Partnering with Students to Improve Teaching and Learning
Faith Green is a fourth-year English major with a concentration in writing and publication.
Kellie Keeling is a fourth-year English major with a concentration in writing and publication and a minor in graphic design.
Zoë Phalen is a third-year English major with a concentration in writing and publication and a minor in Spanish.
Michael Rifenburg is an associate professor of English and CTLL Senior Faculty Fellow of Scholarly Productivity.
On Wednesday mornings, we gather on Zoom. We navigate poor internet connections, Microsoft Teams, and distracting background noise; we talk together about curriculum design, senior capstone courses, and how faculty and students can form a mutually beneficial partnership to improve campus learning and engagement.
We—an English professor and three English undergraduate students—are engaging in a pedagogical partnership with the goal of exploring the effectiveness of English 4880: Senior Capstone in Writing & Publication, a required class for English majors with a writing and publication concentration. Michael teaches English 4880; Faith, Kellie, and Zoë will take the course soon. If necessary, we will recommend changes to English 4880 in hopes of improving student learning and engagement.
Our partnership is inspired by what is often termed “students as partners” (SaP). SaP is an international approach within teaching and learning scholarship focused on re-envisioning the faculty and student relationship as one in which both serve as active agents in curriculum development, implementation, and assessment. As Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and colleagues (2017) write, by grounding SaP labor in a “values-based ethos,” students and faculty shift to become “co-teachers, co-inquirers, curriculum co-creators, and co-learners across all facets of the educational enterprise” (p. 2).
In the vignettes that follow, each of us offers our experience with our pedagogical partnership. We conclude by encouraging additional faculty and students at UNG to seek out opportunities to come together in meaningful ways to learn and grow, and we recommend additional resources on SaP.
When Dr. Rifenburg brought up the idea of pedagogical partnerships in spring 2020, I knew that this was something that I wanted to pursue. Two years ago, I had taken a class wherein I and many of my classmates were struggling to keep our heads above water. Our grades were barely at passing level. This reality was very difficult for me to comprehend because I was trying so hard. We were trying so hard. We couldn’t seem to crack the code that would allow us to pass with decent grades. I believe that part of the reason for which this class was so difficult was our professor. She was exactly the right person to teach a class like this, but she had been teaching it for so long that I believe she had grown distant from what it was like approaching the material with fresh eyes and, therefore, developed unrealistic expectations for students in the class. In our partnership, our research team has relied heavily on Pedagogical Partnerships by Alison Cook-Sather, Melanie Bhati, and Anita Ntem (2019), which notes that partnerships can assist faculty in “recognizing the humanity of their students” (p. 17). If I could somehow help introduce pedagogical partnerships to UNG, I feel that maybe I could help prevent so many others from struggling in certain classes like I did. I often look back and think that if my professor had help understanding what the learning situation was like from a student’s point of view, then maybe things would have been a lot different. By joining this team, I hope that I can work towards making students and professors partners in academia so that both parties can learn from each other and grow.
I’ve been in and out of college for some time now. I’ve switched between institutions, departments, and majors; it was hard for me to decide my path because I was navigating college completely alone, with little help from fellow students or faculty. After transferring to UNG in the Spring of 2019, I took a writing course with Professor Rifenburg. He instantly became a favorite professor, because he was not only knowledgeable about the content but also actively involved in helping us improve our writing. During this class he approached me about my interest in working with him for my required internship. I agreed and am now a member of this pedagogical partnership with professor Rifenburg, Faith, and Zoë. Engaging in this partnership has connected me with my own learning and clarified the path I want to take post-graduation. We work collaboratively to evaluate the senior capstone course at UNG and suggest any needed changes. The work can be confusing, but in our collaboration, we discuss the potential benefits of student-faculty collaboration in curriculum design. I hope my work in this partnership can be useful to future students struggling in college, and helpful in making any future improvements to the undergraduate experience.
I first learned about SaP in a hotel conference room in Baltimore. I had presented work I co-created with an undergraduate student, Emily Pridgen. After the presentation, an audience member introduced me to SaP praxis. It was a moment where I learned there was a term for what I was enacting. That was July 2019. Fast forward to March 2020 and the world shut down. We self-isolated. During quarantine, I read more about pedagogical partnerships. I read about relationship building and community and engagement and growing and learning together. The words I read hit me hard as I sat alone at my screen. I engage in SaP work because I strive for community and desire to build knowledge with others. It’s confusing and messy at times because relationships are confusing and messy at times and because building knowledge is sometimes (always?) confusing and messy. But I do this work because I firmly believe in building knowledge with others in a way that serves a wide variety of institutional stakeholders.
I was an incoming transfer student at UNG during the fall of 2019 and had recently changed my major to English. I was apprehensive about beginning a new major at a new place. That fall semester, I took four English classes, but I only enjoyed one of them. This class was taught by Dr. Rifenburg. The class was not particularly challenging. However, it was highly engaging and personal. Periodically, Dr. Rifenburg would ask me about my intentions with my degree and what I planned to pursue in the future. During one of these conversations, Dr. Rifenburg extended an invitation to me to be involved in a pedagogical partnership with him and a couple other students the following year. While having only begun this partnership this semester, I better understand why I most enjoyed Dr. Rifenburg’s class. He was the most informed, not just on the subject matter in which he was teaching, but also on the mindsets that students have toward learning. Our pedagogical partnership, like many others, would allow new and seasoned professors to gain student insight into the courses that they teach and perhaps methods by which they can more effectively teach their material and better engage future students.
As our individual vignettes illustrate, we entered into our partnership from different life experiences and for different reasons. But collectively, we strive to build knowledge together and to bring this knowledge back to our classrooms, particularly the capstone course English 4880.
According the American Association of Colleges and Universities, capstone courses are high-impact practices that facilitate engagement and can result in higher retention and one-semester persistence rates. We know high-impact practices are pedagogically effective… if employed effectively. We believe that course content and course delivery can be more effective for faculty and students when faculty and students work together.
We are too early into our work to offer concrete statements about English 4880 at UNG. But we do know that being together in partnership—faculty laboring alongside students—is a wonderful way to start bettering the teaching and learning environment at UNG for all. For readers of the CTLL blog, we invite you to think deeply about how UNG undergraduates might play a more active role in how you develop and refine course material. Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning offers an open-access book series that provides helpful insight into SaP praxis, and the open-access journal International Journal for Students as Partner regularly publishes profiles of faculty and students learning together. We recommend these two outlets as places to start exploring the possibilities of “students as partners” work.