James Madison University

Psychology Students Excel in the Freshman Psychology Learning Community

By: Mackenzie Kelley
Posted: March 7, 2014

PHOTO: Students in circle

In the corner of Kenn Barron’s office is a black umbrella with tags dangling off the sides in a wide circle. On each tag is a different term relating to the concept of validity that psychology majors can use to judge the quality of their field.

“It’s about one word at the end of the year,” says Psychology Professor Kenn Barron, “it’s validity, and whether my students will be able to judge good psychological research from bad research.”

Barron is talking about the year-long Psychology Learning Community (PLC) that incoming psychology freshmen have the option of applying for before arriving at JMU. Some students in the learning community made the umbrella for him as a gift, reminding him of the useful concept that he instilled in his students over months of interactions with them.

The Psychology Learning Community is one of several learning communities offered through JMU’s Office of Residence Life. In a freshman learning community, students with similar majors or areas of study live together in a residence hall and take one or more classes together during their first year. The goal is to provide students with the opportunity to collaborate with other students who have similar interests in order to promote more mindful learning.

“A learning community brings people who care about common issues together so they can engage in those issues,” says Kenn Barron, who oversees the Psychology Learning Community.

The Psychology Learning Community brings freshman students together who have an interest in pursuing a major in Psychology and a future career in a Psychology-related field to jump start their experience in Psychology.

Learning communities have been studied extensively by organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), who have labeled it a high impact practice in undergraduate education because of all the benefits that students experience. Such benefits include more successful transitions to college, higher GPAs, higher student satisfaction, and deeper levels of student involvement.

In addition to getting to interact with other psychology students, another advantage Barron notes is the opportunity to interact with psychology professors. Students in the Psychology Learning Community participate in a unique Orientation to the Major course that allows them to be introduced to over 20 different faculty members of the Psychology Department in their first semester.

Psychology senior Caroline Prendergast spoke about the benefits of meeting so many professors, “After I went through the PLC experience, I became a lot more comfortable approaching all of my professors, talking to them about their work, and seeking out new opportunities within the psychology department.”

In addition, while meeting each professor, students are introduced to an incredible range of different subfields within psychology, and they learn how to get involved in research or practitioner experiences in those subfields while they are at JMU.

“I think the greatest benefit of the PLC was my early exposure to the various subfields of psychology,” asserted Prendergast, “A lot of people come into the major thinking it’s all about clinical or counseling psychology. But that’s such a small subset of the field.”

Some of the other benefits offered by the learning community include participating in service-learning opportunities. For example, students in the Psychology Learning Community are provided opportunities to travel to nearby psychiatric hospitals, halfway homes, rehabilitation centers, and after school programs for at-risk youth to gain hands-on learning experience.

Junior Psychology student Alyson Cregger participated in the PLC as a freshman and now works as an undergraduate teaching assistant who helps oversee taking the current PLC students on visits to their service-learning sites.

“They’re like my siblings,” said Cregger, “I get more out of working with these students than I could ever describe. We are able to bond over working at our field sites and then stopping for a quick bite at a restaurant on the way home. What more could you want?”

Students in the Psychology Learning Community take three classes together over the course of freshmen year. These classes count as requirements for the Psychology major, ultimately putting the students ahead in their program.

“As a sophomore, I was taking classes typically only available to juniors and seniors,” says psychology student Chris Deitrick, “By the end of my four years, I will have accomplished so much more than most psych majors just because I got started early with the PLC.”

PHOTO: Students

PLC students also live in the same residence hall together. However, they are not paired up as roommates, so students can still meet and interact with a diverse range of people at JMU. The goal of housing everyone in the learning community in a common residence hall is to permit easy access to other classmates to study together outside of class as well as developing a deeper sense of community.

The bonds from taking classes together and living together can then last well after freshman year. After freshman year, Barron notes that PLC students routinely report how much they appreciate walking into any of their future psychology classes and seeing at least one person they know from their learning community. 

One thing that is sure is the numerous benefits to be obtained through the Psychology Learning Community.

“I can’t think of one reason why someone interested in psychology shouldn’t join the PLC,” said Cregger.