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Living-learning communities connect like-minded students in residence

More students are opting to live in theme-based residences.
JAN 10 2019

Living-learning communities connect like-minded students in residence

More students are opting to live in theme-based residences.


Before she had even applied to Wilfrid Laurier University, Grace Jansen in de Wal heard that she could live in residence on a floor dedicated to history students. The students would be offered special programming from group study sessions to communal cooking, and even a field trip at the end of the year. At the university’s open house, she met a student who raved about the residence program, so once she received her admissions package from Laurier, Ms. Jansen in de Wal knew exactly where she’d apply to live.

That fall, she joined 21 other history majors on a themed floor connected by a common course called “The History of Piracy in the Atlantic World.” By springtime she found herself on a 10-day field trip to Puerto Rico following in the footsteps of the pirates they had studied, visiting forts and a sugar mill, kayaking through a mangrove swamp and experiencing local culture. Now in her fourth year, Ms. Jansen in de Wal has returned to Puerto Rico with the same program, led another cohort on a tour of medieval sites in England, and works as a don for a themed residence community devoted to film.

While the travel component of Ms. Jansen in de Wal’s experience is uncommon as far as residence life programs go, themed living communities are a growing trend at Canadian universities. Laurier calls them residence learning communities, but they are most frequently known as living-learning communities, or LLCs.

The student affairs staffers who develop and run these programs report that they help students (predominantly first-year undergraduates) to develop new friendships earlier on, to engage more with their faculties and universities, and to better cope with their first year away from home. While some programs are tied to academic faculties or a specific discipline, others are based on a shared interest – a social cause such as environmentalism or community volunteering, or a lifestyle passion like health and wellness or playing music. Others are based on identity, say for Indigenous students or those who identify as LGBTQ.

Starting small

At St. Francis Xavier University, where 90 percent of first-year students live on campus, residence education coordinator Kerri Arthurs helped to launch the university’s first LLCs this past fall. She started with four communities: one for the faculty of nursing, another for students taking humanities courses, a lifestyle-based community called “Quieter Lifestyles” and one for substance-free living.

Each LLC has monthly programming tailored to the group. The nursing students visit a local hospital and nursing home, and host guest speakers from places like the local women’s resource centre. Programming for the humanities students focuses on films and debates. “We’re extending intellectual exploration outside of the classroom,” Ms. Arthurs explains. Meanwhile, in the Quieter Lifestyles community, the students set the rules together. “They develop a community agreement that they then revisit throughout the year,” she says. “The standards for living are based on what the community needs.”

Like StFX, many universities started with just a few living-learning communities, but some now have a dozen or more. The University of Regina, for example, launched four LLCs with 45 students in 2015, and now counts over 100 students in 10 different communities. At some universities, students in LLCs now represent up to 20 percent of the residence population.

The evidence is in

Many who have started these communities say that the favourable data on LLCs convinced them to try it, while the success they see in their own communities keeps them going. “We know from the research that students who live on campus and who have campus supports do better. They’re likely to continue their studies and have more academic success,” says U of R president Vianne Timmons, who draws a direct line from the university’s strategic plan to her campus’s LLCs. Bettina Welsh, U of R’s director of student affairs operations, adds: “We know anecdotally that these students are getting a better experience. They’re making friends quicker and their sense of belonging is increased, which is really important for young people away from home.”

Other universities cite similar experiences. The University of Alberta has four “academic cohort floors” equivalent to LLCs, and “every year on the satisfaction surveys, we tend to see students [on these floors] having higher satisfaction with the student staff and with the programming,” says Laura Huxley, acting manager of residence life and education at the university. She adds that self-reported data also show these students have higher GPAs compared to students who live on traditional residence floors.

Melissa McNown-Smith, the University of Waterloo’s manager of living-learning communities, says students in LLCs at her institution report “that they find it easy to meet other students who are in the same classes and might have the same interests.” At Laurier, associate director of residence education Dave Shorey says program participants not only report higher grades and better academic results, but closer relationships with their professors and faculties. “When a student has a positive relationship or interactions with faculty in their first year, they are more likely to seek out connections with all of their faculty, accessing their office hours or other supports,” he says. “These programs help students feel comfortable doing that.”

Students confirm the benefits. “It’s a unique opportunity that lets you hit the ground running in terms of university life because you build those connections from the beginning,” says Ms. Jansen in de Wal at Laurier. Across town at U of Waterloo, Michael Davos, a second-year student and a peer leader in the accounting and finance LLC, says living in the community during his first year helped to ease his transition to university. He recently recommended it to friends applying to residence “because you can get more out of your first year,” he says. “You have one-on-one support from the peer leader, and you’re living with people who are in the same program as you, so you can use them for support as well.” When contacted for this story, Mr. Davos was in the midst of planning a pizza party for a midterm study session for his 18 first-year charges.

Mr. Davos’s experience shows the benefit of LLCs can extend beyond first year; many LLCs hire upper-year student residence assistants who have been through the program themselves.

Similar but different

Some LLCs hand over responsibility to student peer leaders and let them run with their own ideas, with support from residence staff. Others rely heavily on professors to help lead the program. The U of A, for one, has even produced a resource booklet for faculties participating in its academic cohort floors. At Laurier, Ms. Jansen in de Wal credits African history professor Jeff Grischow, who led her piracy course, with creating a memorable experience. “He would come in [to the LLC] and conduct study sessions for all of us where we would learn more in-depth about the course material,” says Ms. Jansen in de Wal. “Having that close mentorship with a professor is so special.”

Universities also vary in the fees they charge for LLCs. Most students sign up through their residence application form, usually filling out a short questionnaire. Some universities, like Waterloo and U of A, don’t charge any additional fee beyond the usual residence costs. Most charge a nominal fee between $20 and $100 per year for the programming, arguing that it makes the commitment more meaningful. “It was free the first year, but we found there was not as much commitment. Sometimes, when you pay for something, you have an expectation and there’s greater commitment from the participants,” says Ms. Welsh at U of R.

For most LLCs, residence staff try to group students near each other on a floor or partial floor. However, some worry about the potential for ghettoization. “We try to give students kind of the best of both worlds, putting them in smaller groups near their peers, but still within larger areas that have students from a variety of programs, so they can get that interdisciplinary interaction too,” says U of Waterloo’s Ms. McNown-Smith. At U of R, some LLCs are intentionally housed more closely together in four-bedroom apartment-style residences that share a kitchen. “They’re not only living together, they’re cooking together, they’re really getting to know each other,” says Ms. Welsh.

The next steps

How do residence staff decide whether LLCs are right for their institution? Many veterans suggest reading through the extensive literature on the topic. There is also an online course, Creating a Living-Learning Program, offered by the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International. LLCs are also a frequent discussion topic at the association’s annual meeting, which this year takes place in Toronto, June 22-25.

Ms. Welsh advises universities to start the process by looking at the demographics of students in residence to see which groups are the largest or are most in need of support. Mr. Shorey at Laurier says it’s also helpful to consider how LLCs fit in terms of the university’s mission. “The first thing I’d do is get a feel for the campus culture. Figure out how you can advance the objectives of the institution by setting goals that are complementary,” he says. Most also advise starting slow and reaching out for help. “Faculties are really the experts in their students’ academic experience, so being able to work collaboratively with them has been really positive,” says Ms. Huxley at U of A.

Deborah Langford, director of residence and conference services at Bishop’s University, says her latest program came about because a passionate upper-year student suggested launching a health and wellness LLC. “We were probably a couple years away from launching another one, but she came in and was really keen to do it,” Ms. Langford says, adding that pairing students with residence staff who also have a passion for the topic can be helpful.

Campus groups can also be natural allies in terms of programming. At U of Waterloo, the applied health sciences LLC partners with the Applied Health Sciences Student Group each year on a joint event. “We try to find those opportunities to collaborate with groups on campus and help connect students to those resources,” says Ms. McNown-Smith. At U of R, the Indigenous Neekaneewak LLC was created in partnership with the Aboriginal Student Centre and the adjacent First Nations University of Canada.

For the people who work in residence planning, the LLC concept is also a great way to connect with students. “It’s an occupational hazard for people in housing to worry about their facilities and prioritize those, as opposed to the people and the programming. We really wanted to make that flip and prioritize people, programming, student learning, and then worry about our facilities,” says Ms. Welsh. Mr. Shorey agrees: “I just think it reflects a broader spirit of student affairs in general. The living learning program is evidence that student affairs divisions from across the country are thinking very deliberately about the development of students.”

LLCs from coast to coast

Memorial University has an outdoor recreation LLC that provides programming throughout the year for students interested in developing skills related to outdoor pursuits. Faculty members from the school of human kinetics and recreation support its activities and events.


The University of Ottawa offers a community engagement and leadership LLC, where students have opportunities to volunteer with children at an elementary school, help out at a local community health centre and advocate for social issues that they’re passionate about.


York University has a politics, law and public affairs LLC for students interested in politics or in gaining a deeper understanding of the Canadian political and legal systems. Field trips include visits to municipal and provincial legislatures, politicians’ constituency offices, courts and penitentiaries.


St. Paul’s University College at the University of Waterloo organizes a women in engineering LLC in partnership with the faculty of engineering to help first-year female undergraduate students build relationships and community networks. Programming includes mentorship by upper-year peer leaders from engineering programs who share their experiences and provide support.


Among Nipissing University’s LLCs is Mosaic, which connects students who have a strong interest in artistic expression with students who have a passion for media, music and design. Students are encouraged to explore their creative side through open mic nights, media productions and art displays.


The University of Regina’s French-language college, La Cité universitaire francophone, offers an LLC for French speakers. The LLC, according to the U of R website, aims to “spark conversations and foster relationships” while showcasing francophone culture.


The University of Victoria has a sustainable community LLC, where students learn how to reduce their carbon footprint and how to integrate sustainable practices into their everyday activities. Previous events have included beach clean-ups and the removal of invasive species from local habitats.

Suzanne Bowness
Suzanne Bowness is a Toronto-based writer/editor and part-time professor of writing. Find her online at
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  1. Jim Clark / January 16, 2019 at 14:49

    Isn’t there a danger that students will be less exposed to ideas and perspectives different than their own? Students living in a residence where all are concerned about environmental issues will have less opportunity to interact with skeptics, people concerned about economic consequences, and other divergent groups. They might also become more extreme in their views given all the confirmation they will receive.

  2. Roberta / January 17, 2019 at 09:14

    They’re all studying the same subject, but that doesn’t mean they’ll approach it with the same ideological or political perspective.

  3. Mildred Eisenbach / January 24, 2019 at 10:48

    The University of Guelph has had Residence Learning Communities (RLC) since 1969. The RLCs take several forms, both theme-based and academic-based. In 2015, we undertook a study to investigate the impact of first-year students living in a RLC, as compared to living in another setting. Here is the citation for our published results and the abstract of the article. Please feel free to share with your readers.

    Hobbins, J. O., Eisenbach, M., Ritchie, K. L., & Jacobs, S. (2018). Investigating the Relationship between Residence Learning Community Participation and Student Academic Outcomes in a Canadian Institution. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9 (2).

    Abstract: This study investigated the relationship between residential living scenario and first year grades, second year retention, and 5-year graduation rates of students at a Canadian comprehensive university. We compared the academic outcomes of students living in residence learning communities (RLCs) to those in other living scenarios (traditional residences and off-campus). RLCs have been shown to be positively associated with student academic outcomes in the United States; however, the data to support RLCs in Canada is nonexistent. A longitudinal observational study was conducted to analyse the academic outcomes of a complete cohort of students (n=4805) who lived in RLCs (18%) and non-RLCs (82%). Results indicated that RLC students, on average, achieved higher first year averages, 2nd year retention rates, and 5-year graduation rates relative to non-RLC students, thereby contributing to the goals of post-secondary institutions to attract and retain their students through to graduation.