Student-Faculty Partnerships: Collaborating to Improve Teaching and Learning

Steve Volk, May 2, 2016

"Gloriosa Superba" from "The "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Gloriosa Superba” from “The “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

How do you know what’s happening in your classroom? For one thing, by being there, experiencing it live and in real time. But your ability to observe what is happening is always partial, and always from the perspective of you, the expert. You can video the course and review it later, which is a great way to see what’s happening in slow motion/freeze frame. But that can often be, well, painful (Did I really say that? Do I really sound like that? I never realized I had that nervous tick. Ouch!). Sometimes a verbatim record of the proceedings is not really what you want, and certainly not for every class. We ask the students at the end of the semester, but, again, their feedback at that point is often less than helpful.

Time to think about the Student and Faculty Partnership program.

Begun at Oberlin in the spring 2015 semester, the “Student and Faculty Partnership” (S&FP) program provides an opportunity for faculty to experience their own classes from a (novice) student’s perspective, but also divorced from the power relations that normally accompany and shape instructor-student relations. Oberlin’s S&FP program, currently completing its third semester, is modeled after the student consultant program developed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr College (Students as Learners and Teachers) in 2006, and is one of a small number of such programs currently underway at campuses in the United States and Europe, including the Student Observer Program at Carleton College and the Students Consulting on Teaching Program (SCOT) at Brigham Young University.

The program pairs a student who is not enrolled in the course (or any other course taught by the professor that term) and an instructor. Student consultants (who are paid for their time) attend one of their faculty partners’ classes per week, meet weekly with their partner, and bi-weekly with the program’s directors at CTIE (currently Marcelo Vinces and Steve Volk). The weekly student-faculty discussions are based on the student consultant’s observational notes of the class, and the bi-weekly meetings between student consultants and program directors explore the student-faculty dynamic and provide feedback to the students on how to reflect on and communicate what they see in class to the instructor.

Student consultants are not peer instructors or TA’s. They are not there to help students with questions about course content or offer advice on homework. That’s for the OWLS, the Writing Associates, or other such programs. According to Cynthia Taylor (Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois, Chicago) and Eli Rose ’15, who were paired as consultant and instructor during the pilot semester for the project when Taylor was at Oberlin, the student consultant’s main task was “to observe the atmosphere and dynamics of the class and to record these observations in detailed notes” providing space for the instructor and student to talk out their thoughts about the class based on the observational notes. (The information from Taylor and Rose will be published this summer in the proceedings of the Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education.)

The Pedagogy of Student-Faculty Partnerships

"Amaryllis formosissima" from "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Amaryllis formosissima” from “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

We expect our student to be “responsible,” and learning to take responsibility is one of the key dispositions we hope students will gain as undergraduates. But what does that mean? As Cook-Sather points out, the students’ responsibilities within educational settings are generally conceptualized as “students doing what adults tell them to do and absorbing what adults have to offer. Student accountability here means compliance and acceptance: adherence to what is prescribed, asked, or offered by the adults in charge” (p. 3). In that sense, students and teachers have quite a different set of responsibilities. Teachers are responsible for teaching and students are responsible for learning.

The student-faculty partnership proposes a rethinking of what responsibility means, suggesting that students can become responsible not only in the sense of being accountable (i.e., answerable for their actions), but able to act on the basis of their own initiative, to become accountable for, to take ownership over, their own learning. Partnerships, then, are based on respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility between students and faculty.

To quote at length from a recent book by Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten:

Studying and designing teaching and learning in collaboration with students does not mean that we simply turn the responsibility for conceptualizing curricular and pedagogical approaches over to students, nor does it suggest we should always do everything they recommend to us. Rather, it means that we engage in a more complex set of relationships involving genuine dialogue with students. These more complex relationships may involve negotiation where we listen to students but also articulate our own expertise, perspectives, and commitments. It means making collaborative and transparent decisions about changing our practices in some instances and not in others and developing mutual respect for the individual and shared rationales behind these choices. Indeed, it means changing our practices when appropriate, but also reaffirming, with the benefit of students’ differently informed perspectives, what is already working well. Sometimes it means following where students lead, perhaps to places we may not have imagined or been to before. In all of these cases, reciprocity is an integral element of the learning process: we share our perspectives and commitments and listen to students’ insights, they share theirs and listen to ours, and in the exchange, we all become wiser.

Having seen the program develop over three semesters, I would observe that creating opportunities for “genuine dialogue” between faculty and students is not necessarily easy. Negotiating teaching practices with students bumps up against much of what we have come to think about what we do as teachers. Since we control the content, we are the experts and therefore have little to learn from student input. This understanding is often confirmed by much of the input we get from students. That which we get at the end of the semester is (by definition) too late for that course, and is often delivered in a form that we may find hard to take seriously (Really? Comments on our clothing?) Nor are students trained to deliver important critiques in a way in which we are most disposed to hear – or listen to – them. We may learn some things from Student Evaluations of Teaching, but they are not the best instruments for encouraging instructors to listen to student input.

Yet there is little doubt that the people who are best placed to tell us about our teaching are the students sitting in front of us every day. But, as we know, this doesn’t happen magically. Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten suggest that there are four key qualities to developing a student-instructor partnership that can open a significant conversation about teaching and learning: (1) trust and respect, (2) shared power, (3) shared risks, and (4) shared learning. As observed above, partnerships, particularly when we talk of shared power, cannot ignore the fact that faculty are the experts in the course, both in terms of content and teaching experience. But the partnership means that “the perspectives and contributions made by partners are appropriately valued and respected.” Bringing this to realization takes effort on the part of both students and faculty, but the results from our first three semesters of the Oberlin program suggest that it is worth it.


I think when most faculty hear of a program in which students are involved as commentators and collaborators, they assume that the program is giving the students unfettered authority or equality in the teaching process. But I realize now that taking student contributions seriously DOES NOT mean blindly or directly following their opinions and suggestions, but rather taking them seriously, carefully reflecting on and analyzing them, and then addressing the core concerns behind them in a way that is consistent with my overall goals and values.  (Faculty partner quoted in Cook-Sather, Bovill, Fenten)


Henry Erroll, "A Woman's Favour" (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Henry Erroll, “A Woman’s Favour” (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Selecting Student Consultants

Student who have been in the program have demonstrated a strong interest in the dynamics of teaching and learning. They often have criticisms of some of the teaching they have experienced, but also have moved to a position in which they want to take responsibility for improving classroom dynamics. Finally, many are interested in what they can learn by establishing a significant dialogue with a faculty member. Student consultants are often recommended by a faculty member to the program directors or simply respond to a call for participation in the program. They are chosen by the directors of the program based on the number of partnerships we are able to sponsor, their expressed interest in the program, and a compatibility with faculty in terms of available times and, occasionally, course content.

Many institutions that have implemented student-faculty partnerships, including Oberlin, have made a specific point of inviting under-represented students into the partnership, both to gain access to their important insights and to begin to counter the sense of exclusion that many of these students feel.

As noted above, students are paid for their time in the partnership in recognition that this is a significant commitment and that since the students are not enrolled in the course, they need to be compensated, at least to the extent of our budgetary ability. Their pay is consistent with the pay of other student workers on campus.

Ideally, student consultants are paired with the faculty without regard to the students’ background in the class being taught by the faculty member. This is particularly relevant for intro level courses where the novice status of the student consultant would put him or her at the same level as those students enrolled in the course and therefore better able to note what seems confusing or problematic in the delivery of course material. On the other hand, there are occasions when the partnership will work better by pairing a student who has specific academic preparation (e.g., in the sciences or music) with a teacher offering an intermediate or upper-level course.

Finally, student consultants cannot be enrolled in the course for which they will serve as a partner, nor should they be enrolled that semester in any other courses offered by the faculty member. The reasons for this are obvious enough: the student-faculty partnership requires a relationship that is as open and honest as possible, and this can be compromised if the faculty member is giving the student consultant a grade in some other course.

Selecting Faculty Partners

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, "Vom Amazonas und Madeira" (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, “Vom Amazonas und Madeira” (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

The program is open to any faculty member, although usually faculty won’t apply for a student consultant until their second year or later. It requires that faculty have a specific goal in mind as regards their teaching in a specific course rather than just wanting to participate in the program. For example, Cynthia Taylor described her own interest as follows:

The instructor [Taylor] had previously taught this course twice before. She was particularly interested in trying to improve student engagement with the material, as feedback on the course previously had indicated some students found the material dry or uninteresting. She also wanted to know what material was particularly confusing to the students, and how to make material more comprehensible in general.

Faculty who have applied to the program have been interested in getting feedback on a specific pedagogic approaches (e.g., discussion-focused instruction) or technology (e.g., clickers) that they will be implementing for the first time.

While more tenured than junior faculty have applied for the program, not only can such a partnership provide newer faculty with important and thoughtful feedback early in their careers, at a time when they can implement changes as needed, but participation in the program is a very concrete way of demonstrating a desire to continue to improve one’s teaching.

Calls for faculty participation in the program most often come out at the end of each semester, with the number of partnerships dependent on budgetary issues. For the Fall 2016 semester, we will be able to sponsor four partnerships, two in the College and two in the Conservatory.

The Partnerships in Action

At the heart of the S&FP program is the weekly meeting between the instructor and the student consultant. These meetings are based on the notes that the student consultants take during the one (sometimes two) classes that they attend each week. Students involved in the program are trained in observational note taking, specifically in differentiating what they observe from any interpretation of why it is happening. They are also trained in how to reflect on what they have observed and how to discuss issues from the class with their faculty partners in ways that can be best heard by the instructors. Most often, the faculty partners will tell the student consultants what they should pay particular attention to in each class.

For example, the instructor might have told her student consultant to pay attention to moments of disruption in the class when she was lecturing. The consultant’s observational log might note that, in a class that began at 10:00 AM, one student left the room at 10:15; another at 10:18; a third at 10:20 (each returning to the room approximately 5 minutes later). While the student consultant can’t know why they left the room (bathroom? boredom? thirsty?), she could observe that this had an unsettling impact on the room (students became distracted, watched them walk to the door, stopped taking notes, etc.). On this basis, the student consultant could suggest a topic for discussion with the faculty partner: the impact of having students shuffling in and out on the classroom environment. Should the instructor develop “bathroom” rules? Should she allow the class as a whole to decide rules for non-emergency leaving during the class since they are the ones who are being disrupted?

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, "Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science Course: An Experience Report"

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, “Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science
Course: An Experience Report”

Student consultants usually send their faculty partners a copy of their notes in advance of their weekly meetings so they have the same information for their conversation. Here’s how Taylor and Rose describe their weekly meetings:

These meetings generally lasted about an hour, and the topics discussed varied widely in specificity, from comments like, “I noticed that some of the students seemed confused at this point”… to in depth discussion of what distractor answers would best illustrate common student misconceptions in a peer instruction question. The student consultant would also frequently ask the instructor what her perception of something that had occurred in class was, or the instructor would ask the student consultant what his personal experience learning specific material had been. Discussions tended to be grounded in specific lecture slides or course materials, but also touched on student reactions to the course as a whole, and occasionally touched on what could be added to materials like labs or problem sets in order to aid student understanding of specific points.

Sophina Gordon, "Flowers, Earth's silent voices" (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

Sophina Gordon, “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices” (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

All student consultants (up to four per semester) would meet bi-weekly with the program directors. At these meetings students would compare notes from their various classes, discuss the strengths their faculty partners brought to the classroom, reflect on the conversations they had with their faculty partners and how these  discussions developed: awkward moments, what they brought to those discussions, any problems that came up in terms of their own interactions: what could they have done better. Finally, we would examine their assumptions about the feedback they gave to their faculty partners. One theme that often appeared in these discussions was the student consultants’ feeling that it was their responsibility to offer solutions for issues that they either observed or that were raised by the faculty. They were reminded that they are not in the partnership to provide the instructors with “solutions” to teaching problems. The primary role that student consultants play is as observers who can, with a novice’s eye, help faculty see better what is happening in their classes. Faculty partners certainly can, and do, ask student consultants for their advice, but decisions remain with the faculty member.

Benefits and Difficulties

The Taylor-Rose paper lists what they observed as both benefits of the program as well as difficulties that developed over the course of the semester. On the positive side as far as the faculty partner is concerned, are:

  • The opportunity for a weekly, in-depth discussion of the class with someone who observed it but is neither a formal faculty evaluator or a student in the course.
  • The opportunity to continually reflect on and revise approaches taken in the course. While many faculty reflect on their courses in an on-going way, having a weekly conversation about the course makes this much more likely.
  • The ability to gain insight from a “novice perspective.” Most of the advice we get about teaching comes from other experts, and yet we teach novices. It was critical to receive feedback from a student, a novice in the field.
  • Input from different parts of the classroom: the student consultant would often sit in on different student discussion groups in a large class setting, providing the faculty partner with input she couldn’t get herself.
  • A written record of most of the class discussions: “It was surprisingly helpful for the instructor to have a written record of all class discussion from a class period. Being able to review student comments and questions while reviewing and revising the lecture allowed for reflection on discussion details that the instructor otherwise would likely not have remembered.”

The student consultant reported that the program allowed him to reflect more deeply on his own learning process (“Discussing students’ reactions to concepts with the instructor, he discovered new approaches and understood subtleties that he missed the first time around [i.e., when he was a student in the course].”). He also noted that he learned that his own approach to learning was different from other students, that “the student consultant note-taking process (sitting in the lecture hall, being as attentive as possible to the atmosphere of the room, recording it in detail, trying to think from the perspective of 37 other people) quickly expanded his ideas about students’ experiences of computer science classes.

Needless to say, having another set of eyes on your classroom will not always produce agreeable results. As Taylor wrote, “It is not pleasant to be reminded that the back row of your class was reading their phones instead of paying attention. There were times when a lesson didn’t work and there was no clear reason why or how to fix it.” Faculty may worry that student consultants are questioning their competence in the classroom, an issue that the program directors often address in their meetings with students consultants, making sure that the students remember that their role is to observe and to provide their partners with valuable insights, but they are not there as “consultants” in a traditional sense, experts who are hired to “fix” problems. Students consultants, for their part, are not accustomed to being in this role and may find it difficult to raise certain subjects in their meetings with their partners. (Many also regret not having the same kind of interactions with faculty in other courses they take.)

Ultimately, and perhaps the most important lesson I have learned while directing this program, is that there is not always a “fix” for every problem that arises in the classroom. For the instructors involved in the program, it is valuable to know that the are not the only ones to face such problems; student consultants, for their part, come to appreciate to a much greater extent both the complexity of teaching and the care and attention that faculty put into their courses in order to achieve an optimum learning outcome.


Open communication is not particularly easy; not between faculty and faculty, students and students and, to be sure, faculty and students. For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of an audience and the likelihood of good exchange: the larger the audience, the harder to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. For another, a basic level of trust is often needed before meaningful conversation can happen, and that is often only built up over time. The Student-Faculty Partnership program allows these exchanges to develop organically. As they continue, one can hope that these conversations can be expanded to broader and broader levels.

NOTE: The go-to book on this subject, exploring the theory behind the program as well as detailed accounts on its strengths and difficulties, is Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Richard Jefferies, "The Dewey Morn" (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

Richard Jefferies, “The Dewey Morn” (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

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