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Learning Communities Help Students Make the Grade


BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – FEBRUARY 20, 2013 – Bianca Delgado, a senior environmental science major at The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, said she was a “typical sophomore” a couple of years ago.

“I was getting the hang of college and doing some studying… when I found the time,” said Bianca, a 2009 Hanna High School graduate who plans to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in May of this year.

Bianca’s attitude toward her studies became a lot more focused when she signed up to participate in a learning community, a concept that was implemented in fall 2010.

“I didn’t know what a learning community was, but it sounded like a good idea,” she said. “I was in a cohort with other students taking Chemistry I and Pre-Calculus, and we all became friends, and with encouragement from my peers and caring tutors, I noticed my study habits improved dramatically.”

Learning communities are an element of Title V, a federally funded program to provide support to students attending Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs). The mission of the Title V program is to assist science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students in developing the skills of critical thinking, quantitative analysis and effective communication that will sustain lifelong learning

“This program seeks to improve the academic success of students by implementing these learning communities, integrating technology and offering faculty development opportunities,” said Dr. Oralia De Los Reyes, Title V Activity Director. “We find students who participate in a learning community don’t fall behind and average grades 15 percent higher than non-learning community participants.”

The learning community program consists of linking two high-risk courses such as General Chemistry I and Pre-Calculus and attaching a tutoring session to each class. It can also consist of a stand-alone course linked to a tutoring session; tutorial sessions are connected to the class in the system and are generally scheduled the same days the classes meet, offering immediate reinforcement – and “re-teaching” if necessary – of subject material.

“There are at least two tutors, and three if the class is big enough,” said Andrea Delgado, a 2011 McAllen High School graduate. “The tutors assist students in making a connection between what was covered in class and applying it in other ways. You become so proficient in that subject, and being part of such a wonderful learning environment with your peers, the exams becomes a bit of a competition – of who scored the highest.”

A biology major who plans to continue on to medical school after her graduation in 2015, Andrea said she has been participating in learning communities since she was a freshman. Thus far she has participated in the program with History I, Biology I, Chemistry II and Organic Chemistry I. Currently she is taking Organic Chemistry II as part of a learning community.

“Learning communities are just awesome, they’re really wonderful,” she said.

Dr. Tamara Pease, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science, has participated in the program for a couple of years.

“Learning communities are embraced by the students,” Pease said. “They are receiving support in their academics, they are creating bonds that help each other succeed, and they are more involved in university activities and community service projects. Certainly, students feel they know their professors better, and they are more comfortable and have more communication with the professors. Being part of a learning community gives students a sense of security.”

That sense of security translates into confidence, according to Dr. Thomas Britten, Associate Professor of History.

“My learning community students are not bashful about participating; they demonstrate a genuine eagerness to learn,” Britten said. “It is rewarding to teach students such as these who put forth the effort and show such enthusiasm and a positive attitude.”

Bianca said she and the members of her learning community would get together for class, tutorials and late night study marathons.

“We’d meet after class for lunch, attend school events together and meet at one another’s houses – even have movie nights – all while studying and helping each other excel,” she said. “We had so much fun helping each other out with chemistry and math and I got awesome grades out of it.”  

Bianca has kept in touch with most of her learning community colleagues, and now she and some of the group are tutors with Title V, helping younger students find their way.  

“I love my job,” she said. “I love helping students not only do well in their classes, but to try and foster the sense of fun that college is. It’s about the relationships you form with people and about helping each other to succeed.”

Bianca said she sees something of herself in the new students at the beginning of the semester.

“I tell them they probably don’t realize it now, but they are lucky to join a learning community,” she said. “As the semester goes by I see groups of students change and become part of a close-knit cohort like I was in a few years ago, and I can’t help but to be excited for them.”

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