In this post Cathy Bovill (Senior Lecturer, Academic Development Unit, University of Glasgow Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org) highlights how working with students as partners in learning and teaching is not always straightforward, but is associated with a range of challenges including: overcoming resistance; navigating institutional structures and norms; and ensuring meaningful inclusion of diverse perspectives in any partnership. Cathy argues, however, that if we are able to re-envisage some of these challenges as opportunities, we can think in fundamentally new ways about learning and teaching.
In 2013, the authors of a publication from Uppsala University in Sweden described students as the 'university's unspent resource'. Their work highlighted that over the coming years, universities will rely upon the active participation of students in the meaningful development of the higher education sector (Gärdebo & Wiggberg, 2013). Certainly, individuals and institutions in the UK are becoming more interested in the concept of engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: illustrated, for example, in the increasing number of events and conference themes related to ‘Students as Partners’.
In my keynote presentation, I started by mapping out some of the different areas in which we are engaging students as partners in learning and teaching. I did this using the useful framework provided in the recent HEA publication 'Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education' (Healey, Flint & Harrington, 2014), and comparing this framework with similar typologies in two other publications (Bovill, Cook-Sather, Felten, Millard & Moore-Cherry, forthcoming; Healey, Bovill & Jenkins, forthcoming). These frameworks helped to clarify the focus of my presentation in the areas described as 'Learning, teaching and assessment' and 'curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy' in the Healey et al model.
We are witnessing some exciting ways in which students are being meaningfully engaged in learning at the course and programme level, such as students: writing their own essay titles; choosing their own text books, designing worksheets for other students; co-evaluating a course with their lecturer; co-assessing their work with their lecturer; and choosing assessment methods. Yet, engaging students as partners in learning and teaching demands new ways of working together and new ways in which staff and students relate to one another that can be challenging.
Challenges or opportunities?
Along with colleagues from the UK, Ireland and the USA, I have been exploring the challenges of engaging students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Bovill, Cook-Sather, Felten, Millard & Moore-Cherry, forthcoming). We have categorised the challenges faced into three main groups: 1) resistance to students becoming partners, 2) navigating university structures and norms, and 3) ensuring diverse perspectives are included. Clearly, this is not a comprehensive categorisation but many common issues are covered. Importantly, we have also tried to demonstrate how many of the challenges can be re-envisaged as opportunities to think in fundamentally new ways about learning and teaching.
If we consider resistance from staff and students, better communication between partners can help overcome resistance as well as fostering improved relationships. Sometimes, people just need a little more time to adjust to a new approach, and often welcome the opportunity to hear about successful student-staff partnerships. In trying to overcome university structures and norms, we have found it helpful to start small rather than trying to change the university overnight. It can also help to try to build upon existing structures and priorities within institutions to springboard new ways of engaging students as partners. Finally, when trying to ensure an inclusive approach to partnership, sometimes the entire class or cohort of students can be included and this can solve inclusivity on one level, although we still need to remain mindful of inclusion within class decision making and activities. Yet, in many instances of partnership, staff have selected students to participate on the basis of skills that match a particular partnership project brief. In other examples, staff have deliberately chosen to include underrepresented students, and have learned that the different perspectives of underrepresented students have illuminated new and valuable ways of viewing teaching spaces and learning experiences (Bovill et al, forthcoming).
Whatever kind of partnership you are planning, it can be helpful to try to find pockets of good practice within your institution and try to build on them. Sharing examples with one another and increasing discussion about student-staff partnerships in learning and teaching can also be beneficial. As we move forward and have more examples and experiences to learn from, it is really important that we remain critical of the partnership work we are doing (Cook-Sather, Bovill & Felten, 2014). If we constantly question ourselves and each other about partnerships, we are more likely to gain greater understanding to enhance future partnerships.
What challenges do you face in plans for new partnerships or in existing partnerships?
How might these challenges become opportunities to enhance learning and teaching?
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Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., Felten, P., Millard, L. & Moore-Cherry, N. (forthcoming) Addressing potential challenges in co-creating learning and teaching.
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. & Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Gärdebo, J. & Wiggberg, M. (2012) (Eds) Students, the University’s unspent resource: revolutionising higher education through active student participation. Report No 12 Division for Development of Teaching and Learning. Uppsala University.
Healey, M., Flint, A. & Harrington, K. (2014) Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy
Healey, M., Bovill, C. & Jenkins, A. (forthcoming) 'Students as partners in learning'. In Lea, J. (Ed.) Enhancing learning and teaching in higher education: Engaging with the dimensions of practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.