Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty

An education professor, a Scottish lecturer, and a provost walk into a bar…

Okay, okay, it wasn’t a bar.  It was a publishing house.  And I guess I don’t know for certain they actually walked.  They wrote a book.

No, scratch that, they wrote THE book on student-faculty partnerships.

Student-faculty partnerships are collaborations in the classroom based on sharing the power, sharing the learning, and sharing the risks.  While the book focuses generally on in-class collaboration, keep in mind that you could have partnerships outside of class in research, creative, or scholarly activities as well.  Through mutual trust and respect, and with clear communication, a reciprocal process is possible where students can take more autonomy over their education.  This is clearly a continuum—as a faculty member you can give as much or as little power to students as you are comfortable doing so, and different situations will obviously call for different partnerships.  On the more minimal side, it could be as simple as giving students a choice in class activities or readings one day.  On the more maximal side, you could allow students to work with you to completely design your course, or write the syllabus together the first days of class.  It can be a partnership for one day, or over the whole semester.  You could partner with only a few students (there’s a great example in Chapter 3 where a faculty member partnered with a few former students to redesign their course) or your entire classroom of students.

If you’re already sold on the idea of giving students more power over their own educations, may I gently recommend you skip right ahead to Chapters 2 and 8, which are both filled with all of those practical questions that you need to ask yourself before you start planning your future partnerships.  If you aren’t quite sold yet, see Chapter 5 for a brief but thorough summary of the educational research showing how effective partnerships are, and then bounce back to Chapter 3 to see real-world examples of what you can do.

Everyone who picks up the book needs to read Chapter 6, “Challenges of Student-Faculty Partnerships,” and Chapter 7, “Practical Strategies.”  These two chapters are really the core of their wisdom, and the most practical chapters.  You need to prepare for problems so they don’t take you by surprise, and you need to have some practical tools in your educator toolkit.  For example, will you run into students who resent having to do “your work” of educating them?  Will you hear blowback from colleagues who think this is an unproven tactic meant to lighten your workload?  Having your explanations ready will keep you sane and provide you with protection if someone decides to throw metaphorical stones at you.

Before you start your wonderful new partnerships, you do need to think about the power dynamic between yourself and your students, which can be uncomfortable for some folks.  Taking a good, hard look at the intersection of your different identities, as well as your privileges and stigmas, can help you understand why students maybe don’t feel as empowered as you think they should.  However, with the strategies from Chapter 7 in your utility belt and a little forethought, you absolutely can create successful partnerships.

Sounds good, right?  There’s even a chapter on assessment because we live in an educational system that requires grades.  You could probably start small tomorrow if you tried, right?  Talk to that brilliant student about RCSA grants, or give your students a meaningful choice in tomorrow’s class.  Imminently doable.

Now, are you ready to have your mind completely blown?  Tucked innocently into the middle of the book, where it can pop out and smack you across the face and then melt back into the rest of the monograph, is a chapter on “Program-Level Approaches” to these partnerships.  At the end of this chapter is arguably the most radical idea, coyly hiding in plain sight.  What if we gave students autonomy not just over one class, and not just with one instructor?  What if we built our major programs around this idea of partnerships?  What if we redesigned our university or higher education at large around this idea that students will earn more if they see professors as guides and trusted partners?

If we think of teaching as “community property,” as the authors absolutely do (pg. 87), who’s to say that the community ends with my classroom or yours?  We all work every day to create and recreate what we lovingly refer to as UCO, and that education belongs to everyone, not just me the faculty member or the student with their carefully-framed diploma.  Clearly, this is a radical idea, but the authors have an interesting discussion about how this could (theoretically) work.  It would require an impressive amount of institutional buy-in, real partnerships between colleges and departments, and an educational culture that is okay with taking risks, but it’s a fascinating idea.  At a time when we seem to be scraping around, looking for ways to make ourselves more marketable to students, this anti-student-as-consumer approach to empowering students could ironically be the thing that UCO has been looking for all along.

Written by Leeda Copley, Department of Sociology, Gerontology, and Substance Abuse Studies

Leave a Reply