Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Linking Curriculum and Interest to Your Place: The Living Learning Community

Johnson, M. D.; Sprowles, A. E.; Goldenberg, K. R.; Margell, S. T.; and Castellino, L. 2020. “Effect of a Place-Based Learning Community on Belonging, Persistence, and Equity Gaps for First-Year STEM Students.” Innovative Higher Education.


How can place and community be leveraged to enhance the experiences and outcomes of undergraduate students? This study implemented a place-based learning community that included “a variety of curricular approaches that intentionally link[ed] or cluster[ed] two or more courses, often around an interdisciplinary theme or problem, and enroll[ed] a common cohort of students” in an attempt to foster deeper relationships between students within the cohort, and between the students and the campus locale (p. 510). These lessons frequently included cultural or geographical context linking them to the history and nature of the campus area as well as incorporating outdoor education methods.

Analyses demonstrated that, compared to their matched peers, students who experienced the place-based learning community were more likely to persist, had improved academic performance, and experienced a stronger sense of belonging. The program also appeared to narrow equity gaps between underrepresented minorities in the STEM program and their peers.


While the results of this study are preliminary, the work raises the important question of how to bring students into community and convene them around meaningful topics that can provide lasting interest and value to them. Such topics must be specific enough to have salience for and real impact upon students, while remaining broad enough to include a wide range of voices, perspectives, and interests. Moreover, the central phenomena around which the community is centered should be informed—if not co-constructed—by students. While finding such topics is difficult, convening students around the campus and region seems one solution that is effective. Furthermore, such a place-based community may provide learning that holds clear utility and ongoing salience for students in a manner that more abstract themes struggle to capture. Place-based learning communities can increase persistence, performance, and sense of belonging, and narrow equity gaps, but they require thoughtful design and integration.

It should be noted that the focus on STEM students may have contributed to the effectiveness of this project, as topics like biology, ecology, and wildlife management may more likely align with the features of the local region. Furthermore, the project likely facilitated efforts to expand perspectives in STEM to include indigenous knowledges, communities, and concerns.


This study reaffirms what campus leaders have known for a long time: the central and continuing importance of engendering community among students. Like the authors, campus stakeholders might consider ways of organizing communities around place and developing relationships between students and the locality. Strong linkages between student interests, course material, and the features of the local region will have a positive impact on student outcomes. They might also consider what matters in students’ daily lives as topics for centering a living learning community. Clearly, the STEM students in this study had an affinity for place as place considerations are a major component of college choice.


Matthew D. Johnson is a professor in the Department of Wildlife at Humboldt State University.

Amy E. Sprowles is an associate professor of cellular/molecular biology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Humboldt State University.

Katlin R. Goldberg works in the Sponsored Programs Foundation at Humboldt State University.

Steven T. Margell works in the Sponsored Programs Foundation at Humboldt State University.

Lisa Castellino is the associate vice president of institutional data and analytics at West Virginia University.


Carrino, S.S., and Gerace, W.J. 2016. “Why STEM Learning Communities Work: The Development of Psychosocial Learning Factors through Social Interaction.” Learning Communities Research and Practice, 4.1 (May), Article 3.

McKinley, E., and Gan, M. J. 2014. “Culturally Responsive Science Education for Indigenous and Ethnic Minority Students.” Handbook of Research on Science Education. 2. 284–300.

Otto, S.; Evins, M. A.; Boyer-Pennington, M.; and Brinthaupt, T. M. 2015. “Learning Communities in Higher Education: Best Practices.” Journal of Student Success and Retention, 2.1. (October), 1–20.