MULTICULTURAL CONTENT IS CRUCIAL TO ACADEMIC PERSISTENCE
Learning communities support first-generation students
The positive effects of a college diploma are many—from increased income, professional mobility, and improved quality of life, to good health. Yet for students whose parents’ highest level of education is high school or less, finishing college is a challenge. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education study, only 24 percent of first-generation college students attain an undergraduate degree, compared to 68 percent of students with at least one parent who attended college.
Research has shown that regardless of their parents’ background, students who participate in a learning community—a small cohort of students that takes a set of integrated courses—are more engaged in their learning and have higher retention rates. Learning communities with a multicultural makeup and curriculum have been particularly successful in this regard. But the specific reasons that first-generation students persist at a postsecondary institution have been less known.
To uncover such motivators, Rashné Jehangir, assistant professor in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, has analyzed weekly reflective writing assignments from a multicultural learning community comprising students from the Trio Support Services Program. Trio, a federally funded program housed in the College of Education and Human Development, offers academic development services for low- to moderate-income first-generation college students and to students with disabilities. Jehangir has also conducted a companion, longitudinal interview study, which she began with the fall 2001 cohort, tracking the impact of the learning community as participants progress through college.
How the learning community works
Jehangir and her postsecondary teaching and learning colleagues Pat James and Patrick Bruch created an interdisciplinary curriculum that addresses the challenges faced by first-generation students. Instructors emphasized examining texts, art, and narrative in the context of the students’ lived experiences. The students wrote reflective passages focusing on three areas: identity, community, and agency, that reveal their learning processes and their experiences in higher education. Jehangir then analyzed the entries to identify recurring themes and compared her findings with a second researcher.
What the research shows
The students’ writing revealed that the learning community provided both an anchor and a sense of accountability they did not experience in isolated courses. Jehangir identified five themes that explain how the learning community experience helped students identify within the college experience:
Finding place: A sense of ownership and belonging about the academic experience and, frequently, about the institution as a whole.
Finding voice: An awareness of their social and academic identities and the feeling that what they had to offer—writing, art, or discussion—has merit and adds value to the academic enterprise.
Transformational learning: A feeling that change is possible and they are agents of change in the world.
Bridge building: A sense of connectedness between their home community and their school life, and between themselves, peers, and instructors
Conflict as catalyst: A safe environment that helps students engage in meaningful dialogue with people who are different from them. Students were asked to think across disciplines and from different perspectives and to negotiate differences with their peers and instructors.
“While it isn’t easy or even pleasant, conflict appears to have a central role of moving students closer to understanding themselves, others, and issues of social change, which can give them a stronger sense of academic identity,” Jehangir explains.
She has found their participation in the multicultural learning community supports ongoing academic success. Of the learning community students, an average of 84 percent were retained after the first year—a critical measurement, because many low-income, first-generation students drop out at that time.
What others say about this research
“The design of this study, let alone the findings, adds an exciting dimension to the research on learning communities because of the intentional integration of elements of critical pedagogy,” says Emily Lardner, co-director, Washington Center for Improving Excellence in Undergraduate Education at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington.
“As demographics of higher education change, we need to look for better ways to include new students in academia,” says Jennifer Engle, research analyst at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. “The multicultural learning community model that Dr. Jehangir explores provides a proven avenue for these students to find their way and their place in the University.”
Barbara Read, vice president for student affairs at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota, says the findings can be particularly valuable for community colleges, which serve many first-generation students. “Dr. Jehangir offers new considerations that colleges can use to create learning environments that address the specific needs of their students while maximizing scarce resources.”
Why this research matters
This research provides a working model of how to meet the needs of first-generation college students, both cognitively and affectively. “When marginalized students are empowered to give voice to their ideas without filtering out their life experiences, they move out of the periphery, take ownership of their place, and see that their voices belong in the academy,” concludes Jehangir.
She is continuing to interview past learning community cohorts and will collect a final writing submission from participants in last year’s Multicultural Voice Learning Community this fall.