Overton: Living-learning agnosticism

BY JON OVERTON | MAY 16, 2013 5:00 AM

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I like evidence. It usually helps me decide where something sits on the vast spectrum of horrible to wonderful. But not today. Today, it leads me to agnosticism: a great big who-the-hell-knows.

Starting this fall, every student in the University of Iowa residence halls will be in one of her or his top-five choices of around 30 different living-learning communities. These can be based on specific majors or extremely broad common interests. The UI is even constructing a $53 million residence hall designed specifically for such communities, The Daily Iowan reported in October 2012.

The intent is to help students make friends, improve their academic performance, and to ultimately raise graduation rates. Maybe this will work. Maybe it won’t. Administrators said the decision was based on research, and I strongly admire this educated approach. But to me, the research looks extremely inconclusive.

Administrative officials pointed out that students who participated in living-learning communities made friends more quickly, performed better academically, were more open to cultural experiences, and had higher retention and graduation rates, among other positive characteristics. However, this is where the situation gets murky. Just because two things are related doesn’t mean one causes the other. People who own purses tend to live longer than those who don’t. Purses don’t have magical life-sustaining properties, but those who have them are more likely to be women, who tend to live longer than men.

Andrew Borst, the director of admissions at the Western Illinois University, wrote a doctoral thesis about living-learning communities in 2011, when he attended the UI. While his thesis cites numerous studies that found many positive attributes among such residents, he cautioned that “it is still unclear if desired outcomes such as academic performance, retention, or growth in critical thinking can be accurately attributed to the [living-learning] environment or if they are simply a product of clustering students with advantaged ability and backgrounds or other factors.” A dissertation from the University of Michigan found that it wasn’t the community environment that produced desired outcomes among students at that institution, but the students who chose to participate in them. They were more likely to have higher high-school GPAs, to be younger females, and to have parents with more education than those in the general student body.

Borst’s thesis measured changes in critical thinking among living-learning residents from various institutions nationwide, and prior research indicated critical thinking had improved more than for students in traditional residence halls based on surveys. However, when Borst tested critical thinking with measurable tests, there was no observed difference. Granted, not all such communities exist to improve critical thinking, but this indicates respondents’ perceptions aren’t always accurate. Andrew Beckett, the assistant dean at the University College, works with living-learning communities and efforts to increase retention. He said students at institutions such as the UI generally drop out because of a lack of academic or social integration and for personal issues. Obviously, the UI can do little about individual problems, but Beckett hopes living-learning communities will help improve retention by affecting academic and social realms.

He pointed to a survey conducted at the UI in the fall semester of 2011 that found statistically significant differences between students who lived in standard residence halls compared with living-learning students in terms of how well they knew others on their floor. Students in the communities were more likely to report that they frequently spent time with others on their floor during weekends and knew most people on their floor. Associate Provost Beth Ingram said surveys of students who dropped out from the UI found that some students reported feeling that the community wasn’t welcoming or that they never found a place here. She said the UI began offering more support services partially as a result and that the living-learning communities are the next step in trying to improve the social climate by uniting students of similar interests.

Dropping out of college rarely involves throwing a parade and gleefully announcing your status to the world. Especially with sensitive topics, respondents — even if they’re anonymous — might not be truthful. They may be embarrassed and don’t want to admit the truth, or they could be in denial about some unpleasant truth. I doubt whether the UI can do much more to make students feel socially accepted. Iowa City and the UI boast more than 500 student organizations in addition to churches, plays, readings, bars, concerts, and many other ways to find people of similar interests.

The administration’s intentions are genuine, and I hope implementing living-learning in all residence halls creates the intended effect. But will that actually happen? The evidence loudly and proudly proclaims: maybe.

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