Why We Should Be Engaging Students As Partners In Learning And Teaching

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In this blog Dr Catherine Bovill, Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement from the University of Edinburgh, explores the reasons for rising interest in engaging students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education.  She examines a range of different rationales and arguments used to support student-staff partnership.

Universities around the world are witnessing a surge of interest in student-staff partnerships focused on enhancing learning, teaching and the broader student experience. Yet, when people refer to ‘students as partners’, they are often describing a range of different research and practice including small groups of students involved in co-research, students and staff co-designing elements of the curriculum or a teacher working in partnership with a whole class to design for example, essay titles.  There are many highly creative ways in which students and staff are working in partnership.

The growing interest in engaging students as partners in learning and teaching may be partly explained by the co-existence of different rationales promoting partnership as a positive approach.  Scholars in the Netherlands have outlined five arguments for involving school pupils in the design of learning and teaching (Bron & Veugelers, 2014) and this is a useful starting point.  First, there is a normative argument – students should have a say in the design of their own education.  For school children, the United Nations Rights of the Child supports this right of children to influence their own education.  Second, is a developmental argument, which suggests that children are ready and able to work in partnership to design elements of the curriculum.  The third argument is political, arguing that students are not an homogenous group, meaning that we need to consider how to include diverse student voices.  The fourth argument is educational, based on the premise that school children will learn useful knowledge and negotiation skills through partnership. The fifth argument is relevance.  By students working in partnership with staff to influence learning and teaching, the curriculum becomes more relevant to students’ lives and thereby more engaging.

These arguments can be relatively easily translated into the higher education setting apart perhaps from the UN support for the normative argument that disappears once students are no longer children.  Nevertheless, I would suggest a normative argument still remains. Indeed the idea of the student being a customer adopts the normative argument that students should have the opportunity to influence their education in order to ensure satisfied customers and good National Student Survey results.  In apparent opposition to this stance, many academic staff have strong democratic beliefs and values that lead them to give students opportunities to influence their own education.  This creates an interesting situation where apparently oppositional neoliberal and critical pedagogical perspectives, each provide contrasting rationales to support the same argument that students should be able to influence their education.

There are many other reasons why people are pursuing partnership approaches in higher education.  Some colleagues have been influenced by the growing evidence for beneficial outcomes from partnership – including for example, enhanced engagement, motivation and learning, increased meta-cognitive awareness, stronger sense of identity, improved teaching and classroom experiences and enhanced student performance in assessments (Cook-Sather et al, 2014).  Other colleagues are coming to recognise that including students more meaningfully in negotiating learning and teaching, enables them to benefit from the variety of valuable perspectives that students bring to the learning process.  You may have your own reasons why you are engaging (or not) students as partners, but one thing is clear, this is a growing movement across higher education.

Further reading:

Bron, J. and Vuegelers, W. (2014) Why we need to involve our students in curriculum design: five arguments for student voice. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 16 (1) 125-139.

For many different examples of student-staff partnership in learning and teaching in higher education see:

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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Catherine Bovill
Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at the Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh.

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