Engaging students and staff effectively as partners in learning and teaching is arguably one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st century. Students as partners is a concept which interweaves through many other debates, including assessment and feedback, employability, flexible pedagogies, internationalisation, linking teaching and research, and retention and success. Interest in the idea has proliferated in policy and practice in the UK and internationally, particularly in the last few years. Wider economic factors and recent policy changes are influencing a contemporary environment in which students are often positioned as passive consumers of, rather than active participants in, their own higher education. It is timely to take stock and distil the current context, underlying principles and directions for future work on students as partners in learning and teaching.
The aims of this report are to:
• offer a pedagogical case for partnership in learning and teaching;
• propose a conceptual model for exploring the ways in which students act as partners in learning and teaching;
• outline how the development of partnership learning communities may guide and sustain practice;
• map the territory of strategic and sustainable practices of engaging students as partners in learning and teaching across diverse contexts;
• identify tensions and challenges inherent to partnership in learning and teaching, and offer suggestions to individuals and institutions for addressing them;
• identify priorities for further work.
This report concentrates on students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education, though we recognise that students may act as partners in many other important ways, including institutional governance, quality assurance activities, research strategies and policies, estates, community engagement, and other extra-curricular activities. Partnership in learning and teaching is one aspect of the larger picture of an institution-wide ethos and practice of partnership.
Pedagogical case for learning and working in partnership
Partnership is framed as a process of student engagement, understood as staff and students learning and working together to foster engaged student learning and engaging learning and teaching enhancement. In this sense partnership is a relationship in which all participants are actively engaged in and stand to gain from the process of learning and working together. This approach recognises that engaged student learning is positively linked with learning gain and achievement, and argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach to student engagement because it offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences for all involved. Hence we speak of engagement through partnership.
Partnership as a process of engagement uniquely foregrounds qualities that put reciprocal learning at the heart of the relationship, such as trust, risk, inter-dependence and agency. In its difference to other, perhaps more traditional, forms of learning and working in the academy, partnership raises awareness of implicit assumptions, encourages critical reflection and opens up new ways of thinking, learning and working in contemporary higher education.
Partnership is essentially a process of engagement, not a product. It is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself. All partnership is student engagement, but not all student engagement is partnership.
Conceptual model for partnership in learning and teaching
A new conceptual model (see Figure 2.3) distinguishes four broad areas in which students can act as partners in learning and teaching:
• learning, teaching and assessment;
• subject-based research and inquiry;
• scholarship of teaching and learning;
• curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy.
Visually the model is represented as four overlapping circles to emphasise that distinctions between the areas are blurred and inter-relationships are complex and diverse when put into practice. At the centre of the model is the notion of partnership learning communities, which draws attention to the processes by which partnership operates in the four different areas.
Partnership learning communities
Embedding sustainable partnership beyond discrete projects and initiatives requires that working and learning in partnership becomes part of the culture and ethos of an institution. Partnership is more likely to be sustained where there is a strong sense of community among staff and students. The key to achieving this is the development of partnership learning communities, and certain features are seen to encourage their development:
• working and learning arrangements that support partnership;
• shared values;
• attitudes and behaviours that each member of the community signs up to and embodies in practice.
Building partnership learning communities requires critical reflection on and consideration of key issues within specific contexts of practice:
• inclusivity and scale;
• power relationships;
• reward and recognition;
• transition and sustainability;
Partnership learning communities invite critical reflection on existing relationships, identities, processes and structures, and can potentially lead to the transformation of learning experiences. Given that partnership is both a working and learning relationship, these new communities should acknowledge the dual role of staff and students as both scholars and colleagues engaged in a process of learning and inquiry.
Mapping the territory
Partnership in learning and teaching may take many forms, and increasingly students are engaged in areas in which traditionally they have been excluded, such as curriculum and assessment design. Case studies of initiatives from a range of institutions and countries, along with conceptual frameworks drawn from international scholarship in the field, are offered to illustrate the diversity of strategic and sustainable practices in the four areas we identify in our model.
• Learning, teaching and assessment – Engaging students in partnership means seeing students as active participants in their own learning, and although not all active learning involves partnership it does mean engaging students in forms of participation and helps prepare them for the roles they may play in full partnership. Engaging students as teachers and assessors in the learning process is a particularly effective form of partnership.
• Subject-based research and inquiry – Whether it involves selected students working with staff on research projects or all students on a course engaging in inquiry-based learning, there is much evidence of the effectiveness of this approach in stimulating deep and retained learning. As with active learning, not all ways of engaging students in research and inquiry involve partnership, but there are many examples where students have extensive autonomy and independence and negotiate as partners many of the details of the research and inquiry projects that they undertake.
• Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) – Conducting projects in partnership with students has been suggested as one of the five principles of good practice in SoTL. There are an increasing number of effective initiatives of engaging students as change agents in institutions where they undertake research projects into the learning and teaching they experience with the intention of enhancing the quality of student learning.
• Curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy – Students are commonly engaged in course evaluations and in departmental staff-student committees, but it is rarer for institutions to go beyond the student voice and engage students as partners in designing the curriculum and giving pedagogic advice and consultancy. Yet where institutions have implemented such initiatives they have seen significant benefits for both students and staff.
Students as partners operate in many different settings – module/course, programme, department/faculty, institution, and nationally/internationally. Cutting across these settings is the additional dimension of the disciplinary or inter-disciplinary context.
Tensions, challenges and suggestions
Working and learning in partnership heightens an awareness of conflicting priorities and tensions between the different perspectives and motivations of those involved, and it raises challenges to existing assumptions and norms about higher education. Partnership also offers possibilities for thinking and acting differently, and for effecting a fundamental transformation of higher education.
Key tensions are identified, and suggestions for addressing them in different contexts are offered. The focus is not on prescribing specific practices or outcomes, but on helping to create conditions for enabling fruitful change through learning and working in partnership.
Students and staff
Students and staff will have different motivations for engaging in partnership, and the different positions occupied within organisational structures give rise to tensions around differentials in power, reward and recognition of participation, identity, and responsibility for partnership work. Working and learning in partnership is rarely automatic and can present significant challenges to existing ways of being, doing and thinking.
Suggestions for addressing this tension:
• co-develop partnership values with the people you want to partner with, and think about how behaviour and attitudes embody these values;
• consider the scale of your partnership initiative, and how to reduce barriers to participation, especially among marginalised or traditionally under-represented groups (e.g. part-time students, international students);
• be honest about when partnership is not appropriate or desirable;
• explore possibilities for joint professional development for staff and students;
• embed partnership approaches in postgraduate academic professional development courses for teachers;
• consider how partnership can be used to explore dimensions of professional practice outlined in the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF).
Policy and pedagogy
There is potential for an inherent tension between partnership policy and partnership pedagogy in that policy is about determining the direction and shape of work in advance, whereas partnership pedagogy is about being (radically) open to and creating possibilities for discovering and learning something that cannot be known beforehand.
Suggestions for addressing this tension:
• remain aware of the tension while creating policy that values the flexibility and openness of partnership;
• consider how partnership is (or is not) described in institutional policies and strategies (e.g. learning and teaching strategies, student charters, partnership agreements, marketing materials);
• consider implementing staff and student engagement surveys to provide a more nuanced picture of the views, priorities and experiences of potential partners to inform local policy;
• use participatory and whole-system approaches to the development of strategy and policy in ways that seek to embody partnership in practice.
A partnership approach may be directly at odds with principles embodied in key drivers and mechanisms which have a strong influence on behaviour and attitudes among staff and students. In the UK, this includes the National Student Survey (NSS), Key Information Sets (KIS), institutional key performance indicators, and the Research Excellence Framework (REF). These place an emphasis on the importance of quantifiable information and the achievement of specific outcomes and impacts, whereas a partnership approach places value on a creative process that may result in unexpected outcomes.
Suggestions for addressing this tension:
• look for opportunities for employing partnership as a way of responding to other influential discourses;
• use the concept and practice of partnership to meet the requirements of the UK Quality Code, and in particular the seven indicators of sound practice in chapter B5 on student engagement;
• consider how reward and recognition for partnership may be developed – for staff and students.
Students’ unions and institutions
Partnership in learning and teaching is part of a larger institutional picture and is supported by a coherent cross-institutional approach that is promoted and embodied through the relationship between a students’ union and its institution. Traditionally students’ unions have acted as an independent champion of students’ interests, sometimes challenging institutional practice and policy. A partnership approach raises questions about how it is possible for students’ unions to balance this politically orientated role while working in new ways with their institutions.
Suggestions for addressing this tension:
• institutions and students’ unions should reflect on how their relationship provides (or does not) a context for local-level partnerships. Committing to partnership agreements, principles and manifestos is a way of indicating seriousness about partnership for the institution as a whole;
• consider how student and students’ union-led activities may contribute to partnership in learning and teaching;
• develop a whole-institution approach to partnership, in active collaboration with professional services, educational and learning development, academic departments, students’ unions and student societies, which extends beyond learning and teaching to encompass institutional governance and other aspects of staff and student experiences.
Fundamental purpose and structure of higher education
Current policy discourse around ‘students as partners’ and ‘student engagement’ can assume a consensus that higher education as a free public provision is no longer tenable, and thereby sidestep the wish and need for further debate among students and staff.
Suggestion for addressing this tension:
• explore how partnership (with an emphasis on the importance of re-distribution of power and openness to new ways of working and learning together), can provide a conceptual space in which to reflect on the nature and aims of higher education as well as effect change in practical ways.
The ideas presented in this publication can be considered in conjunction with the shorter, practically-focused companion HEA publication, Framework for partnership in learning and teaching.
Priorities for further work
Despite the innovative work in the field of student partnership in higher education in recent years, there remain substantial areas where further investigation would be desirable. Priorities for research and the development of practice in the sector are identified:
• developing understanding of disciplinary pedagogies of partnership;
• sharing and learning from experiences of when partnership does not work, and why;
• building a robust evidence base for the impact of partnership for students, staff, institutions and students’ unions;
• investigating differences in experiences and perceptions of partnership among students and staff;
• developing an ethical framework for partnership in learning and teaching;
• building on the excellent work of and collaboration between various agencies (including in the UK National Union of Students, Quality Assurance Agency, The Student Engagement Partnership, Student Participation in Quality Scotland and Wales Initiative for Student Engagement and the Higher Education Academy) to support the sector to develop and embed partnership in practice and policy.
A partnership approach might not be right for everyone, nor is it possible in every context. This report does not aim to be prescriptive, but to call for opening up to the possibilities and exploring the potential that partnership can offer. There is much to be gained by engaging with partnership in learning in teaching in higher education. The wider adoption of research findings on engagement through partnership can lead to significant improvements in student learning and success.
Most partnership work – across the spectrum of engaged learning and inquiry to quality enhancement and the scholarship of learning and teaching – still engages relatively few students. It is important for the future of higher education and the quality of students’ learning to be critical about current ways of working and to strive to make partnership and its substantial benefits available to all.