A.J. Merlino, Associate VP of Student Professional Development & Experiential Learning, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

A.J. Merlino is a five-time GRAMMY-nominated music educator with a passion for cultivating creativity and innovation in higher education. His background in the arts as a performer and large-scale project manager helps inform decisions as a business strategist, bringing a unique perspective to the educational landscape. As a touring musician and clinician, he has presented in Scotland, Croatia, Greece, Thailand, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Dr. Merlino has worked as a project manager, music director, composer, and performer for many projects held at The Venetian, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, and Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. Dr. Merlino’s experience collaborating with campus leadership and community partners has successfully increased students’ educational programming and learning opportunities while positively impacting student enrollment, matriculation, retention, and outcomes through career-level engagement. 


Educational institutions have long used academic learning communities to bring individuals together from various disciplines to collaborate on projects, thereby enhancing student engagement, achieving learning outcomes, and connecting project work with real-world applications. As a professor and administrator in higher education, I have created and managed numerous academic learning communities using my professional experience as a project manager. Implementing academic learning communities using this approach showed improvements in institution-wide recruitment, retention, graduation rates, and positive postgraduate outcomes. The following are foundational best practices for forming and developing academic learning communities using project management principles. 

Team Roles and Responsibilities

Prior to initiating a project, it is essential to identify team roles within each academic learning community. Although this approach has many variations, including a project sponsor, a project manager, and a project team is most beneficial. A project sponsor provides necessary resources to a given project, serves as a bridge to external stakeholders, creates a list of work, prioritizes tasks, and ensures that the project meets the strategic vision of the governing institution. An administrator, a chair of a department, or an instructor may hold this role. The project manager oversees a project from conception and initiation through project close. They are responsible for supervising tasks, removing impediments, managing resources, setting timelines for practical completion, and documenting each step of the process. This role is best reserved for an instructor or student who has experienced several project iterations through an academic learning community. Project team members collaborate with project managers to map goals and are responsible for the hands-on work required for completing tasks and creating a definition of done with the concurrence of the project manager. Students in the academic learning community should hold this role. An effective project team is self-sufficient and is empowered by a project manager to seek solutions rather than ask permission to complete tasks. Ideally, each team would consist of a project sponsor, a project manager, and 3-8 project team members to optimize communication and productivity. 

Project Charter

Before implementing an academic learning community, it is essential to work with institutional administrators such as deans, department chairs, or program leads to prepare a project charter. A project charter is a document issued by the project sponsor, giving a project manager authority to begin work. The charter may include project rationale, requirements, timeline, stakeholders, objectives, budget, and scope. When considering using this document for learning community development, this is an opportunity for a project sponsor and project manager to work together to connect program learning outcomes with institutional core competencies through experiential learning opportunities and key assignments. Through this process, assessment metrics may be applied, and longitudinal data regarding project impact may be collected. Once the project charter is created, project teams can be determined. 

Group Development

Group or team development is an often-overlooked part of implementing academic learning communities in higher education. Using Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development, educators can cultivate effective teams and normalize positive habits within a given academic community. Implementing Tuckman’s approach begins with selecting student personnel, which is the project manager’s responsibility. Instructors and administrators who take on this initiative frequently select groups by class or program of study, creating a homogenous project team that does not have the ability to complete large-scale, true-to-life projects. A more effective approach to selecting student personnel is based on interest or affinity, which may be solicited in consultation with the student services office responsible for student clubs, activities, and student government. By using this cross-disciplinary approach, a wide range of students from various programs, class years, and backgrounds may come together to complete a particular project, connecting students’ curricular, co-curricular, and social interests across multiple programs of study.

During an academic semester or year, the goal is to move through Tuckman’s stages (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning) to enhance the effectiveness of a team and achieve predetermined learning objectives. Although a complete implementation guide for Tuckman’s stages is outside the scope of this article, some fundamental principles for each stage include:

Forming – The team is introduced to the project mission and develops goals, which builds preliminary trust. At this stage, tasks may not have been accomplished. A qualitative survey with questions regarding student reactions/feelings about the project and group may be used to create a baseline, which will become helpful for later reflective assignments. 

Storming – The team experiences disagreements or project impediments and views themselves as individuals rather than a cohesive unit. At this stage, tasks are being accomplished, but not all project team members are actively involved. Since many of the team members will come from different backgrounds and possibly different disciplines, an open discussion forum that details ‘what I need from you’ or ‘what I believe I have to offer the group…’ is a valuable assignment for students to engage and understand each other. 

Norming – The team begins to work together and collaborate on tasks to support each other’s strengths. Trust is built in this stage, and positive behaviors are normalized. A meaningful student assignment in this stage deals with appreciation and gratitude for their team. Using a shared document for sticky notes, create an assignment that requires students to write three notes of gratitude to other students. A project manager may also create a self-assessed team evaluation tool relevant to the students’ baseline survey.

Performing – The team is predominately self-sufficient and effective at accomplishing tasks. Project managers may work with individual team members to enhance their skill sets during this stage. Since each student should perform at their highest level, this may be a proper time to assess the completion of tasks for quality and timeliness, while rewarding the project team for their achievements.

Adjourning – The team’s work is complete and moves on to a new project. This stage is an excellent opportunity for the project manager or project sponsor to use a reflective assessment tool to enhance students’ attainment of learning objectives. 

Project Management

To oversee progress, the project manager must determine a single centralized source of truth, such as a virtual task board. Examples of such boards include Trello, Asana, ClickUp, and Teams’ integrated task management system. The tasks are often categorized into five buckets, in alignment with Tuckman’s model using the terms initiation, planning, execution, performance, and closure. For example, suppose the project manager is the course instructor. Tasks may be assigned on the board to students through each phase to complete course objectives while collectively moving forward through project goals. Using a flipped classroom yields the most favorable result, as this approach allows student exploration and discovery at home while reserving class time for collaborative work such as stand-up meetings, addressing impediments, reviews, and reflection. 

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