Most good ideas begin with a problem to be solved. The problem Washington State University’s Pullman campus faced was lack of student engagement outside the classroom. The solution: about 3,000 freshmen will be placed in Freshman Focus Living Communities for fall semester.

WSU’s academic and student affairs leaders were made aware of the problem through the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which was administered to randomly selected freshmen and seniors last spring. The survey revealed WSU scored above average on providing a supportive campus environment but was lacking in the academic areas of collaborative learning, interaction with faculty and educational challenge and experiences. The NSSE survey also showed that WSU freshmen weren’t spending much time out of the classroom in learning activities.

Doug Baker, vice provost for Academic Affairs and director of the Office of Undergraduate Education, and Al Jamison, associate vice president for educational development in Student Affairs, recognized the tremendous potential for student learning outside the classroom and saw this as an opportunity. Early last summer they began wrestling with the problem, looking for ways to enhance student engagement in the learning process, increase learning opportunities outside the classroom, blend those with curricular activities and make them available to incoming freshmen.

Tool already in box
Initial efforts identified two issues — improving the freshman year experience and identifying, addressing and implementing learning goals throughout the university. The plan is to move WSU closer to its strategic goal of offering the best undergraduate experience at a research university.

After exploring the possibilities with peers from other institutions, all signs pointed to living/learning communities as the solution to improving the freshman year experience. Research shows that linked courses combined with a residential learning environment improve time spent on task, improve grades and facilitate social connections.

Fortunately, WSU already had that tool in its workbox. Freshmen interest Teniwe groups (teniwe is a Nez Perce Indian term for talk) and academic theme living options have been available to a limited number of interested students for several years, and some entry-level courses in General Studies already are linked. These systems have produced good results and have the potential to be expanded to meet the current need.

Taking steps toward that goal, Baker visited Arizona State University, which has developed successful living/learning communities. He also gleaned insights from WSU professors Denny Davis, Greg Crouch and Matt Hudelson, who began linking some engineering, chemistry and math courses two years ago with funding from a WSU Teaching and Learning grant.

A huge undertaking
Extending that type of linkage to 3,000 incoming freshmen and having housing assignments in close proximity present a huge logistical and technological challenge. A group is now working to address this challenge and develop the necessary plans to make Freshman Focus Living Communities possible.

“What we have learned in operational terms is that living/learning communities are extremely complex and often difficult to schedule and coordinate,” said Jamison. “Given those operational obstacles, expanding Teniwe seemed almost impossible.”

To make the program possible, the number of co-enrolled courses was reduced to two. Charlene Jaeger, vice president for Student Affairs, said the paired courses will be General Education courses, and they will affect fall semester only.

“If students decide to change roommates, majors, areas of interest or advisers in the second semester, those changes will not affect Freshman Focus,” she said.Of course, attending classes together and living in proximity doesn’t guarantee academically involved students. But, said Edwin Hamada, associate director of Residence Life, “even if these people choose to not form study groups or borrow notes from classmates, they have a friendly face they recognize in the classroom from the residence halls, which helps them become more comfortable in the classroom setting.”

“The sense of community and involvement will help to make the university feel smaller and more manageable,” said Susan Poch, director of the Student Advising and Learning Center.

Involving professors
Freshman Focus will be introduced to incoming freshmen in 2005 as a collaborative effort of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. The first acceptance packets were mailed Dec. 1 to students who have already applied, and packets will continue to be sent as applications come in.

Yet to be worked out are the specifics of integration and collaboration between professors involved in the program. Baker hopes to facilitate meetings this spring or summer at which faculty can talk about complementary assignments and propose informal learning experiences to take place outside the classroom.

With the rollout of Freshman Focus, WSU joins a handful of universities in the Northwest that provide similar programs. “There are plenty of learning communities around the United States,” said Poch, “but few of them add the additional level of complexity of placing those communities in a living environment.”

Now that the process has begun, facilitators expect Freshman Focus to improve even more as administrators, faculty, resident advisers and students begin to understand its potential.