What We Have Learned: The Lessons of One Campus on Institutional Sustainability and Support

Dr. Ashley Finley, BTtoP National Evaluator; Director of Assessment for Learning, AAC&U

Since 2005, Dickinson College has been examining learning and well-being outcomes associated with living-learning communities as part of its first-year seminar program. While we have learned a good deal about these outcomes over the last four years, we have learned equally about the complex nature of campus culture, sustainability of practices, and institutional change. Below are three of our most compelling findings:

Don’t underestimate the value of a clear message. It takes a village to build interdisciplinary and campus-wide initiatives. But to get folks out of their huts and working together, the message has to be clear. When Dickinson’s BTtoP project began, we saw a clear fit between the learning outcomes being assessed and the larger institutional mission. And though student and faculty learning community experiences were largely positive, we were also aware of a conspicuous thread of opposition. We came to understand our error had been in labeling learning communities as “engaged learning,” thereby inadvertently labeling “other” first-year seminars as unengaged learning. Moving forward, we made a conscious effort to reframe our language to clarify learning communities were not the pedagogy, but one type of learning pedagogy predicated upon intentionality of design and implementation of activities intended to enhance student engagement.

 Innovation is essential. Institutional sustainability often isn’t just about working hard to maintain a well-designed program. Campuses are by nature mercurial; faculty, courses offerings, and budgets change almost yearly. Thus the challenge for sustainability of practices is as much about innovation within a changing landscape as it is about maintenance. Because learning communities impose additional demands on faculty time and obligations, we revisited, and then reimagined, the basic structure of the learning community model. The answer was to develop a learning community “cluster” of four to five commonly themed seminars. The incorporation of the cluster model enabled more faculty to be involved in the learning community program and more students to connect classroom experiences with out-of-classroom learning. This model has been well received among faculty, resulting in clusters of courses examining such issues as gender inequality, globalization, and environmental sustainability.

Invite the change agents. Every campus initiative has its champions and its dissenters. The change agents, though, may be among the champions, the dissenters, and likely within the gulf of faculty in between. They are well respected, often hold innovative research and teaching dossiers, and, regardless of how loudly or how often they speak in faculty meetings, are deeply loyal to the institution. As we concluded our research and turned our attention to sustainability, we began to invite faculty from across disciplines, ranks, and experiences to have conversations about not just our research but about this meaning of this work at Dickinson. Our emphasis was not on conversion, but on diversity. To effectively “bring theory to practice” we enlisted multiple perspectives to help drive discussion and pose the range of challenges needed to develop lasting institutional change and efficacy.