The impact of learning communities on intellectual outcomes of first-year students

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Vincent Tinto


Learning communities, Intellectual outcomes, First-year students

Subject Categories

Educational Psychology | Higher Education Administration


William Perry (1970) published a theory of intellectual and ethical development describing a process whereby students think in more complex ways over time. Intellectual development occurs through a series of challenges and supports affecting an individual over time and includes the social and environmental aspects of the college experience in achieving higher levels of reasoning.

For years the literature in higher education has suggested that by increasing students' involvement or engagement in the academic and social life of the college, their learning is enhanced (Astin, 1984; Cross, 1998; Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews & Smith, 1990, 1993; Kuh, 1995). These theories postulate that by increasing student support via connections with peers and other faculty, students are more likely to, and at times more eager to, successfully take on the challenges necessary to think in broader, more complex ways. Through learning community involvement, students are expected to change learning behaviors that positively impact reasoning and intellectual development (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews & Smith, 1990; MacGregor, 1991; Thompson, 1991).

This dissertation research was conducted on a midsized private university campus and focused on traditionally aged college students in an undergraduate business program. This study, through Perry's (1970) model of intellectual development, tested students to see if differential gains were found between students participating in a learning community and those who were not. Multiple regression analysis was used to determine whether factors describing student participation, as measured by the College Activities Survey, were linked specifically to gains in reasoning, student learning behaviors and to predict which variables most contributed to individual students' gains in reasoning as measured by the Measure of Intellectual Development and Grade Point Average (G.P.A.).

Of the variables studied, taking a leadership role in a course-related project, perceived effort faculty made to get to know a student, not spending too much time socializing, and satisfaction with one's social environment contributed most positively to a student's gain in intellectual development based on Perry's model. Satisfaction with faculty outside of the classroom, one's likelihood of changing his or her major, SAT Math score, membership in a learning community, turning papers in on time, and working in an on-campus job all positively contributed to higher achievement as measured by their G.P.A.

Findings suggest that learning community membership does not lead directly to gains in intellectual outcomes, but does lead to changes in student learning behaviors that may contribute positively to increases in intellectual reasoning and G.P.A. A particular students ability to become invested in his or her academic work with peers and faculty and his or her ability to avoid anti-intellectual behavior may contribute to gains in reasoning.

Understanding which academic and social behaviors impact intellectual reasoning and G.P.A. allows higher education professionals an opportunity to focus resources on specific student learning behaviors. This understanding allows higher education professionals to look critically at both in- and out-of-the classroom programs more intentionally to support students' intellectual growth.


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