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Student-Faculty Partnerships to Study Teaching and Learning

by Peter Felten

Many of the good practices faculty use to gather insights from students, such as asking for mid-semester feedback, are helpful, but they typically do not lead to authentic partnership between students and faculty. In most of these cases, faculty frame the questions, students provide answers, and then faculty alone decide whether, and how, to use to that information. This process often resembles a customer-service relationship. How satisfied are you with the teaching in this course? What do you like best, and least, about the class?

Partnership, on the other hand, is a collaborative, reciprocal process. In a partnership, all participants have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully, although not necessarily in the same ways. Advocates for student-faculty partnerships, sometimes called “student voice” in education, argue that:

  • Students have insights into teaching and learning that can make our and their practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous;
  • Faculty can draw on student insights not only through collecting student responses but also through collaborating with students to study and design teaching and learning together;
  • Partnerships between students and faculty change the understandings and capacities of both sets of partners — making us all better teachers and learners.

Put more simply, as Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone note, “students’ own voices are surely relevant” in any inquiry into teaching and learning in higher education (page 39, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered, 2011).

While appealing, this kind of collaborative process may not come naturally to students or faculty. Students often arrive at higher education after years in schools that emphasize high stakes testing, not shared inquiry. And faculty have spent years developing disciplinary expertise, sometimes in rigidly hierarchical graduate programs, creating intellectual and cultural distance between our students and ourselves.

Despite these and many other barriers, emerging evidence demonstrates that including students as partners in such work enhances student (as well as faculty) motivation, confidence and sense of intellectual agency, both within the immediate process and in wider academic settings (Bovill, Cook-Sather, & Felten, 2011a; Cook-Sather, 2011; Mihans, Long, & Felten, 2008). Student-faculty collaboration also “catalyzes a revision of students’ relationships to their teachers and their responsibilities within their learning” (Cook-Sather & Alter, 2011, p. 37), changing the nature of both the classroom and the inquiry process itself (Manor, Bloch-Schulman, Flannery, & Felten, 2010). Dennis Thiessen from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto) summaries this process:

As faculty members come to appreciate students as thoughtful, inquisitive, caring people whose ideas and experiences they should seek, come to know, and take seriously, they reconfigure ideas about who students are, what students can and should do, and what it means for students to be and to become productive participants in their courses and programs. Likewise, as students gain insight into faculty members’ pedagogical goals and commitments as well as their interest in what students bring to the classroom, those students reconfigure ideas about who faculty are and how to work with faculty members as colleagues.

Student-faculty partnerships take many forms. This work can include many or just a few students, focus on narrow inquiry into student learning or broad exploration of pedagogical practice, involve large undergraduate courses or graduate-level seminars, and enjoy substantial or no institutional support (Bovill & Bulley, 2011). Rich examples of this work can be found in Mick Healey’s comprehensive collection of references on “students as change agents,” in the online journal Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, and in the abbreviated bibliography below.

To explore this topic further, participate in the free online seminar on “Student Voices in SoTL” that is part of ISSOTL Online 2013. This three week seminar, starting September 9, will include interviews with students and faculty, a rich array of print resources, and opportunities to interact live with leading scholars and practitioners in this field including Carmen Werder (Western Washington University), Alison Cook-Sather (Bryn Mawr College), and Cathy Bovill (University of Glasgow).

References not linked in the text:

  • Bovill, C., and Bulley, C.J. “A Model of Active Student Participation in Curriculum Design: Exploring Desirability and Possibility.” In Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning (18) Global Theories and Local Practices: Institutional, Disciplinary and Cultural Variations (pp. 176-188). Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff and Educational Development, 2011.
  • Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., and Felten, P. “Students as Co-Creators of Teaching Approaches, Course Design and Curricula: Implications for Academic Developers.” International Journal for Academic Development, 2011, 16(2), 133-145.
  • Cook-Sather, A. “Lessons in Higher Education: Five Pedagogical Practices That Promote Active Learning For Faculty and Students.” Journal of Faculty Development, 2011b, 25(3), 33-39.
  • Cook-Sather, A. and Alter, Z. “What Is and What Can Be: How a Liminal Position Can Change Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 2011, 42(1), 37-53.
  • Manor, C., Bloch-Schulman, S., Flannery, K., and Felten, P. “Foundations of Student–Faculty Partnerships in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” In C. Werder and M.M. Otis (eds.), Engaging Student Voices in the Study of Teaching and Learning (pp. 3-15). Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2010.
  • Mihans, R., Long, D., and Felten, P. “Student-Faculty Collaboration in Course Design and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/ijsotl, 2008, 2, no. 2.

 

Peter Felten is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.

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