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Faculty & Staff Gear up for New Academic Learning Communities at Cheyney University

July 28, 2014

Cheyney University contingent pictured from left to right: Tia Brown, Coordinator of First Year Student Engagement, Tiffany Alexander, Coordinator of Learning Communities, Dr. Hazel Spears, Assistant Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Faculty Coordinator for Learning Communities, Dr. Cherita G. Weatherspoon, Executive Director of University College and Team Lead, Donzelle Tiller, 
Assistant Professor, Guidance & Counseling

Cheyney University contingent pictured from left to right: Tia Brown, Coordinator of First Year Student Engagement, Tiffany Alexander, Coordinator of Learning Communities, Dr. Hazel Spears, Assistant Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Faculty Coordinator for Learning Communities, Dr. Cherita G. Weatherspoon, Executive Director of University College and Team Lead, Donzelle Tiller, Assistant Professor, Guidance & Counseling

A five-member team from Cheyney University’s University College recently attended the National Summer Institute on Learning Communities (NSILC) in Olympia, WA. The Institute, organized annually by the National Resource Center on Learning Communities, is a component of the Washington Center of Evergreen College and is a statewide resource for two- and four-year higher education institutions with a national reach and a sustained record of educational reform.

The four-day working conference included workshops and seminar sessions with leading faculty and administrators with expertise in learning communities, assessment, retention, developmental education, interdisciplinary teaching, and collaborative learning. Each day the teams developed an action plan based on the goals of their individual institutions and submitted them to a resource faculty panel and other teams for review and feedback.

“NSILC provided an opportunity to have dialogue with other institutions about their work and draw from their experiences," explained Dr. Cherita G. Weatherspoon, Executive Director of CU’s University College. "The time with our resource faculty was invaluable, as they asked thought-provoking questions and gave solid feedback and recommendations when we were challenged with a particular component of our plan. The team time gave our Cheyney group a chance to work together more closely than we could on campus. The time focused on planning for our learning community model, coupled with the knowledge and experience of national experts, and the sharing of war stories with other institutions with similar issues, made for a great learning experience.”

This fall, 100 of Cheyney University's incoming freshmen will be part of a pilot program which will split them into four different academic learning communities. One community will include students pursuing degrees in the sciences, technology and math. Another will be composed of students interested in careers in psychology and the social sciences. Students who haven’t yet decided what to major in will make up the remaining two communities.

“The overall goal is to increase retention,” said Tiffany Alexander, CU's Coordinator of Learning Communities. “We want students to become acclimated to campus and basically feel more connected to faculty and staff.”

Alexander and the University College staff plan to promote a culture of student success by offering opportunities for collaborative learning, activities, and discussions with students who share the same classes. The supportive and academically engaging environment will reportedly cultivate community, connect students to their programs of interest, link in-class experiences with out-of class experiences, encourage learning across the disciplines, and empower students to become responsible and engaged learners.

Tia Brown, Coordinator of First Year Student Engagement at Cheyney, also attended the 16th annual NSILC, calling it enlightening and transformative.

Dr. Hazel Spears, Assistant Professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Faculty Coordinator for Learning Communities at Cheyney agreed with Brown, saying the trip was "nothing less than transformational. We learned a new approach to teaching and the thinking behind it, we acquired some of the nuts and bolts of how to put it together, and we listened to students who had experienced it. The testimony of those students brought a room of over 200 college faculty and staff to the brink of tears. It has given me a road map for bringing joy and discovery into the endeavor of teaching and learning again. I can only imagine the difference that will make for so many of our students who, unlike ourselves, never had that experience.”

Donzelle Tiller, an Assistant Professor at Cheyney who provides guidance and counseling to students, agreed that the experience was "totally inspiring and motivational. It felt great to engage in dialogue and share ideas with colleagues from around the country about new approaches to teaching and learning. It has heightened my enthusiasm about implementing our new learning community model here at CU.”

That model is designed to help first year students successfully transition into college by providing a multilevel support system which includes faculty, staff, students, and peer mentors. Research has shown that students who actively participate in learning communities tend to earn higher grade point averages, connect with faculty in their major, develop a sense of belonging to the university during the first semester, utilize campus resources frequently, and develop friendships and mentoring relationships early in the semester.