Student partnerships are recognised as a means of fostering student engagement (Bryson and Hand 2007) through the process of power sharing for mutual benefit (Matthews 2017). Students as Partners (SAP) processes aim to support collaboration between students and staff to learn from each other’s perspectives and experiences, with the aim of helping students develop a deeper understanding of how they learn in an enhanced learning environment.
When students learn through dialogue they have the opportunity to gain skills in research, inquiry and group work, as well as being able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own work (Healey et al. 2014), and the development of an increased sense of responsibility for both their learning and the learning of others through being part of a community of learning (Tinto 2000). Laurillard’s (2002) Conversational Framework illustrates that learning occurs through “continuous iterative dialogue” through which dialogic feedback helps the recipient challenge their knowledge and beliefs and reassess their understanding (University of Greenwich n.d.).
This ongoing cyclical feedback process requires coordinated action between teachers and students in order to be effective. The impact of dialogic feedback with students has the power to influence teaching practice and ultimately learner success (Nicol, 2010). Student-Faculty partnerships as a process for engaging students, “is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself” (Healey et al. 2014), that leads to “informed action and interaction” (Cook-Sather et al. 2014)
The principles of respect, reciprocity and responsibility, underpin the power and success of student-faculty partnerships (Cook-Sather et al. 2014).
Partnerships are an opportunity to foster pedagogical collaborations through dialogue. In order for such relationships to develop, they need to be rooted in the principle of respect; respect for each other’s perspective, and respect for each other’s role in the process, and from which a foundation of trust can establish.
Linked with respect, reciprocity is an exchange based on mutual trust, a consideration of each other’s viewpoint, and a value of each other’s opinions with the risk that “effort may not result in reward” Grabove (1997, cited in Deeley (2015) p. 100).
When both students and faculty take responsibility for the teaching and learning process, they become active and engaged in a collaborative effort to improve the learning experience.
Supporting a self-directed process in the online environment seeks to engage students in an innovative way, while maintaining the principles and outcomes of the students as partners approach. According to Matthews (2017), Students as Partners is an opportunity to view the learning, teaching and the student experience through the lens of the students in higher education. If we think of student-staff partnerships as the collaborative, reciprocal process espoused by Cook-Sather et al. (2014), that involves learning through dialogue (Laurillard 2002), then SaP approaches can involve students partnering with students, staff, faculty, alumni or industry partners to improve the learning goals (Matthews 2017).
Impact on learning and teaching
Institutions and students benefit from Students as Partners initiatives in a way that challenges the norms of HE teaching practices and supports sharing different perspectives. The impact of partnerships on faculty and students includes, but not limited to:
- Gaining an insight about their teaching from the perspective of the student that can help them become better teachers and contribute to the academic community.
- Sharing power and responsibility with students.
- Enhanced confidence, enthusiasm, and motivation
- Making intentional good pedagogical decisions.
- Changed perception of learning and teaching as a collaborative process.
- New ways of thinking and a more active learning experience.
- Developing confidence to share personal perspectives, power and responsibility with faculty.
- Developing a deeper understanding of how they learn.
- Enhanced perspective of a pedagogy the design of learning.
- Developing a greater sense of ownership, autonomy and responsibility of their learning.
- An opportunity to network with peers or industry partners that may not be otherwise possible in online programmes.
- Employ and use work-based practices such as agile work practices, which have similar feedback processes as SaP.
Less favourable outcomes include;
- A sense of vulnerability for both staff and students in sharing ideas and discussing pedagogical practices.
- A lack of engagement by either faculty or students (or both) to the partnership process.
Transitioning to partnership practices
Student faculty partnerships can operate on modules and programmes, in departments and at institutional level. Partnerships in learning and teaching invites students to be more active participants in their own learning which can help students gain a deeper understanding of how they learn, paving the way for more specialised partnership practices such as curriculum design.
Starting with small manageable goals, and building on existing practices allows partnership practices to grow is an effective and recommended way to embed student faculty partnerships in your programme (Cook-Sather et al. 2014). For example enhancing a traditional module feedback survey, so that students could discuss and provide more qualitative feedback to the tutor, which is reviewed by the tutor with the aim of implementing feedback where possible, this helps students benefit from their feedback through changes on their programme, and by discussing the process and the feedback with students gain a deeper understanding of how they learn and closes the feedback loop in a way that recognises the student voice.
‘Pedagogical Partnerships’ (Cook-Sather, Bahti and Ntem, 2019) is an openly accessible book that provides step-by-step guidance with accompanying resources to support the establishment and operation of successful partnerships across institutions. The focus of this document is to describe the establishment of a process to support pedagogical partnerships in an online environment and serves as a guide for the Student Partnership facilitator.
Before embedding SaP practices into the pedagogical design for your course, consider the following:
- What is the purpose of the student faculty partnership on your module/programme (eg feedback, co-creation, assessment, or curriculum design)?
- Is there sufficient time to complete the process within the module/semester timeframe? Engaging in partnership practices, building the foundations of a partnership team, and facil takes time.
- Is there sufficient scope and flexibility for student partners to take ownership of the process in a way that can enable changes that will enhance the learning experience?
- Is there sufficient flexibility with regard to the methods and outcomes that allows all partners to contribute to the design and ownership of the process?
How a SaP coordinator can help:
- The SaP Coordinator can share case studies, best practices, and personal experiences.
- Discuss your ideas and offer guidance.
- Discuss strategies for recruiting student partners.
- Discuss how they can help facilitate/co-ordinate the process.
- Meet and discuss partnership processes in the online environment with faculty and students.
- Support and guide student partnership discussions as an independent facilitator.
Facilitating SaP in the online environment can broaden the reach of feedback processes to fully online programmes such as post graduate professional studies. These programmes can benefit from feedback by students with industry expertise and experience, as well as provide opportunities for students to engage in communities of learning and professional networks that may not be possible otherwise.
This guide is aimed at all staff and students and describes the benefits and practical aspects of embedding student faculty partnerships for feedback in online environments for programme faculty and students. It is intended to inspire faculty through sharing of practice under the benchmarks of international best practice and outlines the steps taken to embed student faculty partnership practices in a fully online post graduate programme.
The use of the term partnership reflects a mature relationship based on mutual respect between students and staff. Student faculty partnerships recognise that all members of the University community, including faculty and students, have genuine and unique perspectives on learning and individual experiences. The University and the Centre for Transformative learning are committed to ensuring all students have a sense of belonging to the University and invite students and faculty to work together to a common agreed purpose.
- Student partner: those who lead the process and gather feedback from peers
- Student volunteer: those who contribute their perspectives and opinions
- Faculty: Programme leaders, module tutors, and moderators, those employed by the institution
- Partnership coordinator: coordinator of the partnership process, and independent of the programme of study
Setting up a neutral space for students
In fully online programmes, students may not have an opportunity to meet each other or engage in discussions about module topics with other students outside of their programme of study. In an online programmes, learning is facilitated through institutionally supported VLEs, which hosts communication channels and content in a way that can also facilitate an online student partnership processes. Creating an independent space on the VLE, dedicated to students, and moderated by an independent coordinator to ensure anonymity, offer guidance, and provide support for the SaP process, can help students develop group cohesion and a space to discuss and reflect on their learning. By consolidating feedback that is then submitted to faculty for consideration and implementation where possible, students can play an active role in designing their learning experience, which may not be otherwise possible in an online programme.
In this case study, we used the institutional VLE to create such a space for students as a practical way to facilitate the Students as Partners process. An independent coordinator designed, facilitated and moderated the VLE site so students could easily access different resources such as tutorials, templates, guidelines, and connect with each other through the communication channels. The SaP site was linked on the main page of their programme VLE site but only accessible by students and the coordinator. This made the site easier for the students to access and become familiar with the platform.
We identified the MA in Artificial Intelligence as the target programme for this study. This was a new programme to UL, also the first of its kind in Ireland, and within an emerging field of computer science. These graduate professionals seek specialised programmes that have been developed in partnership with industry and designed for working professionals. This programme was also delivered in collaboration with industry experts through moderated forums. Student feedback was crucial for ensuring this programme was designed to meet the needs of the students though an authentic learning experience based on industry trends. Embedding the online students as partners process within this programme also aimed to build a cohesive online learning community and maintain the design of the programmes as innovative and cutting edge.
The coordinator met the programme leaders, tutors and moderators for the programme to outline the benefits, outcomes and challenges of SaP process and to invite their participation in a feedback process. Once the faculty stakeholders agreed to the process, the coordinator met the students during their orientation meeting to share the practice with them, and hold an informal discussion with tutors and moderators present, to highlight how their role could benefit the programme and their learning experience. The coordinator followed the meeting with a formal invite to students to lead the feedback process with their peers.
The coordinator met the volunteers to discuss the value of their feedback and how their insights could create a positive impact on their programme and their own learning. The coordinator also provided the volunteers with a tour of the online portal and the resources that could help them in their role. Student volunteers were given a unique user profile that allowed them to manage the communication channels on the SaP VLE site so they could engage with peers, but were unable to edit content to add/remove participants on the site. The coordinator volunteer discussion focussed on possible topics for discussion and strategies that might work well for this specific cohort in a series of regular meetings throughout the semester. Student volunteers met with their peers both synchronously and asynchronously to gather and consolidate feedback, which was then submitted to the module tutor for that semester/module.
The tutors reviewed the feedback report and met with the whole class to discuss the feedback and to determine the level of agreement across on the points made, as well as how changes could be implemented to benefit the students directly, or what needed to be recorded for the module review process.
What we learned
There are three core drivers to the success of these partnerships:
The student volunteer(s), who led the process and dedicated their time to gather and consolidate feedback from their peers.
A dedicated, independent mediator, is crucial for building trust in the process and a rapport with the students, facilitating anonymity, and maintaining momentum throughout the semester.
Faculty support is inevitably a key driver, both in terms of supporting the process initially with students, and also in reviewing feedback that could potentially be critical of their teaching practice, with a view to using the information to improve the learning experience.
Time was (and probably always will be) a limiting factor. Looking at ways to make the process efficient and purposeful will help minimise everyone’s time and encourage participation. For this study, we found some efficiencies:
We replaced an existing feedback channel (survey) with an end of topic student discussion, this made the feedback more qualitative and allowed students to offer anonymous comments to one overall feedback document.
Having more than one volunteer reduced the overall volunteer workload, and also shared the responsibility and challenges of driving the process at the student level.
Introducing the students to the feedback process during orientation, where tutors and moderators were present, added weight to the importance of student faculty partnerships, and created an informal platform to help activate a learning community that benefitted the student volunteers throughout the semester.
Aligning to industry practices such as agile project management principles, which takes a similar approach to SaP practices, proved extremely beneficial to helping students understand what was expected from them in terms of the type and quality of the feedback they provide, it also helped students become familiar with the process more quickly. Students themselves benefitted from this online community and gave them the opportunity to network with their peers in this niche industry which would not have been possible on this programme because of the programme group structure.
The impact of individual studies like this can take a long time to evidence. Student partnerships in the online environment is more inclusive for these students, and benefitted the programme through contributions made by students with industry experience. In this study, the programme team won the Group Teaching Award in 2020 for their collaborative approach to teaching and learning excellence.
There is huge scope and potential for this type of collaboration, this is just one lens that we have reviewed, there is potential to include students not just in feedback but also in curriculum design and assessment, in blended and online programmes.
Our institutional strategy has placed a focus on students as co-creators, which will help drive student partnerships within UL, and at a national level, we aim to further the scope of this initiative through Higher Education networks by building communities of practice, where tutors can come together to discuss their experiences and knowledge as well as sharing resources and research, and potentially develop a national recognition award for students themselves.
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