Experiments in Community Building within Classrooms of Commuter Students. Part I: The Case of Statics
The lives of commuter students have three separate parts: life at home, life at work, and life at school. Juggling the responsibilities from those three aspects of their lives is challenging. The demands of home life and those of work life do not allow them to attend class regularly and, even when they do attend class, they leave shortly thereafter, spending little or no time on campus with their classmates and without participating in enriching extracurricular activities.
The author has conducted experiments on building classroom communities within engineering mechanics courses that are populated by commuter students. This paper discusses what was done in classes taught on Engineering Mechanics: Statics and the results that were obtained.
Student involvement in class and campus activities is very important and there is a vast literature on this subject. Astin (1984) suggests that students learn more when they are involved in both the academic and social aspects of the school experience. According to this view, learning is most effective when a positive social environment combines with a strong sense of community. Tinto (1997) asserts that students require academic, social, and personal support from their school. Other research has supported these ideas over many years, see Mitchell and Sackney (2000), Rutter, M., & Maughan, B. (2002), Huffman, J.B. & Hipp, K.K. (2003), Stoll, L., Fink, D. & Earl, L. (2003) and Rovai, Wighting, and Lucking (2004), for examples.
While much of the literature indicates that increased academic achievement is associated with a sense of community (Overbaugh & Lin, 2006; Wighting, 2006), few studies have directly explored this type of relationship. Part of the difficulty is due to the fact that academic achievement can be measured in many different ways. Indeed, according to the Center for American Progress (2006), over 50 different measures of student performance exist in the United States, because each state chooses its own standardized test to measure achievement. To make things even more complex, in some states, school corporations are allowed to use grade-point averages and performance on tests designed by individual schools.
A review of the literature by Wighting, Nisbet, and Spaulding (2009) found no published studies that utilized standardized measures to compare sense of community and academic achievement among high school students. These authors proceeded to publish the results of a study that reveal a positive correlation between high school students’ sense of community and academic achievement. Over the years, research has culminated in a variety of important recommendations on how to improve school effectiveness. Chief among them is the concept of schools as communities, where one must pay careful attention to school climate and student support systems (Wighting, Nisbet, and Spaulding, 2009).
We wanted to create a welcoming climate and a strong student support system for commuter students in our classroom environments. To this end, we employed a variety of strategies in lecture courses. In one of them, we devised special course assignments and treated them as if they were experiments: we gave a group problem to the students on the first day of class and organized students in groups of three or four, depending on the size of the class. Groupings of students were alphabetical, based on the first letter of their last names. Students were asked to solve the problem as a group and to submit one report of their work as a group at the end of the semester. This report was worth 10% of the course grade. Solutions of the assigned problems always required analyses using materials learned in the course, validation of the results of analysis through testing in the lab, and assessment of the extent to which experiments validated their analyses. Students were given a form on which they recorded the contributions of each of their teammates to the work of the group; they also reported their personal opinions regarding the extent to which work on the group problem helped them learn the course materials on which the problem was based as well as the extent to which working with their assigned group helped them feel as a member of the team. The paper will present specific details on these items.
Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-808.
Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.
Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2000). Profound improvement: Building capacity for a learning community. Lisse, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.
Rutter, M., & Maughan, B. (2002). School effectiveness findings 1979-2002. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 451-475.
Huffman,J.B. & Hipp, K.K. (2003). Reculturing schools as professional learning communities. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow
Stoll, L., Fink, D. & Earl, L. (2003). It’s about learning (and it’s about time). London: Routledge Falmer.
Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M.J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The Classroom and School Community Inventory: Development, refinement, and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. Internet and Higher Education, 7(4), 263-280.
Overbaugh, R., & Lin, S. (2006). Student characteristics, sense of community, and cognitive achievement in web-based and lab-based learning environments. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(2), 205-223.
Wighting, M. J. (2006). Effects of computer use on high school students’ sense of community. The Journal of Educational Research, 99 (6), 371-379.
Center for American Progress (2006). Retrieved May 17, 2009 from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2006/07/b1982011.html
Wighting, Mervyn; Nisbet, Deanna; and Spaulding, Lucinda S., "Relationships between Sense of Community and Academic Achievement: A Comparison among High School Students" (2009). Faculty Publications and Presentations. 147. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/educ_fac_pubs/147
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