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Learning communities for students in developmental English: Impact studies at Merced College and the Community College of Baltimore County (Weissman et al. 2012)

Citation

Weissman, E., Cullinan, D., Cerna, O., Safran, S., & Richman, P. (2012). Learning communities for students in developmental English: Impact studies at Merced College and the Community College of Baltimore County. New York: MDRC.

Highlights

    • The study’s objective was to examine the impact of learning communities on academic progression among students in need of developmental English courses at Merced Community College in Merced, California, and the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), in Maryland.
    • The study was a randomized controlled trial that compared outcomes of the treatment and control groups during the program semester and the subsequent semester. The primary data source was transcript data from the colleges.
    • The study found that students assigned to the Learning Communities Demonstration at Merced attempted and earned more developmental English credits in the program semester than students in the control group. The study did not find any statistically significant impacts of the learning communities at CCBC.
    • The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects are attributable to the Learning Communities Demonstration, and not to other factors.

Intervention Examined

The Learning Communities Demonstration

Features of the Intervention

Six community colleges across the United States implemented the National Center for Postsecondary Research Learning Communities Demonstration from 2007 to 2009. It was designed to test whether learning communities were effective at improving academic performance among community college students in need of developmental courses. This study reported findings from the Learning Communities Demonstration at Merced and CCBC.

At Merced, first-time or returning students who placed into developmental reading or writing no lower than three levels below entry-level college English were eligible to participate in the learning communities program. In the learning communities, a developmental English writing course was linked with a developmental reading or math course, a college-level course, or a student success course. Students took both classes together as a cohort and their instructors worked together to integrate the curriculum across the two courses.

At CCBC, first-time or returning students who placed into the highest-level developmental English course (that is, one level below entry-level college English) were eligible to participate in the learning communities program. In the learning communities, the developmental English course was linked with a college-level content course such as psychology, sociology, or speech. Students took both classes together as a cohort and their instructors worked together to integrate the curriculum across the two courses. The learning communities at CCBC also included a master learner seminar, which provided students an extra hour of classroom instruction each week to support their coursework in the learning community.

Features of the Study

To be eligible for the study, students were required to have placed into developmental English and to be available to take one of the learning communities at the scheduled time. Students were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which could participate in the learning community, or the control group. At Merced, control group participants were encouraged to enroll in a developmental English course, but were not required to do so. At CCBC, control group participants were subject to the normal college rules, which required that students who qualified for developmental English take such a course in order to register for other courses.

The authors used transcript data provided by the colleges to measure registration rates; the number of credits attempted and earned by students; and their successful completion of the English sequence courses, which included developmental English plus the first college-level English course. For each college, the authors estimated regression models comparing the outcomes of treatment and control group members during the program semester and for one semester following the program. The regression models controlled for the cohort in which students entered the study and reading and writing placement test scores.

Findings

    • The study found that students assigned to a learning community at Merced attempted 1.1 more developmental English credits than control group students during the program semester and cumulatively through the first postprogram semester. These differences were statistically significant.
    • Learning community students at Merced also earned significantly more (0.9) developmental English credits in the program semester than control group students.
    • There were no statistically significant differences between treatment and control students at CCBC.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

The authors estimated the effect of being offered the opportunity to participate in the learning community. Only 54 percent of students randomly assigned to the treatment group at Merced actually enrolled in a learning community during the program semester. Therefore, the estimated effects of the program at Merced could understate what could have been achieved had more students actually enrolled in the program. At CCBC, 75 percent of those offered the opportunity to participate in the learning community actually enrolled in it.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects are attributable to the Learning Communities Demonstration, and not to other factors.

Additional Sources

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse. (2014). Developmental Students in Postsecondary Education intervention report: Linked learning communities. Retrieved from http://whatworks.ed.gov.

Reviewed by CLEAR

December 2015

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