What is ‘Students as Partners’ in course design?

Within higher education, there is growing recognition of the importance of students’ active engagement in their learning. In parallel, educators are increasingly inviting students to contribute to teaching and learning through a myriad of roles, including as partners. This is in part due to recognition of learners’ expertise of what it means to be a learner, and recognition of the potential to apply this knowledge to enhance teaching and learning.

Partnership is a process of student engagement, involving faculty, students, and staff learning and working together with the goal of enhancing learning and teaching. Partnership is marked by high levels of active student participation and contribution, and is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself (Healey, Flint, & Harrington, 2014). Partnership is also “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (Cook-Sather et al., 2014, pp. 6-7).

Given the emphasis on process, relationships, and reciprocal learning, partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach to student engagement, as it positions students as collaborators in the academic mission of the University and offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning. Pedagogical partnerships allow the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences for all partners. Through partnership, all partners benefit from the process of learning and working together.

Partnership learning communities are at the centre of the model to highlight the importance of the processes of partnership. The concept of partnership learning communities draws on existing models of community, including learning communities and communities of practice, which focus on social learning (Healey et al., 2015). Principally, developing partnership learning communities among faculty and students “strengthens and sustains engagement through partnership” (Healey et al., 2015, p. 8). 
According to Cook-Sather et al. (2019), teaching and learning partnerships within the area of curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy can involve faculty, staff, and undergraduate student partners, working together long-term (typically semester or year-long) to:  

  • explore or research the student experience in a course to determine where changes might improve the student experience or student learning;
  • analyze and revise pedagogical approaches, and/or design or redesign a course or parts of a course;
  • decide together on the approach they will take and what dimensions of the course or teaching practices on which they will focus; and
  • identify needs to be addressed (e.g., how to engage students in answering questions, how to make courses more welcoming to a diversity of students) and develop actions or strategies to address those needs (pp. 3-5).

In these partnerships, faculty are the disciplinary experts, staff bring expertise in course and program design, and students bring perspective on the student experience.

For further details, read the CTLT’s June 2021 SaP discussion paper (PDF), or the July 2019 Edubytes newsletter, which focused on the Students as Partners topic.