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Faculty-Student Partnerships in Curriculum Design and Review

Updated: Mar 21



Maria Assif, University of Toronto Scarborough

Kris Kim, University of Toronto Scarborough

Anna Galang, University of Toronto

Sonya Ho, University of Toronto

 

Keywords: Students as Partners (SaP), Faculty-Student Partnership, Curriculum Review, Curriculum Design, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), High-Impact Practice

 

Key Statement: Student-faculty partnership (SaP) in curriculum design and review is a high-impact practice that brings students and faculty together in an inclusive and equitable space.

 



Introduction


For over a decade, Students as Partners in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or simply Students as Partners (SaP), has gained popularity as a high-impact practice in higher education. One of the foundational studies in this field is Healey, Flint, and Harrington's (2014), offering a conceptual model that outlines student engagement through partnership with faculty through four pathways: assessment projects, curriculum consultation, subject-based research, and SoTL (see Figure 1). Although questions regarding students’ levels of expertise in a subject area may make instructors cautious about partnering with students, we (students and faculty) offer a reflection on these challenges, while emphasizing the greater benefits of drawing on students’ lived experiences in the process of curriculum co-design, co-review, and pedagogical consultancy within the context of specific English and Chemistry courses at the University of Toronto Scarborough.


Figure 1. A conceptual model illustrating four facets of partnership learning communities that exist in SaP (Healey et al., 2014). Reprinted with permission. 



 

Background


As faculty, our (Assif and Kim) collaboration started during COVID. We saw each other on camera during virtual pedagogical or professional development events hosted by our institution and heard each other’s names at teaching-related initiatives. These encounters led to recurring discussions about how we integrate student voices in our teaching and scholarly lives within our respective contexts.

 

Image courtesy of Wix.


English

English A02 (Critical Writing about Literature) is a first-year, multi-sectional writing course in the University of Toronto Scarborough’s English Department at. It has been popular since its inception in 2008, but students and instructors have consistently expressed concerns about burnout and heavy workload. To understand the roots of these narratives and improve the overall quality of learning and teaching in the course, I (Assif) launched in fall 2020 a comprehensive curriculum review process (syllabus design, reader and textbook choice, assessment tools review, and outreach planning) in collaboration with a group of self-selected, upper-level undergraduate students in my senior writing seminar, who were all former A02 students. These five students, including Sonya Ho (a coauthor of this article), received research-assistant pay during the first two months and continued their work on a volunteer basis for the rest of the academic year. Under my guidance, students spent the first two months immersing themselves in first-year composition pedagogy and frameworks around decolonizing English curricula. For the next three months, our group reviewed each section of the course master syllabus, based on our lived experiences as students and faculty and informed by the initial readings. As these discussions occurred, students transitioned from research assistants to student partners, whose perspectives were as valid as mine and whose lived/living experiences as undergraduates were as important as the various theoretical frameworks with which we were engaged . The next three months were spent reviewing possible course readers and assignments and drafting a list of actionable initiatives that can improve student learning and social experience. We also drafted a Human Ethics Protocol form and survey questions that would help assess the curricular changes once implemented. At the end of this year-long collaboration, students presented their work at the International Education and Development Conference and started drafting a manuscript that chronicles the group’s journey throughout this project.

 

Chemistry

CHMB16 (Techniques in Analytical Chemistry) is a lab-intensive second-year chemistry course that introduces students to the sub-discipline of analytical chemistry. PSCB90 (Physical Sciences Research Experience) is second-year course at the University of Toronto Scarborough that introduces students to independent research in partnership with faculty. Students are assessed through a final report and presentation. PSCB90 has served as an opportunity to invite students to collaborate on co-designing new curriculum shortly after they’ve engaged with a course. As the CHMB16 instructor and PSCB90 supervisor, my partnership with Anna Galang (a coauthor) began after her completion of CHMB16. She expressed interest in getting research experience (through PSCB90) while also sharing her interest in a possible career in education. This naturally led to discussions regarding first-year experiments that we co-selected to be the most suitable to develop as virtual laboratory exercises during the pandemic (2021). As part of these conversations, Anna shared her lived experiences carrying out these experiments in-person as a first-year student, and together we chose experiments that we felt were most appropriate for online delivery. Over the next four months, Anna first performed these experiments and implemented modifications such that important aspects of the experiments would be clearly captured for a virtual format. Together, we produced a storyboard that outlined how each step of an experiment would be filmed and narrated, ensuring that observations students should take note of are clearly visible in the final videos. We also exchanged ideas about where students would need to make critical decisions during an experiment and incorporated decision points within the virtual exercise to mimic in-person learning to offer students more autonomy. We also co-drafted survey questions that would help us understand students’ experiences and how we can implement their feedback into future course offerings. As a final step, we co-published the process of designing the virtual experiments and students’ experiences in a scholarly journal (Galang et al., 2022).

 


Student Reflections


When presented with the opportunity to work with Maria Assif and Kris Kim, we (Galang and Ho) were thrilled to get involved, as this was our first undergraduate research experience. During this time, we critically reflected on our shift in identities from students to research assistants to partners. From our novice understanding of hierarchal structures within academia, we never expected to be able to work so closely with faculty within a co-review and co-designing of curriculum context.


We both developed technical and professional skills that proved to be transferable to our undergraduate coursework and, eventually, our pursuit of graduate studies (e.g., time management skills strengthened by balancing project deadlines and course work; problem-solving and communication skills through collaboration with faculty partners and research teams).


As we reflected on the progress and lasting fulfillment of our work, these experiences sparked confidence in ourselves and have acted as a catalyst to our respective pursuits in graduate studies. Achieving these goals took time and some unlearning during the early stages of this process, as we combatted the hesitation of being vulnerable and the fear of judgment. Another challenge we encountered was our preconceived beliefs—rooted in our lived experiences as students—that research was highly competitive and exclusive to high-achieving students. Being the first-generation children of our respective immigrant parents to study at a Canadian higher education institution, we felt alone and confused in navigating the trajectory of our studies. Specifically, we felt that students who were successful in their studies were involved in extracurricular activities and often had broader networks of connections (i.e. staff, industry professionals), which provided them with the support and guidance to make informed decisions on their career paths and to succeed. However, as we moved through this process and got to know Assif and Kim, we realized that our contribution to the project was acknowledged and valued regardless of past experiences and levels of expertise. We also realized that reciprocal energy was encouraged, particularly through honest conversations about how we felt navigating this partnership process and the project expectations together.


Financial compensation (or lack thereof) was not a deciding factor for us, but it might be a key determinant for other students who want to engage with comparable partnerships but need that financial support. As students working on SaP, we believe that the lasting impacts of these partnerships outweigh the need for financial compensation, as these projects have unequivocally changed the trajectory of our lives forever.

 

 

Faculty Reflections


Working with Ho and Galang as partners offered us the opportunity to hear students’ perspectives, beyond the general comments offered through course evaluations. Their perspectives enrich, and at times challenge, what we may think students need or want, resulting in a more organic evolution of learning experiences (Cook-Sather et al., 2018). These partnerships also often invite long-term collaboration opportunities for students; the completion of one project opens new avenues for further exploration, as we experienced ourselves. This can be beneficial to both parties as we co-developed an understanding of the nuances involved with working productively together; built a degree of trust through prior projects; and allowed us, as faculty, to leverage prior training offered to students.


These exciting changes certainly come with challenges. These partnerships can be very resource intensive, requiring faculty and student time, energy, and budgetary demands. We, as faculty, need to consider best practices for training, hold space and time for in-depth discussions, and often must recalibrate our expectations (both in terms of when and what is produced and how it is co-generated). Determining with whom and how we build trust as partners also requires consideration. This might involve assessing students’ motivation and work ethic, while often also relying on our own intuition, or “gut” feeling.


Building partnership takes strategic planning and often means dismantling long-standing hierarchical structures in academia. For example, we are traditionally the authority in the classroom where our decision-making is rarely contested or questioned by students. As such, we often found the practice of accountability in both directions between faculty and students to be a challenge and unfamiliar. One practice to help overcome this challenge is to invite student partners to think about their perspectives in the context of research. In other words, can they articulate their opinions as research-informed perspectives? Another suggestion is to encourage students to share their thoughts on how curriculum can be reviewed and/or designed and also participate in implementing changes to curriculum.

 

 

Final Remarks


Having engaged with these projects and other student-faculty partnerships for the past five years, we, student and faculty partners, believe that the benefits of SaP (e.g., offering students opportunities to feel involved and engaged in their learning and offering instructors opportunities to iterate curriculum in real-time in response to student experiences) outweigh some of its inherent challenges (e.g., increased workload for instructors to create and sustain collaborations as well as reservations around including “non-experts” in the process of curriculum review/design). Although resource constraints, such as funding, can be barriers to engage in SaP, we suggest that there are non-monetary avenues for collaboration where student contributions can be acknowledged. For example, institutions may offer access to research courses where students are expected to work closely with a faculty member, though special attention could be given on ensuring a reciprocal collaboration, or instructors may offer informal mentorship and formal reference letters that highlight students’ contributions. We also acknowledge that there are several ethical considerations we are still grappling with, such as student and faculty compensation and recognition, best DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility) practices within student-faculty partnerships (de Bie et al., 2022), and administrative recognition of SaP benefits and demands. In this spirit, we encourage student and faculty who are interested in SaP to take time to reflect on the motivations behind starting a SaP project in lieu of other collaborative models, set clear objectives and boundaries at the early stages of these partnerships, and keep the channels of communication open and transparent between all the partners involved. SaP has been a journey worth taking for us, and we hope you consider it in your own context(s) as well.

 


Discussion Questions

For Faculty:

  1. Considering your teaching and research contexts, what are some benefits of partnering with students in disciplinary or pedagogical research and curriculum design/review? What challenges might you encounter?

  2. Consider previous or existing collaborations with undergraduate students, how might the SaP framework be integrated in any of these projects?


For Students:

  1. Within your programs of study, how would you approach faculty to initiate collaborations or potential partnerships?

  2. As you learn more about SaP, how would you advocate for yourself to ensure you are well-supported in these partnerships with faculty?

 

 

References

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Academy.


Cook-Sather, A., Matthews, K. E., Ntem, A., & Leathwick, S. (2018). What we talk about when we talk about Students as Partners. International Journal for Students as Partners, 2(2), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3790


de Bie, A., Prasad, S. K., Nguyen, E., & Marquis, E. (2022). Considerations for seeking equity and justice through pedagogical partnership: four partners in conversation. Imagining SoTL, 2(1), 19–38. https://doi.org/10.29173/isotl603


Galang, A., Snow, M. A., Benvenuto, P., & Kim, K. S. (2022). Designing Virtual Laboratory Exercises Using Microsoft Forms. Journal of Chemical Education, 99(4), 1620–1627. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c01006



About the Authors


 









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