Students as partners in learning design
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! As we are heading towards the end of the year, it’s important to focus on the things that really matter in education, beyond emergency modes and technology hypes. One of these things is definitely the way we engage with our students, how we perceive their role in the learning process and the overall connection that we strive to create with them. I’ve written before about various types of partnerships in Higher Education, so this time I’m zooming in on one of these partnerships, namely “Students as Partners” in the learning design process. I share some ideas about the things we should consider when we aim to build such partnerships and, as usual, I’ve put together some useful resources for those of you who want to dive deeper into the topic. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and have a nice weekend!
In order to be able to provide a rich and effective learning experience, we need to be aware of how students perceive their journey, understand whether and why it may differ from the way we designed it, and embed their feedback to continue improving our educational offer. While student evaluations contribute to this goal, they are often not enough, as they miss on the nuance and the data gathered is not always translated into actionable feedback.
Building sustainable pedagogical partnerships with students
One way to address this issue is to establish sustainable pedagogical partnerships involving faculty and students. These can take many forms (examples in the Resources section below) but usually follow a structured dialogue process that acts as a feedback loop and provides faculty members with rich insights into how students experience their course and practical design suggestions developed in collaboration with their student partners.
Some of the roles students can play in these partnerships are:
Students as consultants: individually pairing members of academic staff and students for the duration of a course;
Students as pedagogical co-designers: student design panels;
Student representatives on programme committees/ university boards;
Students as co-researchers: sustained research collaboration contributing to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
Some practical tips
The most important things to consider in the context of these partnerships are:
Being very clear on the purpose of the partnership and the outcomes we expect as faculty. This is very important at the very beginning of the process, when establishing the scheme and it also helps create a clear communication plan to get faculty and students on board;
Establishing a clear structure and process. This starts by deciding which department/ service will coordinate the partnership. This may require establishing new roles or slightly changing existing structures to incorporate the new project. Designing the collaboration process can take some effort as it involves several details such as: students and faculty “recruitment”; training (online and/or on site); facilitation of the process and documents/ templates to document it. Particular attention needs to be paid to ways of embedding the outcomes in new course iterations or improvements of current courses.
Explicit roles for both students and faculty. This includes clear benefits and incentives on both sides, explicitly communicated in the beginning. For students this can take the form of a scholarship or student/mini job, or course credit. For faculty this can be a buy-out opportunity from other activities or a small financial incentive like an innovation grant. Moreover, managing expectations is also an important part of the process. This means, for instance, making it clear for both students and teachers that this is not a Teaching Assistant job (and what the differences are); being explicit about the type and scope of feedback that is expected (from the student) and the type of response expected (from the teacher).
Dedicated facilitation efforts. This is very important especially when first introducing the partnership, before the process gets internalised and participants can share their experiences;
Embedding it in the overall university/ faculty setup. Last but not least, we need to think about the sustainability of such initiatives. If we start with a small grant, how can we move beyond that and embed the scheme permanently in the faculty? What structures are necessary, (how) can we adapt existing structures and what investments are necessary? The links with different other structures/ services need to be strong, otherwise as a stand-alone initiative, isolated, the partnership is not likely to thrive. For instance there needs to be a constant flow of teachers and students interested in taking part (recruitment exercise) and the results need to be communicated widely to maintain and generate interest (communication efforts).
The way forward
Establishing this type of partnership involving students can take time and needs concerted effort from various university departments. The most important thing is to start building it on solid ground, by gathering information about what are the specific needs in the Faculty and how students’ input could help address those needs. This can be done through focus groups and interviews and is a crucial step for clarifying the purpose and scope of the partnership, as well as zooming in on potential focus areas. While looking inside one’s institution is the first step, a useful next step is looking at other universities and collecting good practices on how they have put such partnerships in place.
When ready, start small, with a pilot cohort, often made up by the most open and confident teachers. The important thing is to try to capture the process, make adjustments to the initial design and communicate the outcomes to attract interest. Last but not least, as seen above, developing institutional structures to host and support the partnership is key to its success and sustainability.
Pedagogical Partnerships. A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education- an extremely useful book shared by The Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University with many examples and practical tips on embedding students as partners in HE institutions;
Students as partners co creating innovative scholarship - reflections on achievements using the 4 m framework- insightful presentation by Sue Beckingham on the outcomes of the “Students as Partners” initiative at Sheffield Hallam University;
Curriculum Design Student Panel- here you can read more about the Open University’s model of involving students;
Students as Partners in Assessment: A Literature Scoping Review, by Ruth Ní Bheoláin, Rob Lowney and Dr Fiona O’Riordan- a scoping review that explores what the literature says regarding students as partners in the process of assessment in Higher Education;
How can student partnerships stimulate organisational learning in higher education institutions?- interesting article by Beverley Gibbs on how universities can transform student engagement into an opportunity for organisational learning;
The student–staff partnership movement: striving for inclusion as we push sectorial change- article by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone that explores the culture shift necessary to achieve student-staff partnerships in education;
The Emerging Landscape of Student–Staff Partnerships in Higher Education, by Lucie Ollis & Karen Gravett- chapter that considers how to define what a student–staff partnership is and explores the benefits of partnership approaches.