Amy Raymond (middle) is a peer mentor for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers, one of more than 80 learning communities at Iowa State that help first-year college students succeed. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Learning communities key to Iowa State student success

On an 1,813-acre campus with 36,660 students, Iowa State University manages to provide an experience that’s uniquely personal to each student.

Key to that experience is being part of a “learning community,” which is a group aimed at helping first-year college students succeed. More than 70 percent of first-year students — including 75 percent of first-year students of color — participate in learning communities at Iowa State.

“Learning communities separate Iowa State from everyone else,” said Chuck Achter, a senior lecturer in the School of Education who’s in his seventh year advising the  Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers learning community for students in elementary education.

Amy Raymond, a junior in elementary education who’s a peer mentor for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers, said being part of a learning community has had a huge impact on her life.

“When I was a freshman, I walked into the learning community orientation not knowing what to expect or who I was going to meet,” she said. “Now, as I begin my junior year, I realize it has given me a support system and sense of belonging within the School of Education.”

Among the top in the nation

Learning communities started at Iowa State more than 20 years ago serving about 400 students. Today, Iowa State has more than 80 learning communities — many of them specific to a student’s academic major — serving more than 6,000 students. The program is consistently rated among the top in the nation.

The learning communities help to answer basic college concerns and set the tone of what it means to be a student at Iowa State. The first-year students have study groups and social outings, and make friends.

They talk about college writing, study skills, time management, and professionalism. They have guest speakers that get them excited about their careers. And advisers work with the students to create a four-year academic plan to alleviate their concerns.

“We really listen to our freshmen and hear where they’re at,” Achter said. “You’re always dealing with students who are homesick. The first-year students struggle with roommate problems and developing good study habits. Many of them are from small communities and must learn how to be on a large campus.”

Iowa State statistics show that learning communities are high-impact educational activities that help students not only survive, but thrive during their time on campus. Students’ one-year retention rate is 8 percent higher when they have been in a learning community. Their six-year graduation rate is also 11 percent higher.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers

The Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers learning community, one of about a dozen learning communities in the College of Human Sciences, is especially successful.

As the number of Iowa State students choosing to become educators continues to grow, the School of Education has seen the size of its learning community double in recent years. The group has more than 100 students this fall.

Each first-year student belongs to a small group of 10 to 12 students, which helps to make the experience more personal. Each freshman is assigned a peer mentor, who is generally a sophomore or junior that develops a big-brother or big-sister relationship with the newer student.

“As a peer mentor, this learning community has also provided me with the opportunity to develop my leadership skills and has reassured me that I want to be a teacher,” Raymond said. “The Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers learning community has definitely made my time at Iowa State more enjoyable and worthwhile.”

Students in the learning community also participate in high-impact activities such as becoming mentors to at-risk first-graders in Omaha. They get to know one another as pen pals, trading letters and photos. They encourage the first-graders to do well in school. They talk about college and got the children excited about education — and about Iowa State.  

The Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers learning community has been so successful, the School of Education recently started a second learning community called Future Teachers, Future Leaders for transfer students in elementary education.

“To me, it’s my favorite part of being here,” Achter said. “You take freshmen and you get to watch them grow.”