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Learning Communities Demonstration
Last registered on November 21, 2016


Trial Information
General Information
Learning Communities Demonstration
Initial registration date
November 21, 2016
Last updated
November 21, 2016 8:04 PM EST
Primary Investigator
Other Primary Investigator(s)
Additional Trial Information
Start date
End date
Secondary IDs
A postsecondary credential has become increasingly important in the labor market, and college attendance has grown. Unfortunately, college completion remains less common, particularly in community colleges, which serve many low-income and academically underprepared students who often need remedial (developmental) courses. Previous research on student persistence had highlighted the importance of student "engagement" in a college's academic and social life--particularly during a student's first year. "Learning communities," which emerged in the 1970s, were viewed by many practitioners and researchers as a promising strategy to promote student engagement and retention. Learning communities bring together small groups of students who take two or more linked courses that have mutually reinforcing themes and assignments. Learning communities seek to encourage peer relationships, intensify personal connections to faculty, and foster a deeper mastery of course work.

As part of six-year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education to the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR), MDRC and other NCPR research partners conducted a multi-college demonstration of learning communities. The project evaluated the effectiveness of learning communities as a strategy to improve selected educational outcomes for academically underprepared students, such as completion of developmental education requirements and persistence in college.

The demonstration used a random assignment research design to compare the experiences and outcomes of students in the learning communities with those of students not participating in the programs. MDRC and its partners collected data from a variety of sources, including students' academic records, to determine the effects of the programs. Six community colleges participated in the demonstration:

-- The Community College of Baltimore County (Baltimore, Maryland)
-- Hillsborough Community College (Tampa, Florida)
-- Houston Community College (Houston, Texas)
-- Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn, New York)
-- Merced College (Merced, California)
-- Queensborough Community College (Queens, New York)

Study intake began in fall 2007 and was completed by the end of 2009. During this time, more than 6,000 students participated in the demonstration across the six colleges. An implementation study was conducted to document how the learning communities programs were designed and operated, and to describe the classroom experience from the perspective of teachers and students in the learning communities and regular college programs.
External Link(s)
Registration Citation
Visher, Mary. 2016. "Learning Communities Demonstration." AEA RCT Registry. November 21. https://doi.org/10.1257/rct.1760-1.0.
Former Citation
Visher, Mary. 2016. "Learning Communities Demonstration." AEA RCT Registry. November 21. http://www.socialscienceregistry.org/trials/1760/history/11928.
Sponsors & Partners

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Experimental Details
Typical learning communities in community colleges for developmental education students link two or three courses, one of which is a course in developmental English or math and another that is either a college-level course, another developmental course, or a "student success" course. Instructors typically communicate at least once or twice during the semester to align and integrate the courses. Support services such as extra tutoring are often added to the program.

Six community colleges participated in the demonstration:

-- The Community College of Baltimore County (Baltimore, Maryland)
-- Hillsborough Community College (Tampa, Florida)
-- Houston Community College (Houston, Texas)
-- Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn, New York)
-- Merced College (Merced, California)
-- Queensborough Community College (Queens, New York)

The learning community programs that were implemented and tested at these six colleges were purposely selected to represent a range of such typical programs as they exist in community colleges. They varied in several dimensions:

-- Targeted subject: Four of the six programs (CCBC, Hillsborough, Kingsborough, and Merced) focused on English as the developmental subject, and two (Houston and Queensborough) focused on math.
-- Courses linked: Four programs (CCBC, Kingsborough, Merced, and Queensborough) included a college-level course in some or all of the links; in addition, the CCBC program included a noncredit seminar to support student learning, and the Kingsborough program also linked a one-credit orientation course. Hillsborough and Houston linked a developmental course with a student success course.
-- Emphasis on curricular integration: Two colleges (Kingsborough and Merced) emphasized curricular integration across the links from the start of the demonstration, while four only did so once the demonstration was under way, in part responding to encouragement to do so by MDRC and other colleges.
-- Inclusion of additional support services: One college (Kingsborough) stood out from the others in the intensity and type of extra academic and advising support it offered students in learning communities. Tutors were assigned to each learning community. Kingsborough also helped students in the learning communities pay for their books, and if they agreed to enroll in the short intersession following the program, they received an additional book voucher.
Intervention Start Date
Intervention End Date
Primary Outcomes
Primary Outcomes (end points)
Credits earned and attempted in the program's targeted subject, credits earned and attempted in other subjects, credit accumulation, college persistence
Primary Outcomes (explanation)
Secondary Outcomes
Secondary Outcomes (end points)
Secondary Outcomes (explanation)
Experimental Design
Experimental Design
The focus of this study is determining the effectiveness of learning communities in improving persistence and progress toward a credential compared with regular services offered in developmental education. Random assignment was used in all six sites to create a program group of students who were given the opportunity to enroll in a learning community and a control group of students who could enroll in any course for which they were eligible as long as it was not in a learning community. Across the six sites, 6,974 students were randomly assigned, about half of whom had the chance to enroll in one of the 174 learning communities across the six colleges. Transcript data were collected documenting enrollment, course-taking, and credit accumulation for the semester immediately following random assignment and for two semesters afterward. Implementation research was conducted at each site to assess the degree to which the programs were implemented with fidelity to the programs as designed by the colleges.
Experimental Design Details
Randomization Method
Randomization was at the student-level and was performed by MDRC in collaboration with the counseling office at participating colleges.
Randomization Unit
Was the treatment clustered?
Experiment Characteristics
Sample size: planned number of clusters
6,974 students
Sample size: planned number of observations
6,974 students
Sample size (or number of clusters) by treatment arms
2,991 students control, 3,983 students Learning Communities
Minimum detectable effect size for main outcomes (accounting for sample design and clustering)
IRB Name
IRB Approval Date
IRB Approval Number
Post Trial Information
Study Withdrawal
Is the intervention completed?
Is data collection complete?
Data Collection Completion Date
Final Sample Size: Number of Clusters (Unit of Randomization)
6,974 students
Was attrition correlated with treatment status?
Final Sample Size: Total Number of Observations
6,974 students
Final Sample Size (or Number of Clusters) by Treatment Arms
2,991 students control, 3,983 students Learning Communities
Data Publication
Data Publication
Is public data available?
Program Files
Program Files
Reports, Papers & Other Materials
Relevant Paper(s)
With their open admissions, low cost, and convenient locations, community colleges have taken great strides in recent decades in providing access to college for millions of students with diverse ethnic and academic backgrounds. Now, however, community colleges must tackle an even more formidable challenge: how to help increasingly large numbers of academically underprepared students succeed in college. The developmental courses to which over half of entering students are directed often prove to be too great a hurdle, and the majority who hope to earn a certificate or a degree, or to transfer, drop out before reaching their goals.

Learning communities are a popular strategy that community colleges nationwide have embraced in support of developmental students. In a learning community, a cohort of students takes two or more courses linked by integrated themes and assignments that are developed through ongoing faculty collaboration. Learning communities are intended to foster active and collaborative learning and to create stronger relationships among students and between students and faculty. These elements are theorized to increase students' motivation and sense of belonging, which in turn drive their effort, learning, persistence, and, ultimately, success.

While the number of learning community programs continues to grow, rigorous studies measuring their effectiveness are limited. To address this need for evidence, the Learning Communities demonstration, launched in 2007, uses random assignment to test models of learning communities at six community colleges: Kingsborough Community College, Queensborough Community College, Hillsborough Community College, Merced College, Houston Community College System, and Community College of Baltimore County. Five models serve developmental students in their first semester, and the sixth model enrolls second-semester students. The study is designed to answer three sets of questions:

1.How can learning communities be designed to address the needs of academically underprepared students?
2.What are the effects of learning communities on student achievement, as measured by test scores, credits earned, and grades? What are the effects of learning communities on student'’ persistence in higher education?
3.What do learning communities cost and how do these costs compare with the costs of standard college programs for students with low basic skills?

Preliminary findings will be available in 2009. This working paper describes the study's design, including a summary of the theoretical and empirical research relevant to learning communities, descriptions of the sites and their learning community models, the random assignment procedures, and plans for data analysis.
Visher, Mary C., Heather D. Wathington, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, and Emily Schneider. 2008. The Learning Communities Demonstration: Rationale, Sites, and Research Design. New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of students enroll at their local community college to earn a degree or credential. Their first step upon entering college is to take placement exams in English and mathematics to determine their readiness to handle college-level courses. Because their scores on these tests are low, over half of entering community college students are referred to remedial, or developmental, courses. Most do not complete the sequence of remedial courses or earn a credential.

Many community colleges are turning to learning communities as an intervention to improve the outcomes of developmental education students. In learning communities, small cohorts of students are placed together in two or more courses for one semester, usually in the freshman year. The idea behind these communities is that students will be more likely to form stronger relationships with each other and their instructors and engage more deeply in the content of the integrated course work, and that this will give them a better chance of passing their courses and staying in college.

In 2006, the National Center for Postsecondary Research, of which is MDRC is a partner, launched a demonstration of one-semester learning community programs at six colleges; five of these programs focused on developmental education. This is the final report from the project and includes findings from analyses that pool data across these five programs as well as the results for developmental education students at a sixth program at Kingsborough Community College, operated earlier under the Opening Doors demonstration. Across the six programs, almost 7,000 students were randomly assigned, about half into 174 learning communities, and tracked for three semesters. Key findings suggest that when compared with business as usual, one-semester learning communities in developmental education, on average, lead to:
-- A modest (half-credit) estimated impact on credits earned in the targeted subject (English or mathematics) but no impact on credits earned outside the targeted subject.
-- A modest (half-credit) estimated impact on total credits earned.
-- No impact on persistence in college.

The developmental education students in the Kingsborough program, which had some different features from the other five programs, including enhanced support services, showed somewhat larger results than the other sites in credits earned in the targeted subject.

An MDRC report on the overall Kingsborough learning communities program, which served both developmental and college-ready students, shows a positive impact on degree attainment after six years. The graduation effect was driven primarily by students who had placed into college-level English, although there is also evidence that the program had a positive impact on long-term outcomes for students with the greatest developmental needs in English. Together, these evaluations suggest that, while most typical one-semester learning communities for developmental education students are not likely to lead to large effects on students' outcomes, a program with additional supports can have longer-term impacts for developmental students.
Visher, Mary G., Michael J. Weiss, Evan Weissman, Timothy Rudd, and Heather D. Wathington. 2012. The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education: A Synthesis of Findings from Six Community Colleges. New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research.