Build the Pyramid: A Best Practices Literature

Review for Living-Learning Communities

Maxwell M. Wagner

Missouri State University


In the last decade, living-learning communities (LLCs) have evolved as the higher education environment has shifted and scholars have identified empirical best practices for optimum, modern living-learning programs. The Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs model created by Inkelas, Garvey, & Robbins (2012) is discussed in detail as its components comprise the empirically-based model for modern LLC programs (Inkelas, Jessup-Anger, Benjamin, & Wawrzynski, 2018). The model’s four levels; infrastructure, academic environment, co-curricular environment, and intentional integration, with assessment as the mortar that cements these levels together, create an operational and symbolic basis for developing cohesive and effective living-learning programs. Findings of this literature review indicate substantial support for the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs model as an appropriate framework for the development of contemporary residential living-learning programs. Using these findings and the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs model as an analytical lens, this review presents a multi-level analysis of LLC program best practices and considerations for future research and practice are discussed.

Keywords: academic affairs, higher education, high-impact practices, livinglearning communities, living-learning program, residential life, student affairs

Living-learning communities (LLCs), also called living-learning programs (LLPs), are commonplace programs within residence halls across colleges and universities in the United States and exist as different arrangements and assemblies. Inkelas, Szelenyi, and Soldner (2007) defined LLCs/LLPs as “programs in which undergraduate students live together in a discrete portion of a residence hall (or the entire hall) and participate in academic and/ or extra-curricular programming designed especially for them” (p. I-2). According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2015), LLCs “should create more integrated experiences for first-year students by connecting faculty, students, disciplines, and co-curricular experiences” (p. 42). Indeed, LLCs should seek opportunities to maximize the learning and development of student participants in the shared experience the programs provide. Within the last decade, growing literature on LLC best practices has identified such opportunities for ensuring optimum effectiveness. The purpose of this literature review is to explore recent literature on purely residential living-learning programs that validates each level of the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living Learning Programs model (Inkelas, Garvey, & Robbins, 2012). The results of this review are intended to help LLC professionals create and develop stronger programs by understanding this modern best practices framework.


Review of the Literature

This review synthesized literature on LLCs from the last two decades, but with primary emphasis placed on scholarly and peer-reviewed journal articles published within the last 10 years and literature focused on discussing purely residential LLCs. Included in this review are the following topics: (a) general benefits of living-learning communities, (b) the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living Learning Programs model, and (c) literature supporting the components of this model. The article concludes with considerations for practice and future research.

General Benefits of Living-Learning Communities

LLCs have numerous benefits that are well documented by the literature. Most significantly, participation in LLCs has been associated with stronger student success compared to nonLLC residents. Some of these key outcomes include: (a) academic performance (Arensdorf & Naylor-Tincknell, 2016; Barefoot, 2000; Inkelas, Szelenyi, & Soldner, 2007; Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Pasque & Murphy, 2005; Sriram, Glanzer, & Allen, 2018; Stassen, 2003);

(b) ease of transition and socialization into the college environment (Arensdorf & NaylorTincknell, 2016; Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Ericksen & Walker, 2015; Inkelas, Szelenyi, & Soldner, 2007; Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, & Leonard, 2007; Stassen, 2003; Strayhorn, 2008); and (c) increased persistence (Arensdorf & Naylor-Tincknell, 2016; Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Edwards & McKelfresh, 2002; Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006; Stassen, 2003; Tinto, 2003; Wardell, Draper, & Yarrish, 2008). LLCs have also been found to increase interactions with peers and faculty in and out of the classroom (Arensdorf & Naylor-Tincknell, 2016; Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Kuh, et al., 2006; Inkelas, Szelenyi, & Soldner, 2007; Shuskok & Sriram, 2010; Wardell, Draper, & Yarrish, 2008; Wawrzynski, & Jessup-Angur, 2010).

These interactions in the shared learning environments of LLCs produce additional benefits for students and faculty, including: (a) increased exposure to diversity (Inkelas et al., 2007; Inkelas et al., 2012; Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Pike, Kuh, & McCormick, 2009), higher levels of campus and community engagement (Inkelas et al., 2007; Inkelas et al., 2012; Weiss & Fosnacht, 2018), and professional development for faculty (Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Inkelas, Soldner, & Leonard, 2008). Because of these substantial outcomes, LLCs have been nationally recognized as a high-impact practice in higher education and a strong example of interventions that enhance student learning and development (Brower & Inkelas, 2010; Keup, 2013; Potter, Berson, Engelkemeyer, Oliaro, Terenzini, & Walker-Johnson, 1998). Per Kuh (2008), highimpact practices are teaching and learning practices shown to increase retention and student engagement and have validated benefits for students of many backgrounds.

Best Practices Building Blocks for Living Learning Programs Model

LLCs have been constantly evolving over the past decade and empirically-based best practices have been developed based on the wealth of knowledge provided by national studies and recent scholarly research. Inkelas, Garvey, and Robbins (2012) constructed a theoretical best practices model called Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs, which is shown in Figure 1. This model is pyramidal and includes the following four levels (progressing from bottom to top): infrastructure, academic environment, co-curricular environment, and intentional integration. A fifth component, assessment, is interwoven into all the levels. The pyramid structure serves as both operational and symbolic; if the foundational facets of the program are not solid, the higher levels cannot be effective.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Best Practices Building Blocks

As the foundation of the pyramid, the infrastructure level consists of the core programmatic aspects that allow the higher-level aspects to exist and function (Inkelas et al., 2012). Per Inkelas et al. (2012), the elements of Infrastructure are: (a) clear goals and objectives that

relate directly to the program’s theme, (b) adequate human and financial resources to operate the program and (c) effective collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs. Progressing up the pyramid, Inkelas et al. (2012) identified three core best practices in the academic environment level: (a) courses for credit linked with the LLC, (b) academic advisement by faculty involved in the program, and (c) creating a residence hall environment that is both academically and socially supportive. The third level, co-curricular environment, relates to the “formal, out-of-class activities that supplement and fortify the academic goals” of the program (Inkelas et al., 2012, p. 33). LLCs must equally value the learning both inside and outside the classroom (Inkelas et al., 2012). The highest level of the best practices pyramid is intentional integration, which is defined as “the extent to which all of the other blocks in the pyramid are in alignment with the LLP’s goals and objectives and integrated with one another” (Inkelas et al., 2012, p. 33). This pinnacle involves confirming that each of the lower levels align while appropriately and effectively supporting the overall learning process in the program. The final aspect of the model, assessment, is described as “the mortar between the blocks that holds together the rest of the pyramid” (Inkelas et al., 2012, p. 34). Inkelas et al. (2012) explained that LLC professionals assess their programs by three main criteria: (a) effectiveness of the discrete elements (e.g. linked courses, staff), (b) the extent to which the program aligns with stated goals and objectives, and (c) the level of integration between each element of the program.

Literature Supporting the Best Practices Building Blocks Model Components

As advocated by Inkelas, Jessup-Anger, Benjamin, and Wawrzynski (2018), the Best Practices Building Blocks model is the empirically-based, best practices model for modern LLCs and shall be the framework for this literature review henceforth. While there is little research that explicitly compares the different types of LLCs, Inkelas, Soldner, and Leonard (2008) stated: “while the thematic focus of L/L [LLC] programs may differ from program to program, the ways in which they are organized and maintained can be largely comparable” (p. 508). Therefore, the best practices discussed are applied to LLC programs overall. A limitation to the total generalizability of these findings is the wide diversity of LLC forms and functions across

many institution types (Inkelas et al., 2012; Inkelas, Soldner, & Leonard, 2008). Although the utility of these findings will vary, LLC professionals can use this model as a practical, empirically-based framework for program development within their institutional contexts.

Infrastructure. Pasque & Murphy (2005) stated that every living-learning program should evaluate their current goals and missions to ensure those statements align with desired outcomes, especially academic achievement and intellectual engagement. Furthermore, there must be a positive predictive relationship between the program’s goals and student outcomes to be effective in producing desired student development (Pasque & Murphy, 2005). Succeeding this partnership, human and financial resources are fundamental, yet progressively challenging, characteristics of LLCs. Institutions must be fully cognizant of the amount of resources they have to support their LLC programs and living-learning program budgets must be sustainable, especially if they are considering expansion via student implementation and advancement (Inkelas, Soldner, & Leonard, 2008; Brower & Inkelas, 2010). However, LLC programs have Academic Affairs as a chief resource collaborator, and this partnership is becoming increasingly important considering the limited budgets all colleges and universities must negotiate (Inkelas et al., 2012).

A strong partnership between student affairs and academic affairs is essential to the success of living-learning programs (Brower & Inkelas, 2010; Brower, Inkelas, Hobgood, Beckett, & Seyforth, n.d.; Inkelas et al., 2012; Tinto, 1999). Successful LLC programs are characterized by both divisions having regular communication, a collaborative relationship, a strong academic focus for LLCs, resource-sharing practices, and well-defined roles for each division’s staff to create a more cohesive learning environment. However, per Inkelas et al. (2012), there is more than one successful form of a student/academic affairs partnership. Thus, the partnership should align with a shared understanding of institutional contexts and resources. Having a strong partnership does not necessarily mean that both divisions should be involved in all aspects regarding living-learning programs. Some institutions have the resources to have closely integrated partnerships, whereas others may do best with a “parallel partnership” (Inkelas et al., 2012, p. 36) in which both divisions separate responsibilities based on resources, competencies, and administrative strengths. The nature of the partnership is at the discretion of the professionals, but both divisions must have some kind of cooperative relationship to successfully execute living-learning programs.

Academic environment. First, several scholars have championed integrating linked courses into LLCs to promote student success in all types of living-learning programs (Brower & Inkelas, 2010; Brower et al., n.d.; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Angur, 2010). This research indicates that providing students with built-in courses related to the program’s theme gives them opportunities to enhance their learning through easier access to course faculty, additional cocurricular opportunities, increased peer interaction inside and outside the classroom, and a shared intellectual experience. Next, Brower and Inkelas (2010) and Inkelas et al. (2012) have determined that the most common roles LLC-participating faculty facilitated were teaching courses and advising students; students responded by consulting with faculty on coursespecific and advisement matters. Increasing the value of these findings, faculty involvement is a crucial attribute of successful living-learning programs, especially in these dual roles for LLC students (Arensdorf & Naylor-Tincknell, 2016; Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Ericksen & Walker, 2015; Inkelas et al., 2012; Inkelas, Soldner & Leonard, 2008; Shusok & Sriaram, 2010, Tinto, 2003; Wardell et al., 2008). Since LLCs typically have mostly first-year students, Inkelas et al. (2012) emphasized that ideal interactions between students and faculty are those regarding coursework and academic advisement, the goal being able to develop trust and mentoring relationships in the future. Lastly, positive student perceptions of the peer climate and living environment is one of the most influential aspects of LLC outcomes (Buell, Love, & Yao, 2017; Inkelas et al., 2012; Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Rowan-Kenyon, Soldner, & Inkelas, 2007). Interestingly, Inkelas, Szelenyi, and Soldner (2007) suggested that positive perceptions also have a ripple effect to non-LLC students living in the same residence hall. According to their research, “traditional residence hall participants perceived their residential climate as more socially supportive and were more likely to report positive diversity interactions with their peers than traditional residence hall students living in buildings with no L/L programs” (p. I-10).

Overall, scholars endorse the establishment of an inclusive and collaborative learning environment to maximize student success and learning (Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; JessupAnger, 2012; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Angur, 2010). Constructing such cooperative learning environments are created through structuring co-curricular activities (e.g. service learning), as well as quality peer and cross-cultural interaction into the programming utilizing a strong academic focus to provide students opportunities to engage in an enriched educational environment. Jessup-Angur (2012) encouraged LLC professionals and faculty to supplement this accommodating environment by challenging students to continually strive for excellence. This involves encouraging them to take ownership of their education while providing necessary support along the way (Jessup-Angur, 2012). With these methods established, emphasizing collaborative environments can yield important benefits including increased retention, increased tolerance for diversity, improved academic performance, and a stronger sense of belonging at the institution for students (Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Roksa & Whitley, 2017; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Angur, 2010).

Co-curricular environment. Co-curricular programming must be very intentional, and is paramount when the activities are: (a) aligned with the LLC’s theme, (b) in environments where there is a healthy amount of academically-based activities (e.g. study groups), (c) students have opportunities to learn about and appreciate inherent differences (e.g. cultural programs/discussions), and (d) are spaces containing activities that strengthen community and engage emotions to influence deeper learning (Inkelas et al., 2012; Brower & Inkelas, 2010; Smith, 2015; Nanna, Skillman, & Zgela, 2011). Like the academic environment, peer interaction and social-oriented activities (both formal and informal) are influential on the experience of LLC students and their cognitive and personal development (Brower et al. n.d.; Smith, 2015; Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Angur, 2010). Inkelas et al. (2012) identified the four activities associated with the strongest positive outcomes in LLC programs: (a) participating in study groups, (b) outreach to K-12 schools through buddy/ peer-mentoring, (c) visits to professional work settings (e.g. businesses, labs, organizations), and (d) career workshops. Inkelas et al. (2012) also identified other successful required and optional programming activities conducted by living-learning programs. The most popular required activities were group projects and team building challenges and the most popular optional activities were: (a) cultural outings, (b) multicultural programming, and (c) study groups. Collectively, effective LLC co-curricular programming must encourage peer-to-peer interaction while closely aligning with its theme, academic goals, and learning outcomes.

Intentional integration. Per Brower et al. (n.d.), successful living-learning programs primarily focus on developing structures and procedures to ensure integration of stakeholders into the execution of the program and its activities. Likewise, LLC professionals must be intentional in this process and capitalize on partnerships and community-building to ensure learning everywhere it occurs. As Brower and Inkelas (2010) described living-learning programs as “microcosms of what our colleges and universities can and should be” (para. 22), which are environments that maximize student learning and promote the development of important skills that allow them to become productive citizens and future leaders. However, Inkelas, Soldner, and Leonard (2008) warn, when it comes to LLCs, “‘bigger’ may not necessarily always be ‘better’” (p. 508). While LLCs can provide many important benefits, professionals must be fully cognizant of their resources and emphasize intentionality, high engagement, and quality structure throughout all levels of their living-learning programs.

Assessment. Inkelas et al. (2012) argued “the next generation of research on LLPs should include measurements and analysis of the various constructs in our model, and should investigate if or how these constructs relate to key student outcomes, such as academic achievement, persistence, and learning” (p. 35). In addition to alignment of assessment with the program’s goals, Iowa State University (2015) stated that LLC professionals should develop cognitive outcomes based on achievement, affective outcomes related to student development, and social outcomes that create a supportive learning environment. Wawrzynski & JessupAngur (2010) also emphasized gathering information regarding LLC students’ expectations of being in an LLC, as this can be a predictor for behavior and outcomes of the program. In terms of execution, some scholars recommend that assessment is conducted throughout the operational cycle of the program to identify any challenges or deficiencies, receive feedback on programming, and ascertain how learning outcomes are being met (Smith, 2015; Wardell et al., 2008). Assessment should also be conducted in qualitative ways such as focus groups, student interviews, and student reflections to gain a deeper understanding of how the LLC experience is impacting students (Iowa State University, 2015).

Discussion and Implications

Living-learning communities are strong assets to residential life in higher education. With the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs model, LLC professionals are now equipped with research-based guidance to successfully adapt programs in the modern environment. Taking actions to align program practices with the model yields the ability to more effectively achieve desired goals and learning outcomes of LLCs. Through these actions, intentionality must be emphasized at all levels to develop stronger programs and create an academic-social environment where student learning and development can thrive.

Moreover, living-learning communities are revered high-impact practices that exhibit numerous beneficial outcomes for student learning and development and have evolved significantly in the last decade as the higher education environment has shifted. The comprehensive best practices model for modern living-learning programs created by Inkelas, Garvey, and Robbins (2012) serves as an empirically-based model for successful livinglearning programs within modern higher education. Using this model, LLC programs can continually improve for future practice. Most notably, scholars contend that LLC professionals should conduct a critical self-assessment (such as Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education) of the current mission, goals, overall structure, and assessment practices of their programs and their partnership with academic affairs regularly to certify promotion of academic achievement, student success, and social integration outcomes while identifying strengths and areas for improvement (Inkelas et al. 2012; Jessup-Angur, 2012; Pasque & Murphy, 2005). Assessment is crucial for LLC programs to determine needs, opportunities for improvement, and required adjustments in their communities and practices to maximize outcomes. As LLC programs continue to develop, exploring opportunities to integrate quantitative, qualitative, and structural assessment methods discussed in this literature review will help build stronger assessment plan, wherever deemed appropriate and beneficial.

This literature review did not discuss other notable research findings regarding living-learning programs such as: (a) student development theory applications, (b) unique challenges faced by LLCs, and (c) the impact these programs have on students from underrepresented populations (e.g., first-generation students, students of color). These topics individually warrant thorough discussion. Thus, in future literature reviews, these three topics should be addressed in the context of the Best Practices Building Blocks for Living-Learning Programs model. While the work of Inkelas et al. (2003; 2007; 2008; 2012; 2018) is the foundation of this literature review, future research on LLCs should continue to include supplementary and critical perspectives, which can strengthen this model and provide more valuable insight to further assist LLC professionals in facilitating success for all student participants.


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Leadership Council:


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