Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Shrinking Learning Communities to Maximize Gains from All Students

Brouwer, J.; Flache, A.; Jansen, E.; Hofman, A.; and Steglich, C. 2018. “Emergent Achievement Segregation in Freshmen Learning Community Networks.” Higher Education.


Colleges are not just places where students engage with course materials, but where they develop networks of friends and colleagues that support them throughout their time in college, and potentially, throughout their adult lives as well. The development of these networks is important for students’ successful transition to college and performance therein, and many colleges have created first-year learning communities to support their development. These communities are usually composed of 12–14 students who are in their first semester of college, who take identical classes, and who are expected to study together, work together on collaborative projects, and to develop close social relationships. Ideally, students with a stronger grasp of the material provide support to the other students in their communities, but whether this is actually the case has rarely been investigated.

This study examined 95 undergraduate students who were divided into eight first-year learning communities. These communities included an average of 12 students. The researchers gathered longitudinal data at two points during the first year: the end of the first semester and the end of the second semester. This data included students’ preferences regarding with whom they would most like to collaborate; who they would ask for academic help; how strong their friendships were with various students; and their academic self-efficacy. Their academic achievement was measured via GPA. The research team used a method that allowed them to understand how student characteristics, like achievement, might influence how likely others were to collaborate with that student, and how students clustered in academic and social networks.


The authors report that students generally self-segregate by achievement level in first-year learning communities, with academically stronger students connecting with other academically strong students, and with lower-performing students connecting far more strongly with other lower-performing students. Students appear to segregate in this manner whether they are searching for academic support (e.g., like study groups or student-selected peers in group projects) or for social support (e.g., friendships). Furthermore, students who were high achieving appeared to make more and stronger connections in general than those who were low achievers. It’s possible that low achievers did not have the same social skills as their high-achieving peers and were unwilling or unable to establish strong relationships with them; alternatively high-achieving students may be less responsive to academic or social invitations from low-achieving peers because such peers may not be able to reciprocate the assistance the high-achieving students provide to them. Alternatively, high-achieving students may (incorrectly) assume that their academic skills would not be improved through engagement with lower-achieving peers.


Allowing learning networks to spontaneously develop results in sub-optimal learning. First-year learning communities (12-14 students) may be too large to prevent students from self-segregating by academic ability level, and stronger growth may be more likely with smaller learning communities. While high-achieving students have been shown to benefit a great deal from mentoring and tutoring students who are lower achieving, when left to their own choices, they prefer to interact with and learn from similarly achieving students. This occurs in both academic and social contexts. One way campus leaders might counteract this effect is by reducing the size of the learning communities. For example, learning dyads and reciprocal peer mentoring programs that pair low- and high-achieving students have shown that both parties make learning gains through these strategies. While reducing the number of students in a learning network to two would defeat the purpose of the network, reducing its size may counteract spontaneous segregation. Additionally, informing students of the gains that high-achieving mentors make due to providing help to lower-achieving mentees may work to alleviate self-segregation effects.


Jasperina Brouwer is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Science at the University of Groningen.

Andreas Flache is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Groningen.

Ellen Jansen is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Groningen.

Adriaan Hofman is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Groningen.

Christian Steglich is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Groningen and in the Institute for Analytical Sociology.


Smith, B.; MacGregor, J.; Matthews, R. S. and Gabelnick, F. 2004. Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thomas, S. L. 2000. “Ties that Bind: A Social Network Approach to Understanding Student Integration and Persistence.” Journal of Higher Education, 71.5, 591–615.