high-school outreach trips.

Develop strong selection processes

Equally important in ensuring participant-program fit is the development of selection processes that allow practitioners to learn about the traits, interests, and goals of potential participants. In that way, program directors can help ensure student expectations and interests are in line with what the program can reasonably deliver. While the rigor of that selection process must be carefully matched to program goals and objectives, useful strategies include asking students to include a resume of their prior experiences with their program application, writing a brief essay about how they hope to contribute to the community, or conducting phone or in-person meetings with potential participants during the admissions process.

Develop and maintain norms that promote social and academic support, both in the hall and in the classroom

Because students’ sense that their learning community is academically and socially supportive is strongly linked to so many important outcomes—including smooth transition and sense of belonging—it is critically important that professional and paraprofessional staff work with learning community members to develop supportive hall norms. Most residential communities already have systems in place to create community standards, but in our experience staff members may give the process of setting norms and developing systems to maintain them only cursory attention. It is important to remember that students who opt to participate in learning communities often have very high expectations. As such, staff may find it necessary to spend more time than usual setting and attending to norms.

In particular, staff members are encouraged to address issues about creating environments conducive to study and, as appropriate, mutual assistance on projects and assignments. It is also of paramount importance that staff spend time attending to issues of multiculturalism and diversity, as our research suggests this issue, above any other, contributes to students’ sense that their residential community is socially supportive. Finally, staff working with residential learning communities must remember that participants often fail to make distinctions between what happens in the residential community and what happens in the classroom. As a result, staff must be prepared to:

  1. assist in the norms-setting process in the classroom, and, to the extent that they are physically separate spaces
  2. be willing to address in the residential community floor what happens in the classroom.

Promote vocational exploration

Programs that expose students to the work of their chosen discipline can help students assess their “fit” with STEM itself and the broad array of work roles within the STEM enterprise, such as basic science, applied research, production activities, or service to end-users. Alumni panels and workplace visit days may be appropriate interventions for first-year students in STEM, with options for extended placements like internships and co-ops being offered to second-year students and beyond. Indeed, results in Table 6 suggest this sort of activity is linked to higher levels of professional self-confidence, and belief in the likelihood of STEM degree completion, entering graduate school in a STEM field, and getting a good job in the STEM workforce.

Lessons from Social cognitive career theory (SCCT)

Perhaps no other theory highlights the importance of the environment in academic and vocational development as clearly as SCCT. Developed by Lent et al. 1994, SCCT points to the important connections between academic and career-related development and a myriad of contextual factors, such as programs, educational and other experiences, and interactions with a variety of individuals. The results of our study indicate that contextual experiences play an enormous role in the development of women in STEM majors who participate in L/L programs. Following are some highlights from the NSLLP results, suggesting powerful ways to enhance L/L programs in order to support women in STEM fields:

Encourage academic and career-related discussions among L/L participants

Academic and career-related discussions with peers are clearly associated with a range of important outcomes, from smooth academic and social transition to college to the likelihood a student attaches to attend graduate school in a STEM field and getting a good job in STEM. From a practical perspective, programming that stresses formal and informal peer interactions should be emphasized, giving women in STEM crucial opportunities and a safe environment to discuss the opportunities and challenges they face in their curricular and co-curricular engagement in college.

Facilitate interactions among L/L participants and faculty members

Interacting with faculty members around issues related to courses appears to be almost as influential in the development of female STEM majors as academic and career-related discussions with peers, holding a positive association with six outcomes (smooth academic transition; professional self-confidence; academic self-confidence; and likelihood to finish STEM degree, to attend graduate school in STEM, and to get a good job in STEM). These findings point the importance of not only faculty involvement in L/L programs, but also creating opportunities for students to discuss their course-related experiences (in both courses offered in L/L programs and in the regular college curriculum) with faculty members.

Create academically and socially supportive residence environments

Arguably, discussions with peers and faculty members are greatly enhanced in the context of academically supportive residence halls, as indicated in our findings. Indeed, students who noted that their residence hall was academically supportive also indicated a smoother academic and social transition; a stronger sense of belonging, professional self-confidence, and academic self-confidence; and a higher likelihood they attached to getting a good job in a STEM field. A socially supportive residence hall environment (indicated in the outcomes of academic and social transition and sense of belonging) is also important for L/L programs, strengthening the chances that women in STEM majors will have a successful postsecondary experience and career.

Create a variety of focused programs that address L/L participants’ academic and social development

L/L programs can support the experiences of women in STEM fields through focused programming. For example, providing opportunities to visit the work settings of STEM professionals is especially important from the perspective of professional self-confidence and the likelihood of finishing an undergraduate degree in STEM, attending graduate school in STEM, and getting a good job in STEM. In addition, involving women in STEM in high school outreach activities is also effective in easing students’ social transition to college, and enhancing their sense of belonging and professional self-confidence. Lastly, seminars and lectures organized by L/L programs provide important ways to improve women in STEM majors’ academic transition and critical thinking skills.

Lessons From Perry’s Theory of Moral and Ethical Development

Perry’s theory of moral and ethical development is especially useful in explaining why some living learning program environments lead to positive social and academic outcomes among undergraduates, while others provide lesser benefits. College students’ and, in particular, L/L student participants’ development is represented along the continuum of stages outlined by Perry, from dualism through commitment foreseen. Understanding these developmental stages provides L/L program practitioners with valuable knowledge related to planning various programs and opportunities for students. Following are several suggestions linking findings from the NSLLP with student development theory and L/L practice:

Encourage course-related faculty interactions and make opportunities

Because the majority of L/L program participants are first-year students, many of them are at the dualist stage in Perry’s developmental schema, where knowledge is often viewed as right or wrong. As dualists, many L/L participants view faculty members as experts in the field who can present them with all the right answers. This explains why L/L participants tend to benefit from course-related interactions with faculty, as such interactions give students the opportunity to learn more about the subject matter from experts to whom they look up as the absolute bearers of relevant knowledge. Faculty mentorship, on the other hand, harbors a type of student-faculty interaction that may reach beyond course content and it is likely that students at the dualist stage may not be ready to engage in such mentoring interactions with faculty. This, however, does not mean that opportunities for faculty mentoring should not be created for those students who have advanced beyond the dualist stage. In fact, such opportunities should be available and encouraged with a view to students’ future development, as they become more open to relativist views of knowledge.

Create academically and socially supportive climates

Interacting with faculty members around issues related to courses appears to be almost as influential in the development of female STEM majors as academic and career-related discussions with peers, holding a positive association with six outcomes (smooth academic transition; professional self-confidence; academic self-confidence; and likelihood to finish STEM degree, to attend graduate school in STEM, and to get a good job in STEM). These findings point the importance of not only faculty involvement in L/L programs, but also creating opportunities for students to discuss their course-related experiences (in both courses offered in L/L programs and in the regular college curriculum) with faculty members.

Create academically and socially supportive residence environments

As undergraduates advance through the stages of development proposed by Perry, they open up to different perspectives on what knowledge means, becoming more interested in diverse viewpoints and gradually accepting the importance of relativistic views of knowledge. Academically and social supportive residence hall environments play a central role in strengthening students’ developing beliefs in diverse perspectives and such environments are crucial in supporting L/L participants’ growing interest in more relativistic notions of knowledge and learning. In order to achieve these goals, worthwhile activities for L/L programs include:

  • Creating opportunities (e.g., lectures, workshops, or meetings) for students to engage in conversations around complex issues in a supportive environment, with the participation of faculty members,
  • Establishing support for diversity as one of the foundational values of L/L programs through mission statements and student-centered activities.

Intentionally integrate L/L program activities in the classroom and beyond

Helping students see that learning can occur anywhere, including in and outside of the classroom, is also in line with the movement Perry described in students’ development toward a relativistic view of knowledge. It is, therefore, important for L/L program practitioners to recognize that learning can take place in student rooms and lounges, during workshops, on cultural outings, while confirming community service, etc. With this in mind, L/L programs should:

  • Take a broad view of knowledge and design a variety of opportunities for students to be exposed to an engage in learning in a wide range of setting, including those in the classroom and outside of it.
  • In the context of STEM specifically, it is especially important to involve women in professional STEM settings, where they can gain a more hands-on understanding of their fields and future professions.

Lessons from Theories of Women’s Development

In the previous chapter, we reviewed theories of women’s cognitive development Belenky et al., 1986, moral development Gilligan, 1982, and identity development Josselson, 1987s. Perhaps the most important lesson from these theories for L/L program practitioners is that women’s development can take many shapes and forms, suggesting that a one-size-fits-all model will not address the needs of all undergraduate women in STEM fields. For example, while some women students might act with strong confidence in their academic and professional choices (Josselson’s pathbreakers), others might be engaged in a more intense process of identity exploration (searchers) during their college years. These theories, then, underscore the importance of flexibility in L/L programming for women in STEM, taking into account various pathways of cognitive, moral, and identity development. Findings from the NSLLP have identified a variety of L/L practices that afford practitioners this flexibility, while drawing on some of the major tenets of Belenky et al.’s 1986, Gilligan’s 1982, and Josselson’s 1987 theories. The following bullet points summarize the various ways in which L/L programs can align their practices with women’s development theories in contributing to important social and academic outcomes among participants:

Create opportunities for learning in both academic and non-academic contexts

L/L programs offer a variety of academic learning opportunities in the setting of classes, interactions around course issues with faculty and peers, and lectures. For female students, however, learning in non-academic contexts may be just as important. Strategies that address this aspect of women’s development include:

  • Organizing informal events in conjunction with classes and lectures that allow students to discuss issues raised in academic settings in a more informal environment,
  • Involving faculty members more broadly to be involved in social events organized by L/L programs,
  • Promoting visits outside of campus, to the work setting of STEM professionals or professional workshops off campus.

Strengthen opportunities for interpersonal learning

Although individual learning remains important for all college students, interpersonal learning is especially important for women. In order to create these environments, it is important to:

  • Encourage women’s engagement in discussions with peers and faculty members around a variety of issues concerning their studies and other matters,
  • Involve resident advisors (RAs) and peer advisors (PAs) in a broad range of informal and formal activities and events.

Create environments where women feel academically and socially supported and where they have opportunities to reach out to others

Academically and socially supportive residence halls emerged as some of the most powerful contributors to women’s social and academic outcomes. Creating such environments through careful planning is thus paramount in L/L programs. In addition, women also benefit from opportunities where they can act as support mechanisms to others. Outreach activities to high schools, for example, represent an off-campus activity that engages women in learning in novel ways, encouraging them to develop a stronger self-confidence and sense of belonging. Other strategies may include:

  • Setting up peer mentoring plans within L/L programs where women who participated in earlier years can mentor program participants,
  • Making opportunities for L/L program participants to reach out to the college community, to other women interested in STEM fields who would benefit from interacting with women involved in L/L programs.

In women-only STEM L/L environments, consider involving men in some programs and activities

Although not all women-only STEM L/L programs in the NSLLP involved men in their programs and activities, our findings from the qualitative case study showed that doing so can create a supportive environment, where women in STEM majors can engage in social and academic pursuits alongside men who support their advancement. Men may participate in specially planned events around academic and career issues or in a range of social activities in L/L programs.

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