In My Words: Partnering with students is critical now more than ever

In this column appearing in University Business, Peter Felten and his co-authors explain why higher education must systematically integrate students into planning efforts at both the class and institutional leves.

This column co-authored by Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and professor of history, was originally published by University Business on Aug. 27, 2020.

By Tracie Marcella Addy, Alison Cook-Sather and Peter Felten

Institutional leaders are making critical decisions about how to teach their students in complex and novel times: learning from the abrupt shift to remote learning last spring and having spent the summer immersed in professional development on course design for socially distanced face-to-face, fully online and flexible or hybrid teaching.

Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and professor of history

However, even with all of this deliberate preparation, students have been almost completely absent from our planning and preparation. During this crisis we need to systematically integrate students into our planning efforts at both the class and the institutional levels—for our sake and for theirs.

This summer, a multi-institutional survey of over 15,000 students revealed that students from underserved groups historically excluded from higher education were even more substantially and negatively impacted than their peers by the spring pivot to remote instruction, and that student physical and mental well-being suffered during this disrupted semester. Another survey of over 21,000 high school, college and graduate students found that respondents were eager to resume normalcy in the fall and that they preferred flexible, online models and block scheduling. International students also reported facing steep obstacles to continue their learning during the pandemic, and these have been exacerbated by recent threats to interrupt or terminate their studies.

These surveys, however, are not enough. Survey data is no replacement for sustained dialogue with students. In the coming academic year, faculty and institutions need to develop systematic ways to partner with their students to co-create a dynamic and flexible approach to learning and teaching in the novel environment of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Students who feel respected and heard develop the personal agency and sense of belonging that are essential for success in college. Students learn a great deal from these partnerships, honing their communication and analytical skills, learning more deeply in their discipline, and becoming more empathetic. When institutions support these partnerships by hiring students into such roles, their pay compensates for the job losses they face and afford them meaningful work that addresses the trauma they are experiencing. We know that meaningful relationships with faculty contribute to undergraduate student learning, motivation, identity development, well-being, graduation rates, and post-graduation career and civic outcomes. We are learning that developing trauma-informed, anti-racist practices in collaboration with faculty partners can contribute to students’ well being as well.

Student-faculty/staff partnerships can take many forms. At the classroom, departmental and program levels, student partners can be paired with instructors to provide ongoing feedback through the term and to develop resources that are distributed to instructors or students to support teaching excellence.

For instance, this summer Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges expanded their well-established student-faculty partnership program, typically run during the academic year, to provide support for cohorts of faculty working to develop not only remote but also trauma-informed and anti-racist pedagogies. The colleges will continue this program throughout the academic year with both one-on-one student-faculty partnerships and departmental cohorts of students and faculty working together on teaching. At Lafayette College, student fellows provide their perspectives at community-wide forums on critical and emergent topics such as remote learning. Both of these approaches support instructors in drawing on dialogue with students to build classes as inclusive spaces, and the Summer Pedagogical Partnership program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford gathered specific recommendations for how to strive for such inclusivity in remote and hybrid classrooms.

At the institutional level, surveys can provide insight into student experiences and inform instructional choices, and focus groups can offer additional opportunities for input, but we need to create forums for ongoing conversations about the results. Institutions can reallocate funds from student jobs that will not be available on campus this fall to pay students who will work in partnership with faculty and institutional leaders to analyze and act upon student feedback, building on a model already well-established at institutions including North Carolina A&T and University of California Merced.

While students are as stressed and uncertain as anyone during these uncertain times, they also find solace in and bring tremendous energy to working with students at other institutions to find and forge ways forward. When many colleges and universities had to pivot to online instruction in March 2020, a group of students from across nine different institutions with student-faculty pedagogical partnership programs met virtually to share insights, recommendations and reassurances in what one student partner called an instant community that might not have emerged in the absence of the crisis. Such cross-institutional community building not only creates practical recommendations informed by student perspectives—which were remarkably similar across institution types—but also nurtures caring student communities during this traumatic time.

We are in this work for students, and to design effective learning environments at this unprecedented interaction between pandemic and protest against anti-black racism, we need to partner with students to create newly functional and just educational practices. The student partners at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges worked this summer to create resources to support faculty in developing remote, trauma-informed and anti-racist pedagogies and in joining other academic leaders in embracing “intergenerational trust” as the “superpower” that will carry us forward.

Tracie Marcella Addy is associate dean of teaching and learning at Lafayette College. Alison Cook-Sather is the Mary Katherine Woodworth Professor of Education and director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr College. Peter Felten is the executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.