November 27 2018

Partnership – Student Engagement or Engaging Students?

Dr Sheila Cunningham is an Associate Professor and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the Faculty of Professional and Social Sciences at Middlesex. Here, Sheila outlines the benefits and challenges of adopting a partnership approach to teaching in higher education.

Partnership is a process of student engagement, but these terms are not interchangeable (Healy et al, 2014).

Ways of engaging students in higher education as partners in learning and teaching is arguably one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st Century, partnership is part of this, but it is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself (Healey, 2017).

The HEA’s focus is on the pedagogic rationale for partnership: how it can lead to increased student engagement with, and success in, their learning as well as supporting the design, delivery and support of engaged student learning.

Much of the literature points to HEA benefits for both staff and students.

Students, it seems:

  • are better engaged with the process of learning in and out of contact-time;
  • develop essential high level knowledge and skills to support their employability; and
  • feel a sense of belonging and community that the ‘What Works?’ programme has shown is key to student retention and success.

Staff experience:

  • renewed engagement with and transformed thinking about their practice, and a
  • deeper understanding of contributions to an academic community.

Whatever the rationale for staff, students, institutions and students’ unions to develop partnerships in learning and teaching, this framework aims to offer an evidence informed and reflective approach to support their development.

One proposed model (see Figure 1) is interesting in that it 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 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 argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach which offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences.

Research has also shown that partnership can engage and empower traditionally marginalized students and lead to sharing authority and responsibility with staff in the development of culturally sustainable pedagogy (Cook-Sather and Agu, 2013; Healey et al., 2014). This appears a panacea for addressing key issues within higher education, however it cannot surely be that straightforward?

Healey et al (2014) advise there is potential for an inherent tension between partnership policy and partnership pedagogy. It appears 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. They propose suggestions for addressing this tension:

  • remain aware of the tension
  • 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 for a 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.

That said this is something actively engaged with at all levels within higher education. Middlesex is replete with examples and the Middlesex Teaching Fellows Newsletter will address these to stimulate and encourage experimentation and innovation.

Fig. 1 A conceptual model for students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Healey, et al, 2014)

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.

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