Faculty Innovators: Ken Harris and Mildred Vernia

28th February 2024

By Steven Krolak

Indiana University 2030 Strategic Plan icon for student success, showing an outline of the two graduates in cap and gowns.

Ken Harris, professor of management and Mildred Vernia, teaching professor of mathematics, have created a super-effective learning community, expertly blending their related academic disciplines while finding new ways to engage students beyond the classroom to put them on a path to success.

What is a learning community anyway?

A learning community is a high-impact practice that aims to better connect students to their courses, teachers and campus, and to one another.

Teachers and students in two courses learn together through activities that break down barriers and help students develop both academic and non-academic skills that underlie college success.

Data shows that the more connected a student feels, the more likely they are to continue their learning journey by re-enrolling for the next semester.

But re-enrollment is just the outward manifestation of deeper changes and positive gains, such as knowing where to turn for help, how to interact socially, how to manage time and expectations, how to balance academics with real life, and more.

Home cooking

This freshman community comprised a back-to-back bloc of Vernia’s Business Algebra and Harris’ Intro to Business classes.

Drawing inspiration from research and the experience of colleagues, the instructors discussed their lesson plans, and developed coursework and exams holistically, to make sure material would be relatable across fields. Harris integrated guest speakers and networking events to keep the classes fresh and lively, while Vernia built in “group quizzes” and engaged supplemental instructors.

“My group quizzes are a chance for students to learn the material, but they also enjoy making friends, they learn that they are not the only ones struggling with math, and they don’t have to listen to me talk as much!” Vernia said.

Meanwhile, the extended bloc allowed for a tour and lunch at local employer Samtec, where students could see business and math concepts applied in real life while practicing their soft skills with professionals.

Professors Ken Harris and Mildred Vernia, learning communities champions

But the core innovation was how bonding was taken to an entirely new level. The first semester, in Fall 2022, an icebreaker event for students was held at the Vernia home, with the whole family pitching in to set up, cook and clean. The Harris family reciprocated in 2023, when the group was joined by School of Business Dean Dr. David Eplion and Chancellor Dr. Debbie Ford.

“It was a great time to bond, connect, have students connect with each other, and have students see us as real people,” Harris said.

A growth moment

Quantitatively, this community has been a winner. In the fall 2023 semester, there were 10 learning communities at IU Southeast, with a combined persistence rate of 83%, slightly higher than overall campus persistence (81%). The Harris-Vernia community spoiled the curve, with 97% of students re-enrolling for the spring 2024 semester.

The experience has also been a growth moment for the instructors, with Vernia taking cues from Harris’ outgoing activity-based style and Harris profiting from exposure to Vernia’s caring, nurturing approach. It’s a complementary effect that greatly benefits students.

The ultimate reward is seeing students take charge of their own academic lives.

“In a normal semester, I come into class and students aren’t really talking, they are on their phones,” Harris said. “When I come into my class in the learning community with Mildred, students are talking. Since they have another class together, they bond, they socialize, they work on homework together, they study together, and this leads to increased feelings of social support, belonging . . . and wanting to persist at IU Southeast.”

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