by Marie T. Logue

In the fall semester of 2007, new students who were planning to major in psychology, economics or business, health and medicine, and law and politics were invited to live together in the Discovery House Program on the Livingston Campus, where they would share the same cluster of courses and special out-of-the-classroom activities related to their interest areas. One hundred students participated in the inaugural year of the program. We knew we were on to something big when the students in the Discovery House formed their own Facebook group by the second week and were already sharing information with each other. At the end of the spring semester, they reported that they would wholeheartedly recommend the Discovery House to other first-year students, noting that this new learning community helped them make friends more easily, form study groups, and learn about the resources available to them at Rutgers.

Learning communities are not new to Rutgers, however. Douglass College inaugurated its French House in 1928 and, at Rutgers College, special interest housing has been a popular choice on the College Avenue Campus for many years. Performing arts students and creative writing students have long found a home in Demarest Hall. Students interested in exploring Latin culture founded Latin Images in Frelinghuysen Hall, and many students over the years chose to live in the Paul Robeson section in Mettler Hall, where they initiated programs like High School Outreach that were inspired by Robeson’s passion for excellence.

But learning communities are no longer exclusively made up of living/learning groups for language development or just organized around special interest topics. Now learning communities share a strong curricular and co-curricular link. For example:

• All students in the Social Justice Learning Community were enrolled in the same sections of introductory courses on social justice and expository writing, and are members of a first-year interest group led by a peer instructor. Over the course of the year they met faculty and community activists and participated in a service learning alternate spring break trip.
• Students in the RU-TV Living-Learning Community at Winkler Hall developed video for broadcast on the RU-TV network that reached over 13.000 students in residence, and, on a weekly basis, met with faculty from the Department of Journalism and Media Studies to discuss media literacy and historical perspectives on visual images, among other topics.

Students need not live on campus to experience and benefit from the learning community structure. The Institute for Research on Women developed a model learning community last year that enabled 20 undergraduate students to work together with an advanced doctoral student to learn about the ongoing scholarship at the institute. The final presentations of the IRW students revealed that they had achieved a fine understanding of the nature of the research taking place around them at Rutgers. The impact of their experience could be seen in their plans for career shifts and internships in the immediate future. And there is Writers House, of course, which brings together students interested in creative writing, broadly construed. The “Beyond the Cineplex” Learning Community and the Wellness Learning Community will be introduced in the coming academic year as non-residential learning communities. What characterizes all the learning communities is the link between the learning taking place in the classroom and the active engagement in group project work outside the classroom.

The Office of Undergraduate Education believes that learning communities are a powerful means of further involving undergraduates in the research life of the university. Many juniors and seniors now work closely with faculty on research projects either through departmental programs or the Aresty Research Center for Undergraduates. But research learning communities located in the centers, bureaus, and institutes all over campus promise to provide that experience on a significantly larger scale to sophomores and those students just beginning to find their particular niche.

Active engagement is the goal. Learning communities are just one way to get there.