Outcomes of Living Learning Programs: The Civic House Program

By: Sarala Duckworth, Civic House Alumni '17

The Civic House program is a Living Learning Program (LLP) for Freshmen students at George Washington University driven by intentional and specific learning objectives and centered around civic and social leadership. Created by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and housed on the Mount Vernon Campus, Civic House is part of the 11-23 % of LLP’s nationwide that require co-curricular activities such as community service, academic advising, team-building activities, group projects, and orientation (Brower and Inkelas, 2008). LLPs vary by design at every school, from a group of students like the Civic House cohort living together for a year because of shared common academic interests, to more developed four-year residential programs which grant degrees upon completion. Among GW’s other LLPs are the disciplinary focused Politics and Values program, the Academic Honors cohort, and the Women’s Leadership program.

How can we quantify the outcomes of LLPs like Civic House?

Since the creation of LLPs at Alexander Meiklejohn's experimental college at the University of Wisconsin in 1927, educators have wanted to develop a national research program into student outcomes associated with living-learning programs. Aaron M. Brower and Karen Inkelas took this project on at the request of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and thus in 2001 The National Study of Living-Learning Programs was born.

To study LLP outcomes reliably, Brower and Inkelas piloted the program on four campuses in the spring of 2004 by surveying undergraduate students living in LLPs. In the spring of 2007, they followed up with 24,000 of the students surveyed in 2004 to assess the long-term effects of LLP involvement. They also sent out a new baseline survey on forty-six campuses nationwide to continue data collection. Data was additionally gathered from LLP staff coordinators in both 2004 and 2007 about the structural and curricular components of the LLPs in question. Brower and Inkelas finally compiled all of this information into 4 case studies based on their findings.

Brower and Inkelas’s method of measurement was based off of the "inputs-environments-outcome" (I-E-O) model developed by Alexander Astin (1993). In this model, student outcomes are based on inputs that they entered the program with and the features of the LLP environments they lived in. Inputs included student’s high school achievements, their pre-college assessment of the importance of college involvement, and student’s perceptions of self-confidence. Individuals were then placed in LLP environments with contributing factors such as faculty and peer interactions, co-curricular involvement, and perception of residence hall climates. These environmental experiences ultimately translated to outcomes, the most notable being: ease of academic and social transition to college, higher student perceptions of increased intellectual abilities and self-growth since joining the LLP, higher perceptions of self-confidence, sense of civic engagement, college GPA self-reports, and student’s overall satisfaction and sense of belonging (Brower and Inkelas, 2008).

The NSLLP found that students who lived in LLPs were more effective at applying critical-thinking skills and taking advantage of opportunities to apply knowledge learned in their LLP across classes. They showed stronger commitment to civic engagement, and acted on their commitment by volunteering or taking service-learning courses more frequently in later years.

Students in the LLPs, particularly first-generation students, reported having smoother academic and social transitions into college. Other positive outcomes included healthier behaviors related to drinking alcohol, and positive "second-hand effects" on non-LLP students living in the same halls, such as community building and opportunities for social engagement (Brower and Inkelas, 2008).

In the long run, the study found that students who had participated in an LLP during their first year in college had higher levels of academic self-confidence, were more likely to be a mentor for other students, and remained more committed to civic engagement three years later. These lasting impacts on students were notable and ultimately attributed to their first-year involvement in campus events and civic training (Brower and Inkelas, 2008).

The three common characteristics of successful LLPs found by the study and adopted by the Civic House program are as follows:

  1. Have a strong student affairs–academic affairs presence and partnership. Civic House has recently built on this presence with the addition of the Program Assistant positions, the development of an alumni mentorship program to ease college transition, and oversight by a consistent Graduate Student Coordinator and Faculty Director. Academic and personal advising is available to all students through the program, and students are in close contact with mentors and staff throughout the week.

  2. Identify clear learning objectives with strong academic focus throughout the program. This year, Civic House has designed its co-curricular programming around the Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement model developed at Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service. These clarified learning objectives have aimed to maximize student learning, particularly the development of skills and abilities that allow students to become civically engaged citizens and leaders of the world. Students are also exposed to career-focused workshops, civic training through their academic service-learning course, and opportunities to apply their learning through an independently designed civic project during the spring semester of the program.

  3. Capitalize on community settings to create opportunities for learning wherever and whenever it occurs. Civic House cohorts have the opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities together such as a tour of the Capital given by Civic House Alumni, experience a diverse array of events in the District with their alumni mentors, and involve themselves in all Nashman Center initiatives and events.

What can we still learn from LLPs?

One interesting thing to note about Brown and Inkela’s study is that LLP students did not show differences in their appreciation for racial and ethnic diversity on their campus, nor did they  grow more than their non-LLP peers in terms of cognitive complexity, liberal learning, or personal philosophies. These outcomes were regardless of the type of community they lived in, which is surprising considering some of the LLPs studied were centered around multiculturalism and diversity (Brower and Inkelas, 2008). It would be interesting to incorporate more opportunities like debates and town hall discussions into LLP curriculum, allowing students to challenge their pre-existing beliefs and increase exposure to diversity to affect these two outcome areas. Studies like the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership have found that engaging students in “talking across differences” exercises where they are encouraged to understand different perspectives has been a key indicator for stronger leadership outcomes. Recruiting more diverse students and developing greater appreciation for the variety of backgrounds and experiences that make good leaders is key to seeing changes in these areas as well.

Some have argued that developing more LLPs to fit almost every interest group among university students is the answer to engage students more deeply with the aims of higher education and end the “degree mill” reputation of some institutions. This has very much been my experience with Civic House. Seeing several of my friends outside of Civic House transfer after Freshman year because they had not found their community, I realized how key living with my cohort had been to my successful transition and sense of belonging at GW. Not only was I given the tools to pursue my academic and extracurricular passions through connecting with service partners, but I had a group of best friends who were from radically different backgrounds that affirmed my sense of self and encouraged my individuality.

How can we incorporate these findings to the Civic House Program?

These findings hold true from my perspective as a Civic House alumni, as one year out from the program the majority of my Civic House cohort are still actively involved in the alumni mentorship program and show interest in civic engagement. Fellow members have demonstrated their engagement by rushing service fraternities, acting as guides for other Nashman Center programs such as Community Building Community and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and staying active in serving at the community partners they joined as a part of our service learning class. As part of that class we each wrote research papers on civic issues and had the opportunity to present them at a symposium, which gave us the tools and vocabulary to discuss service in an academic setting and then apply it to our in-person service.

While in the program, our cohort put together a culminating event that bridged horizontal service and advocacy with charitable giving and drew heavily on the key takeaways from our Civic House curriculum. We were able to engage our peers in these causes by inviting them to participate in service events and Nashman Center initiatives with us. This year’s cohort has already dedicated themselves to causes like hurricane relief, raising over $900 in just a few hours for GW Responds, and are planning to live in the same housing together next year after the program’s living requirements are complete.  These efforts show a high level of engagement in civic causes and LLPs that continue after the program has ended and ripple outward to engage other members of the GW community. In addition, the Civic House program is beginning data collection efforts to compare Civic House’s outcomes for alumni to national findings from LLP alumni by Brower and Inkelas. By intentionally following specific learning objectives and fostering civic leadership, LLPs like Civic House can provide students a more enriching and meaningful college experience while building tangible skills that will help them engage with civic issues long after they leave the program.

References:

Brower, A. M., & Inkelas, K. K. (2014, December 17). Living-Learning Programs: One High-Impact Educational Practice We Now Know a Lot About. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/living-learning-programs-one-high-impact-educational-practice-we

Haas Center for Public Service, Stanford University (n.d.). Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from https://haas.stanford.edu/about/about-our-work/pathways-public-service


Nesbitt, G. M., & Grant, A. (2015). Applying the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership Findings to Collegiate Recreation and Athletics. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2015(147). doi:10.1002/yd.20140