Providing opportunities for staff to experiment with co-design, partnership and engagement.

By Catherine Bovill, University of Edinburgh, UK

Originally posted 24 May 2017

In many universities, students and staff are working in partnership to design, discuss and enhance learning and teaching. This ‘Students as Partners’ work can lead to many shared benefits for students and staff including: an increased level of engagement with learning and teaching; enhanced learning and teaching practices; and an enhanced meta-cognitive understanding of learning and teaching processes (Bovill et al. 2011; Cook-Sather et al, 2014).

Around the world, with greater numbers of students travelling to study in other countries, many students and lecturers expect curricula to reflect the increasingly international world in which we live. Combining these two trends is one way to ensure that we value and maximise the diverse perspectives and contributions of all students and staff to influence internationalised curricula, global learning agendas and campus culture.

Yet many staff may lack the experience or confidence to establish and maintain partnerships with students focused on learning and teaching. Staff often lack the time, space and opportunities to discuss and practise what partnership might mean within their own teaching or student support settings. In response to this, a few years ago I designed a new ‘Student Engagement’ course for academic staff as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The course aimed to provide opportunities to explore definitions of, and research evidence about, student engagement in higher education. Participants were invited to investigate and discuss approaches to enhancing student engagement in relation to their practice. Throughout the course, I regularly used teaching approaches and exercises that highlighted key research and practice on student engagement but that also modelled ways to engage students, and which staff could repurpose and use within their own teaching as ways to enhance engagement.

I designed one of the classes to include opportunities for staff participants to share responsibility for teaching the class. Participants were invited to test out, share something, or pose questions about student engagement by bidding for slots of time in class, several weeks before the class took place. Staff were creative and chose to lead a variety of learning initiatives. For example, one participant from Urban Studies planned to redesign a 10-week lecture series. The key elements of this redesign were:  two interactive lectures given by the lecturer at the beginning of the semester, followed by groups of students exploring a different topic from the rest of the lecture series and presenting their findings, then finishing each lecture with discussion, and any additional points the lecturer  considered important but missing from the student presentations. This lecturer presented her idea to the other staff participants and posed a series of questions to elicit constructive feedback and suggestions about the plan. At the end of the course, she expressed her delight in how helpful colleagues from different disciplines had been (she believed that the process had been more constructive and generative than if she had presented her ideas solely to colleagues in her own discipline). She also described having greater confidence to carry out an adapted plan following the end of the course.

Inviting staff to become partners in professional development courses can offer opportunities for them to test out ideas in a safer space and can support them in gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of authentic engagement and partnership. These opportunities make it more likely that they will feel able to practice partnership in their own teaching. There is scope to consider providing similar experiences for staff that focus more explicitly on student-staff partnerships in internationalising the curriculum. Creating time and space to explore partnership working with students, as well as the value of drawing on multiple cultural perspectives, has the potential to enable staff to envisage new possibilities and to shift practices for the benefit of higher education.


Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A. and Felten, P. (2011) Changing participants in pedagogical planning: students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design and curricula, International Journal for Academic Development 16 (2), 133-145.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, P. (2014) Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.