- The Development and Validation of an Instrument Measuring Academic, Social, and Deeper Life Interactions
Within higher education in the United States, there is growing interest in learning communities, institutional programs designed to bring groups of students together through shared educational experiences, often over an extended period of time and in a variety of settings. Although such initiatives date back to the early days of the 20th century (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, & Gabelnick, 2004), their recent resurgence coincides with their recognition by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as a high-impact educational practice based on their link to student engagement (Kuh, 2008).
While the nomenclature to describe learning communities within residence halls is vast, Inkelas, Jessup-Anger, Benjamin, and Wawrzynski (2018) use the term living-learning communities (LLCs) for initiatives combining academic activities with the residential experience. The success of these programs is based, in part, on the types of interactions that LLCs create among students, faculty, and staff. Traditionally, student interactions have been bifurcated into two categories based on either social or academic integration (Tinto, 1993). More recent research based on positive psychology emphasizes overall well-being and meaning making for students (Schreiner, Louis, & Nelson, 2012). Sriram and McLevain (2016) proposed deeper life interactions as a third category for understanding student interactions and the college student experience. They described these interactions as encounters that reflect a level of engagement on a more personal level and that prompt critical thinking about meaning, values, and purpose. To further explore the nature and depth of students’ engagement with peers, faculty, and staff within LLCs we developed an instrument for gauging students’ interactions.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STUDENT INTERACTIONS IN LLCS
Compared to the benefits found for students living in traditional residence halls, LLCs encourage more frequent and substantive levels [End Page 240] of interaction among students, faculty, and staff (Kuh & Hu, 2001; Soldner & Szelenyi, 2008). Students report that LLCs promote meaningful and fulfilling relationships with faculty and staff (Wawrzynski, Jessup-Anger, Stolz, Helman, & Beaulieu, 2009) and increase perceptions of faculty caring (Blackhurst, Akey, & Bobilya, 2003), leading to increased confidence and motivation (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010). For some students, the context of interactions with faculty, more than the nature of these interactions, makes a difference with respect to college satisfaction (Cotten & Wilson, 2006). When interactions occur outside of the classroom, they are often incidental—general acknowledgments and greetings—but the type of interaction most beneficial to students tends to be functional, designed to meet a specific purpose (Cox & Orehovec, 2007).
In order for students to be successful, it is critical for them to gain a sense of belonging through both formal and informal relationships (Chambliss & Takacs, 2014). Peer and faculty interactions play a primary role in the positive effects of LLCs (Inkelas et al., 2018), which provide an ideal environment for these relationships to flourish, fostering a community where students can form connections that promote a sense of belonging (Spanierman et al., 2013). Students who live in LLCs are more likely to be engaged in campus activities (Inkelas et al., 2018), to perceive their residential environment as more supportive (Inkelas et al., 2018), and to report higher levels of social support and comfort in discussing personal problems (Domizi, 2008). LLCs also impact the ways in which students engage with one another in the classroom, as students are more likely to contact peers on academic work and engage in group projects (Domizi, 2008; Stassen, 2003).
These findings are reinforced by the most recent multi-institutional study on LLCs, the Assessment of Collegiate Residential Environments and Outcomes (ACREO). According to Mayhew, Dahl, Hooten, Duran, Stipeck, and Youngerman (2018), students who live in LLCs report a stronger perception of academic support systems. Findings from ACREO indicate desirable social outcomes for students who live in LLCs, who report higher levels of peer interaction, cocurricular engagement, and sense of support.
LLCs foster the kinds of interactions that benefit college students broadly. In his classic work, Tinto (1993) conceptualized two forms of integration—social and academic—both of which he linked to student retention. The limitation of this...