We flipped the classroom. We invigorated course design. We made lectures interactive. What next? What will trigger the next paradigmatic shift on our college campuses? Some students and faculty at UVA think they have an answer.
The Teaching Resource Center (TRC) at the University of Virginia recently partnered with Student Council to co-host an event which explored the promise and possibility of co-creating education on grounds.
TRC staff Dorothe Bach (Associate Director), Abby Deatherage (Undergraduate Student Assistant), and myself (Graduate Student Associate) were inspired by the idea of including students’ voices in conversations on teaching and learning. This idea may not seem radical; after all students fill out end-of-semester evaluations and can share their views on what works in the classroom with professors during office hours. But the idea of student-faculty partnerships pushes this idea—that student feedback is valuable—to its logical next step. In their recent book, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching, Cather Bovill, Peter Felten, and Alison Cook-Sather articulate definitions of authentic and effective partnerships as “position[ing] both students and faculty as learners as well as teachers” by imploring “different but comparably valuable forms of expertise to bear on the educational process.”
In brainstorming how to facilitate an event where students could share their expertise as learners directly with professors, we knew to capitalize on UVA students’ intrinsic motivation. These self-directed learners and self-governed leaders already organize a myriad of initiatives and programs within the University to maximize their learning experiences. Look Hoos Talking, Flash Seminars, and the Cavalier Education Program have been so successful that other institutions envy our students’ drive to take ownership of their education. We also knew that if we wanted to foster true collaboration between students and faculty, the planning stage would require collaboration between students and faculty as well. So we reached out to the two chairs of Academic Affairs of Student Council, Harlin Oh and Daniel Judge, to plan this event together. Through several Monday morning 9am meetings, we concluded that a luncheon could serve as a litmus test for interest. In consultation with Alison Cook-Sather, one of the co-authors of the aforementioned book, we settled on a script and some discussion guidelines which would privilege student voices. This lunch was designed to challenge the sage-on-the-stage model. A radical re-working of the power dynamics normalized in higher education. And it worked.
The lunch—on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving break—comprised several small groups, each with four to five students, two faculty members (one experienced, one junior), and a discussion facilitator. Attendees were asked to prepare some thoughts in advanced. Students answered the question, “What makes for an engaging, powerful learning environment?” Faculty answered the question, “What would you like students to understand about your teaching approach, including your assignments and in-class activities?” After introductions and small-talk, we asked students to speak first. They had a lot to say, and over the course of the meal, they developed greater enthusiasm and confidence because their insights about learning were being valued. We then asked faculty to respond to what they heard from the students in light of the ideas about teaching they brought to the meeting. From there we moved into an animated conversation in which students and faculty engaged each other’s expertise from their respective vantage points as teachers and learners. In that engagement their roles were blurred and in the end faculty had left the stage and were engaged learners instead. The session concluded with a mix of thoughtful listening, silent writing reflections, and a large-group share, all focused on how to make education better at UVA.
During the concluding group share, all attendees got a sense of how differently the conversations veered at each table. One group hashed through incentives for finishing assignments and “doing the reading.” Another group talked about the realities—and sometimes inefficiencies—of group work and what to do about it. Another group talked about the importance of “approachability” for cultivating an inclusive learning environment and theorized about how this looks for both teachers and students with radically different personalities. Overall, both students and faculty expressed how valuable and informative it was to hear the other’s perspective.
This was a pilot project. A test drive. So what did we learn from it? How can we use this experience as a tool for guiding future programming that would harness the benefits of student and faculty partnerships for teaching and learning? Participant feedback included suggestions such as “maybe try to align disciplines” and “have additional activities to think more concretely” as well as ideas for future programming—“curriculum design workshop,” “teaching and learning teams for each discipline or course,” “have professors hold office hours specially for feedback,” and “have students present ideas at New Faculty Orientation.” Most participants simply said they wanted more time, and they wanted to do this again! With such an overwhelmingly positive response, other events are definitely in the works. Stay tuned as we discover more ways to foster student-faculty partnerships on grounds.