Do international students buy the idea of ‘Students as Partners’? Will SaP be beneficial for them?

Updated: Feb 7, 2019

By Coco Bu, Education student and tutor, University of Queensland, Australia

Originally posted 12 May 2017

Although I have proposed these questions as my title, I cannot actually answer them. I cannot speak for all international students, but only from my personal experience and from observations of other international students in my classes. I am an international student from China, whose only experience of tertiary education has been in Australia with its western education system. What I am going to share, in reflecting on the questions in my title could well be different from other students, whether they are local or international.

‘Students as partners’ (SaP) is a particular approach to learning and teaching, which is gaining attention, and provoking debate in many western countries. Supporters of SaP argue that students can benefit in many ways, if they co-research, co-evaluate and co-design their learning with their teachers.

Although the term ‘students as partners’ is quite new, it seems to me that the ideas that underpin it are much older. Let me share an example from my own experience. As an Education student and a secondary pre-service Maths teacher, I know that ‘inquiry-based classrooms’ – in which students learn through their own enquiry – have been prevalent in Australian schools for some time. In these classrooms, students first propose questions that they are interested in, ideally real-life related, and then find out what mathematical concepts might be involved in solving this problem, and then work with their peers and teachers to develop knowledge and understanding of these particular concepts, design and carry their own investigation to gather statistics evidence to this problem, and finally come up with a solution based on the investigation data. Research shows that by implementing this inquiry culture into the classroom, students are more motivated and their conceptual understanding of maths can be developed through the process.

However, I hear criticism of inquiry-based learning: ‘It takes too much time to let students explore what they are learning; it is easier to just explain the fact to them and leave more time for practice’. And so on. I don’t know if any of you ever hear these comments. I sometimes hear them in Australia. And, when I studied in my home country, these remarks were kind of the norm. In fact, throughout my schooling in China, I was rarely given opportunities to have a say on what I wanted and should learn. I never thought about it because our educational system is not designed to question the authorities. It did not seem to foster critical thinking. Most importantly, it was: ‘Pass the exam!’

When I first came to Australia to study almost 6 years ago, I often felt puzzled by my English teacher, who always proposed questions, which were only answered by silence. I gradually understood why he tried so hard to guide our thinking with questions. Here in Australia, posing questions, discussing with the lecturers and actively participating in the class is highly valued and encouraged. As I see it, SaP is an extension of the freedom that students are given in Australian universities to be heard and respected.

Does this mean that international – or at least Chinese students – will be reluctant to ‘buy’ the idea of SaP? Of course, you will rarely see Asian students being ‘noisy’ in the class? They quietly listen, carefully take notes, and rarely talk with the lecturers. Yet, when I think back on my education in China, I realise that I was always an active participant. I took positions, such as class monitor (whose duties were monitoring the everyday operation of the class, much like a student leader), and teachers’ student advisor (proving feedback about how the class went and suggesting what exercises could be helpful, based on the pace of the learning, much like a student mentor/consultant/representative). Especially, in my mathematics class, our teacher gave us opportunities to demonstrate how we solved problems on the board in front of the class rather than simply giving us the solutions herself. I felt excited about those opportunities and therefore spent hours on the difficult questions she left us to do so I could present the next day. Back then, I thought, ‘This teacher is bad. She doesn’t know how to solve the questions so she has to ask us to help’. But in becoming involved in SaP practices in Australia, I have understood that my school maths teacher was actually practicing what is considered as an advanced teaching strategy; that is, giving students the chance to produce knowledge rather than just consume it.

So, perhaps with other Chinese students, it is not that they are unwilling to be more active ‘partners’ in their learning. Instead it might be that they are confused by teachers asking them questions, or that their English proficiency prevents them from speaking freely of their ideas with others, or that they feel embarrassed if they say something ‘wrong’. Perhaps if lecturers allowed more time for them to gradually establish their confidence in voicing their own opinions and ideas; perhaps if international students were mentored more often by local students and more experienced international students, to help them with their English, to listen to what they say about their learning, and give them direct and focused help; perhaps if lecturers and other students encouraged them and, listened to them with patience, many more international students would benefit from being partners in learning with their lecturers and other students, co-designing what they learn and co-evaluating how they learn.

As a beneficiary of such mentoring and partnering opportunities that the university has provided, I am keen to offer my help and would like to call on other experienced international students to offer their help to newly arrived students. By doing this, a successful transition to the university culture, and a more democratic and engaging learning environment can be achieved.

I hope that others will also contribute to this blog, sharing ideas about engaging international and local students as partners in global learning.