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Living–Learning Communities Improve First-year Engineering Student Academic Performance and Retention at a Small Private University

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

First-year Programs Division Technical Session 10: Paying Attention to Retention

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1098.1 - 26.1098.23



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Paper Authors


William John Palm IV P.E. Roger Williams University

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William Palm is Assistant Professor of Engineering at Roger Williams University, where he teaches Engineering Graphics and Design, Computer Applications for Engineering, Machine Design, Manufacturing and Assembly, Biomechanics, and Capstone Design. He previously worked as a product design engineer and consultant and taught at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Boston University. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and is licensed as a Professional Engineer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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Charles R Thomas Roger Williams University

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Living-Learning Communities Improve First-Year Engineering Student Academic Performance and RetentionLiving-Learning Communities (LLCs), in which students share a residence, one or more classes,and extracurricular activities, have been shown to improve first-year student engagement,academic performance, and retention in non-engineering fields.1 Research on Engineering LLCshas focused primarily on student engagement.2-5 The two studies to examine performance andretention found that LLCs had little effect on first-semester grades but increased first-yearretention in Engineering by 2 to 12%.6, 7 Unfortunately, Hodge et al6 did not control fordifferences in incoming student characteristics, and Light7 used a comparison group that differedlittle from the LLC group, possibly causing them to understate the LLCs’ true effects. Toimprove our understanding, this paper examines performance and retention in the inauguralEngineering LLCs at a small, private non-profit, regional university in the northeastern U.S.The two LLCs each included 19 students who had self-selected into the program. Each LLC hadits own floor of an on-campus dormitory and its own section of a first-semester EngineeringGraphics and Design course. Three non-LLC sections of the same course enrolled a total of 31first-year students. The LLC and non-LLC course sections were identical in design and delivery.Outside of class, the LLCs participated jointly with their instructor in a community service day,two engineering-themed on-campus events, and a field trip to a science museum. The LLCinstructor also dined with each LLC once per semester. Each LLC had a fourth-year engineeringmajor resident assistant who organized engineering-themed events for his or her residents.LLC participants were retained within the Engineering program at a 17% higher rate than non-participants, and at a statistically-significant 22% higher rate than 161 comparable first-yearstudents from the prior two years. More strikingly, the average first-semester GPA of the LLCparticipants was 0.5 points (half a letter grade) higher than that of the non-participants. Todetermine if these differences were due to incoming student characteristics, multiple linear andlogistic regression were used to control for sex, race/ethnicity, SAT scores, and other factors.The results suggest that LLC participation increased GPA by 0.2 points over that of comparablestudents from past years, while non-participation lowered GPA by 0.2 points. LLC participationincreased the likelihood of retention by 2.7 times, while non-participation had little effect.The positive impacts of LLC participation are stronger than previously reported for EngineeringLLCs, and consistent with results from non-Engineering fields as well as Tinto’s theory ofstudent departure.8 The finding that non-participation worsened performance is unexpected. Onepossible explanation is that the LLC sections included over half of the incoming first-year class.If LLC participation improved those students’ grades, other first-year students taking the samecourses might have received lower grades if the courses were graded on a curve. Anotherpossible explanation is the presence of self-selection bias beyond what our data can control for.Our findings confirm LLCs’ reputation as a high impact practice,9 but hint that their use may cutboth ways. While LLCs improve performance for participants, they may worsen it for non-participants. Engineering programs seeking to implement LLCs may wish to encourage eithervery high participation (to provide the benefits fairly to all students), or relatively lowparticipation (so as not to pull all the highly-engaged students out of the non-LLC sections).Bibliography:[1] Stassen, M.L.A. (2003). Student outcomes: The impact of varying living-learning community models. Research in Higher Education, 44(5), 581-613.[2] Ciston, S., Carnasciali, M.-I., Nocito-Gobel, J., and Carr, C. (2011). Impacts of living learning communities on engineering student engagement and sense of affiliation. Proceedings of the 118th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.[3] Flynn, M.A. (2012). Engineering residential learning communities: Evaluating the impact on freshmen engineering students. M.A. thesis, Rowan University.[4] Shushok Jr, F., and Sriram, R. (2010). Exploring the effect of a residential academic affairs-student affairs partnership: The first year of an engineering and computer science living-learning center. The Journal of College and University Student Housing, 36(2), 68-81.[5] Light, J., and Davis, D.C. (2004). Impacts of a combined living-learning community on attitudes and college engagement of engineering freshmen. Proceedings of the 111th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Salt Lake City, UT.[6] Hodge, J.Q., Lagoudas, M.Z., Harris, A.M., Froyd, J.E., Hobson, M., and Pope, J.A. (2011). Influencing the academic success of undergraduate first-year engineering students through a living learning community. Proceedings of the 118th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.[7] Light, J. (2005). Developing and assessing a holistic living-learning community for engineering and science freshmen. Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University.[8] Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[9] Kuh, G.D., and Schneider, C.G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them and why they matter, Report to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Palm, W. J., & Thomas, C. R. (2015, June), Living–Learning Communities Improve First-year Engineering Student Academic Performance and Retention at a Small Private University Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24435

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