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Learning communities focus on student retention, support

November 4, 2010

Learning communities have been created at UW-River Falls in an effort to retain students following their first year of college.

According to the UW-System, at the start of the last year there were 568 more freshman than sophomores.

Following a student’s first year, they are at the greatest risk of dropping out of college, said Director of Student Health and Counseling Services Alice Reilly-Myklebust.

“Some of the students that I have worked with have been particularly concerned with the college itself. For some it is too small; and for others it’s too large,” said Communications Manager for First-Year Experience Amy Aschenbrener.

As part of First-Year Experiences, one of the solutions to student retention is establishing learning communities. The goal of these communities is to get students to connect in and out of the classroom, said First-Year Experience Director Sarah Egerstrom.

“They take classes together and live together,” Egerstrom said. “There is this idea that it helps students connect easily on campus.”

Daniel Ehrenberg said he enjoyed his experience living in a learning community.

“It was a good way to transition from high school to college,” he added.

Aschenbrener said it is a good networking opportunity.

“Your life is going to be here for four years, establishing connections is important,” Aschenbrener said.

Learning communities establish strong support for each other and peers encourage classroom attendance, said Ehrenberg.

“Students are more successful,” Reilly-Myklebust said. “Maintaining the retention rate is the whole point behind learning communities.”

Students who participate in learning communities have a higher GPA and retention rates, said Egerstrom.

UW-Whitewater found that students who participated in learning communities were more successful academically. The reason for their success did not depend on whether or not they volunteered to be in a learning community or if they were assigned to be in it, said Egerstrom.

There are currently two communities at UWRF with 94 freshman students and 10 faculty participating, said Egerstrom.

Departments have sought out FYE to establish a themed learning community, said Aschenbrener.

Last year, “Connections” was a pilot learning community; this year, “iROCK” was implemented by Counseling Services, Egerstrom said.

Connections students live in Hathorn Hall, and iROCK students live in May Hall, said Aschenbrener.

Students need to apply to live in the learning communities, said Residence Life West Area Coordinator Tracy Gerth.

Egerstrom said there will be two more communities next year: “Taking Care of Business,” which is designated for Business majors, and women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The newest program, iROCK, shares its title with another program on campus. It is centralized on three core themes: sustainability, social justice and personal wellness, said iROCK Physical Education Professor Paul Shirilla.

The sustainability component has also encompassed one of the goals of UWRF, said Egerstrom.

Health is directly related to an students GPA, said Reilly-Myklebust.

According to the River Falls College Health Assessment, students who rated their health better had a higher GPA than the students who reported being less well.

The iROCK students are required to take six core classes, including recreational climbing, said Shirilla.

The class works into the idea of promoting personal wellness while fostering the idea of community said Shirilla.

“When you are climbing, you have to learn to trust one another,” he said.

Students enrolled in iROCK have to take English 100 and 200. For their section, the curriculum has been readjusted to meet the themes of the program, said iROCK English Professor Ken Olson.

“The interesting thing is [in] the dynamics of the class; the students are way ahead of my other general English 100 class,” Olson said.

Olson said that he has had to make adjustments to the class because the students have excelled at facilitating conversation.

“They are more like honors students. They are more devoted to the whole program and their coursework,” Olson said.

Egerstrom said the team and her are in the early stages of developing a learning community or a first-year seminar. This goal would be offered at a broader scale or target students that are more likely to drop out of college.

“We want to create a distinct first-year experience at UW- River Falls where we can impact as many students as possible,” Egerstrom said.