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Incorporating Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Practices Through Learning Communities and Linked Pedagogies

Learning Communities

Deb Caton

What are learning communities and how might they contribute to more effective learning and instruction?

Learning communities and basic writing

Learning Communities and Basic Writing


While learning communities and their various models can be used for all students, some are designed specifically for students who have been labeled basic writers. LCs can offer an opportunity for basic writers to transition more smoothly and confidently into college and their future coursework. First, LCs offer an alternative to the separation vs. mainstreaming placement issue. Additionally, some programs require BW students to take and pass introductory composition courses that bear no credit in order to move on to other coursework. LCs can often offer credit for formerly non-credit-bearing courses through their integration with general education courses or their extended time frames. Learning communities also take into consideration the “…larger environment that greatly influences whether or not basic writing students persist on campus and are academically successful” (Wiley 2). They not only provide a social and academic support system for BW students who may come from otherwise unsupportive environments, but they also offer a way to integrate writing with other subject areas so as to help students make explicit connections between writing and various academic disciplines. This last piece is one main reason why LCs can benefit BW students – they provide an opportunity for the students to build confidence in their writing abilities and see how writing is not an isolated skill.

How do the practices of learning communities most benefit basic writing students?

Learning communities offer a wonderful opportunity that can also pose a mighty challenge: What is the best LC model to implement at a given institution? The answer to this question is very context-specific, since each institution has its own set of needs, desires, and guiding philosophies that must be considered. This is true, as well, of English and composition departments that implement LC programs focused on basic writing students.

Based on the general definition of a learning community and the three basic models of LCs, I have investigated two specific implementation methods of LCs that include a BW component. The first method involves LCs that include what I will term a freshman seminar component, and the second type involves LCs that integrate and/or link a BW course with one or more general education courses. I also describe many specific classroom practices that illustrate best practices in learning communities that focus on BW students.

Learning Communities that Include a Freshman Seminar Component

In some learning communities that focus on basic writing students, the student cohorts are formed around a developmental writing course and some sort of freshman seminar course. This is often a university course designed to familiarize students with the skills they will need to succeed in college. These skills may include test-taking strategies, time-management skills and library research training. When this is the case, the freshman seminar component is required and is often offered for one credit. The LC may also include a third course beyond the composition course and the seminar course.

One example of an LC with this “study skills” component is the Learning Alliance at Cal State University, Long Beach. This LC is a variation of the paired or clustered classes model. It lasts two semesters, and the student cohorts share a seminar course, a composition course, and a general education course. During the second semester, cohorts change and students enroll in two linked courses. The Learning Alliance program is unique because it provides opportunities for students to participate in some fashion through their senior year. (Wiley “Rehabilitating” 19–20). The Learning Alliance also includes a mainstreaming component in which, according to Wiley, “…all basic writing students [are] accepted as equals among the several hundred students participating in the Alliance (“Basic” 11). Results of the Learning Alliance program include retention rates that exceed the university’s average and fewer students on academic probation (12).

Other benefits for BW students in the Learning Alliance program include:

  • “Students are encouraged to build explicit connections between ideas and disciplines;” (6).
  • Emphasis on active learning, discussion, workshops and frequent writing.
  • Instructors work together to create links between their courses and meet regularly throughout the semester (6).
  • Students receive priority registration each semester if they attend required academic advising (7).
  • Opportunity to mainstream into the university-level composition course early (13).
  • Instructors who are able to attend to individual needs of students.

Wiley, Mark. “Basic Writers in a Learning Community.” Reports (2000): 1–20.

---. “Rehabilitating the ‘Idea of Community.’” Journal of Basic Writing 20.2 (2001): 16–33.

The LC at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne is another example of an LC for students labeled basic writers. There, student cohorts enroll in a BW course (English W130), a speech class (COM 114), and a freshman seminar called “Freshman Success” (IDIS 110) (59). Rachelle Darabi, in her study of this program, notes specific positive outcomes that appear to result directly from the basic writing course. Students

  • participated fully in class, arrived early and stayed late, and made a point of speaking to everyone in class.
  • “…became interested in their own and their classmates’ learning processes,” became more independent learners and required a less ‘instructor-centered’ approach.
  • “…developed a greater understanding of their writing processes as they focused on concerns such as audience analysis, development, organization, and more.”
  • developed strategies that they could draw upon for future writing assignments (62–64).

The instructor of the LC in the study believed that “…the writing course [was] central to the learning community” because it provided opportunities for students to develop their writing abilities and their sense of community (63).

Many other examples of learning communities that include a freshman seminar element can be found at, some of which are listed below.

Other LC’s with basic writing and study skills components:

  • Learning Connections at Ouachita Technical College

  • College Success at Olympic College

  • Learning Communities Program at Citrus College

  • First Year Success at Texas A&M International University

Lastly, here are some possible challenges of implementing an LC with a freshman seminar component:

  • In terms of assessment, must consider how much student and program success may be a result of the seminar course and how much can be attributed to other factors, such as the fact that an LC model is being implemented for BW students.
  • Instructors must learn how to “harness the ‘community effect’” that may result from a high degree of social bonding between students so it does not affect the learning outcomes (Darabi 71).
  • Faculty/instructors must receive proper training in areas such as integration of courses and development of effective collaborative activities.

Learning Communities with Integrated and Linked Courses

One variation of learning communities involves two or more linked or paired courses. This often involves some level of interdisciplinary instruction and learning, though the level of integration between the classes may vary depending on the outcomes desired. For basic writing students, this usually means a BW course is grouped with one or more general education courses. The students usually remain in a cohort for these classes, and the instructors usually team teach and integrate anything from curricula to assessment.

For basic writing students, the integration of the courses may help them to develop a greater sense of the connectedness between disciplines that are often seen as very separate, especially at the university level. Integrated instruction, or team teaching, can be a crucial part of the linked courses model, since varying levels of integration at the instructional level can affect the learning outcomes. Within this model, basic writing students can begin to experience the connections between writing and creating knowledge in various disciplines.

A learning community that integrates courses may benefit BW students because “Students traditionally labeled ‘at-risk’ or ‘basic writers’ for an array of complex reasons often need a context for thesis-research projects that they find meaningful…” (Heaney 45). The Synergy Program offers one good example of this. This program is “…a cluster model learning community, in which two or more classes are linked thematically or by content, …students attend classes together, and faculty plan the program collaboratively” (28). The program links two writing and research-based courses and focuses on the students’ resistance toward academic writing through the use of ethnography as a theme, which leads to a sense of student ownership. The program works this way:

  • Students take College Composition along with Critical Thinking in Intellectual Communities, two university-required, credit-bearing classes. The second class is designed to “…help students negotiate issues of identity and success that underlie many students’ past struggles with academic writing” (34).
  • Curriculum helps students develop writing, reading and critical thinking skills.
  • The year-long ethnographic research project allows faculty to include “more traditional reading and writing assignments” within a context that the students find “interesting and relevant” (34).
  • Most readings focus on “…issues of marginalization, identity formation, and community study and reflection” (38). One text does that and illustrates the connections between speaking, thinking and writing is Our America: Life and Death on the Streets (Jones and Newman).

Interestingly, this program also tests the integration of a “…hybrid text/speech dynamic…” (39). In 2003, instructors asked students to take part in an “online threaded discussion of the reading with their peers” (39). This was basically an electronic, written discussion of the text they had been reading as opposed to an in-class, oral discussion. The instructors found that the online discussions:

  • represented more careful and organized thinking.
  • afforded students the opportunity to achieve some elements of critical thinking.
  • gave students a chance to write without worrying about mechanics, “…but rather to simply experience how writing helps to shape and define their thinking” (39).
  • allowed quiet students to participate more fully.
  • utilized a familiar, discussion-based context as well as writing.

Use of technology is another area worthy of investigation in BW scholarship, especially as it pertains to the connections between reading, writing, thinking and speaking and the idea of community.

Heaney, April. “The Synergy Program: Reframing Critical Reading and Writing for At-

Risk Students.” Journal of Basic Writing 25.1 (2006): 26–51.

Two other powerful integrated learning communities link BW with a reading course. San Francisco State University implements an integrated reading/writing program that explicitly connects reading and writing, lasts one year, and keeps the cohort of students with one teacher (Goen 93–4). A second program at Murray State University offers a seven-credit-hour block course including BW, reading and public speaking courses, and focuses on integrating reading, writing and speaking (Phillips 3). Both programs offer “at-risk” students a chance to earn university credit while completing remedial coursework, and they help the students to develop a sense of community and camaraderie, as well as an awareness of the connectedness of writing to other academic areas.

Goen, Sugie and Helen Gillotte Tropp. “Integrating Reading and Writing: A Response to

The Basic Writing ‘Crisis.’” Journal of Basic Writing 22.2 (2003): 90–113.

Phillips, Nancy. “Integrating Speaking and Writing in the Developmental Program.”

Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Milwaukee, WI.
16–21 Nov. 2000.

The course integration within a learning community model seems to offer the most opportunities for BW students, but also the most challenges for universities and instructors. Restructuring the classes, minimizing the number of instructors that the students have for writing courses, and emphasizing the concept that writing is not just something one does for a composition course are all important factors to consider, though there are countless others.

Here are some possible challenges to implementing an LC with integrated courses:

  • Increased workload for faculty. Instructors must meet regularly to design and monitor the integrated curricula and discuss student assessment, among other tasks.
  • Instructors may feel a sense of lost autonomy in regard to instruction as well as the creation of course content and grading policies and/or practices (Abell 3).
  • English and composition faculty may feel burdened by the need to be the one “always-required” portion of the team-teaching situation, while other departments may not face the same burden.
  • Students may feel overwhelmed with a new way of experiencing learning. Team teaching may raise questions of “…who’s responsible for teaching what, whose voice is the authority on a given topic, to whom does a student turn for the best guidance…” and what the expectations are in each course (Leahy 4).
  • It may be challenging for first-year students to work with new ways of thinking about and experiencing content if integrated courses focus on “both/and” thinking instead of relying on easy answers, as perhaps they are used to doing in high school.
  • Institutional and departmental barriers may impede the development of an integrated LC.

Course Content in BW Learning Communities

In thinking about creating a learning community focused on basic writing courses and students, it will be helpful for faculty, instructors and administrators to refer to specific examples of learning community models and learn what they are doing that is working for their BW students. This information will include specific curricula, as well as program and classroom practices that focus on the BW component of the program.

North Central College requires a program called Freshman Seminar, which offers an interdisciplinary approach and links a writing course with a course from another discipline. This class includes first-year students who do not place into the “accelerated” version of the composition class. One example of this course is called “Writing and Photography” (Leahy 3). In this class, instructors plan, teach and assess as a team, and they share the goal of helping students gain “…confidence in their ability to grapple with visual and textual sources…” (5). The students write three essays, sequenced very specifically, including a photo essay, a research essay, and an interpretive essay. The instructors found that conferencing and workshopping were extremely useful practices that helped them to “…address confusion (or panic) that might stem from the very perspectives and approaches [they] intend will liberate” (8). The class includes activities such as:

  • reading and discussion
  • analysis of photographs, artwork, poetry and other short readings
  • writing activities such as summarizing, paraphrasing and quoting, developing paragraphs, openings, transitions and conclusions, planning and writing essays, reflecting, and editing and revising individually and with peers
  • taking photographs (11–19).

Anna Leahy and Deborah Rindge, the developers and instructors of the course, found that the exercises in the class pushed “…students to articulate their own responses with increasing clarity and to think both/and” (6). Additionally, they felt that the proper sequencing of written assignments helped students to learn from the feedback they receive and apply this knowledge to later writing assignments (7). Student evaluations showed that students often “…felt uneasy making decisions for themselves about writing…,” which led the instructors to note the need for continuing to reflect on and alter the instructional methods for future student cohorts (8).

Other LC programs mentioned previously also offer several examples of course content that may prove beneficial for BW students:

  • In the Synergy Program, students read, conduct primary research, write an editorial essay, a rhetorical analysis, an argument essay, an ethnography and develop a web portfolio, and discuss key issues pertaining to identity, acculturation and success.
  • The integrated reading/writing program as SFSU works to meet its stated objectives using many methods. Students read “…a wide range of materials…written from different points of view” (Goen 98) and work with several idea-generating strategies such as KWL+, which is “…a four-step procedure intended to help teachers become more responsive to helping students access appropriate knowledge when reading texts” (99), freewriting and prereading. They work on all aspects of the writing process and on strategies to improve reading rate, comprehension and interpretation. They write informal reading journals and double-entry journals, and learn that “…readers construct the meaning of texts they read by degrees in the same way writers gradually construct meaning in the texts they write” (99–100). The reading and writing the students do focuses on current social issues and the courses incorporate community-building activities (100). Finally, the students participate in student self-assessment through writing a self-reflective essay about what they have learned, what changed for them as a result of the course, and what they still need to work on (100–1).
  • The program at Murray State asks students to, for instance, discuss writing and speaking topic ideas, prepare outlines, draft essays, deliver speeches about their essay topics, write and revise essays, discuss rhetorical methods used in the composition process, and analyze unfamiliar vocabulary (Phillips 5–6). Students also work on reading and test-taking skills, audience analysis and library research skills (6–8).
  • Students in Rachelle Darabi’s LC study practice peer review of student writing, do reflective writing, create study groups, receive training in library research, learn test-taking skills, give speeches that are directly connected to writing assignments, participate in a team game that focuses on diversity and discuss work being done for one class in the other classes, such as discussing a writing assignment in their communication class (60).


When contemplating the benefits and opportunities that learning communities offer for basic writing students, I believe that they are a viable curricular model. Learning communities that incorporate a basic writing course provide an opportunity for BW students to gain confidence in their writing abilities through the support of the members of their cohort as well as their instructors, whom they often get to know much better than in a non-LC setting. I believe LCs with a BW component also address the extracurricular needs of some BW students and provide a situation in which individual student needs can more easily be addressed than in non-LC classes. Whether the LC includes a freshman seminar component or not, I think BW students can benefit both academically and socially from participating in an LC, especially if the opportunity exists to take part for longer than one semester. Despite the many challenges of implementing LCs, I think they can be a useful strategy in helping BW students to have positive first-year experiences in college and persist toward graduation.

Some related articles for further study and investigation:

Fitzgerald, Sallyanne. “Basic Writing in One California Community College.” BWe:

Harris, Joseph. “Beyond Community: From the Social to the Material.” Journal of Basic

Writing 20.2 (2001): 3–15.

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca. “The Power of Academic Learning COmmunities.” Journal of Basic Writing 21.1 (2002): 71–89. Raymond, Richard. “Building Learning Communities on Nonresidential Campuses.”

Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Boston: Bedford, 2001. 204–18.

Wiley, Mark. “Mainstreaming and Other Experiments in a Learning Community.”

Mainstreaming Basic Writing: Politics and Pedagogies of Access. Ed. Gerri McNenny. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001. 173–91.

---. “Response to Joseph Harris’s ‘Beyond Community.’” Journal of Basic Writing 20.2 (2001): 34–37.

Relevant search terms:

  • Learning communities/community
  • Linked courses
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Integrated/integration
  • Curriculum
  • First year composition/basic writing/developmental/at-risk
  • Cohorts
  • Student support
  • High school transition
  • Retention strategies
  • Cluster model
  • Collaborative learning/collaborative instruction

Works Cited

Abell, Arianne. ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges, Los Angeles, CA.

Educational Resources Information Center. “Interdisciplinary Courses and Curricula in
the Community Colleges.” May 1999. 23 Feb. 2008.

Darabi, Rachelle L. “Basic Writers and Learning Communities.” Journal of Basic Writing

25.1 (2006): 53–72.

Gabelnick, Faith, Jean Macgregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Barbara L. Smith.

“Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and
Disciplines.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 41 (1990): 5–18.

Goen, Sugie, and Helen Gillotte-Tropp. “Integrating Reading and Writing: A Response to

the Basic Writing ‘Crisis’.” Journal of Basic Writing 22.2 (2003): 90–113.

Heaney, April. “The Synergy Program: Reframing Critical Reading and Writing for At

Risk Students.” Journal of Basic Writing 25.1 (2006): 26–51.

Leahy, Anna, and Deborah Rindge. “English 116: Freshman Seminar.” Composition

Malnarich, Gillies, and Emily Decker Lardner. “Designing Integrated Learning for

Students: A Heuristic for Teaching, Assessment and Curriculum Design.” Washington Center Occasional Paper
1 (2003): 2–8. 19 Feb. 2008.

Phillips, Nancy. “Integrating Speaking and Writing in the Developmental Program.”

Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Milwaukee. Nov. 2000.

Tinto, Vincent. “Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on

Student Success.” Syracuse University. Syracuse: Promoting Student Success in College. 1–8. 18 Mar. 2008

---. “Rethinking the First Year of College.” Syracuse University. Syracuse: Promoting Student Success in College.

Wiley, Mark. Basic Writers in a Learning Community. California State University, Long

Beach. Educational Resources Information Center, 2000. 1–16.

---. “Rehabilitating the ‘Idea of Community.’” Journal of Basic Writing 20.2 (2001): 16–33.

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