Dan Bernstein on student-faculty partnership
by Ketevan Kupatadze
Recently I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Dr. Daniel Bernstein about his experience on partnering with students in the field of teaching and learning. In this blog, I summarize some of the most salient points that Dr. Bernstein made, hoping that his experience and expertise will help us develop the types of partnership that will prove to be more successful both for faculty and for students.
Throughout his career, Dr. Bernstein has partnered with both graduate and undergraduate students and he talked to me about some of the differences that these two kinds of partnerships involved. When partnering with a graduate student, with whom he also co-authored an article (Bunnell & Bernstein, 2014), he was looking for a highly sophisticated, analytical teacher who was familiar with non-traditional active and engaged method(s) of teaching and fully capable of co-designing the course.
With undergraduate students, Dr. Bernstein has partnered to re-design certain elements of his course after the student had taken it. In partnership with ONE student, he redesigned the final exam of the course, as well as the reading materials and weekly activities. In our conversation, Dr. Bernstein described in detail how he met with the student on a regular basis, and during each meeting they had an agenda (which he had written) that they followed. Since the student had already competed the course, he was familiar with its content. Each week, they talked about one week’s materials, assignments and activities. Another student made substantive contributions to the process of online writing done by student teams outside of class. Throughout the process, EACH student was free to suggest that they change a text used in the course, an assignment designed for the specific purpose, as well as any activity (individual or group). Dr. Bernstein pointed out that while he was open to listen and take into consideration the student’s suggestions, and most often they were extremely valuable and led to some fundamental changes in the course, his personal voice was always in conversation, never silent.
This collaboration proved to be extremely useful for Dr. Bernstein as he noticed that the changes that were being suggested by the students seemed more relevant for their lives, as well as resonated more with them. Students also realized that their observations were taken seriously and developed stronger, more confident voice and a higher self-esteem as a result of the collaboration. Students, with some guidance from their professor (planning, setting agenda, asking questions, etc.) were capable of contributing to changing or designing content of the course, creating exam(s), as well as individual and group activities.
I asked Dr. Bernstein to share advice for those who are considering partnering with students, as well as what aspects of partnership he valued the most and the least, and what lessons he had learned throughout these experiences. Here is what he said:
Not everybody who volunteers is up to the task. He had noticed that some students are unprepared or unwilling to engage in partnership since it is a highly active, engaged way of approaching their learning. And sometimes, when one stumbles upon this type of partnership in which one side isn’t ready to engage, it is hard to navigate through the situation. He confessed that he wasn’t sure he had ever figured out how to resolve such situations. I found this particularly relevant since we are now starting to talk about some of the pitfalls of student-faculty partnerships and dealing with a partnership that is not working seems to be the most challenging potential pitfalls. I have personally come upon partnerships that failed and didn’t really know how to end them properly or how to even acknowledge that they weren’t working, reflect on the reasons as to why, and move on.
Dr. Bernstein also noted that one sort of partnership, namely having a student as a mediator in the class, didn’t work for him. It caused misinformation, misunderstanding, and required much more ongoing supervision. It also interfered in a non-productive way in the dynamics of the classroom, the building of trust between the teaching faculty and the students. This experience reminded him of the importance of having realistic expectations when engaging in partnership with students, especially undergraduate ones. One has to think about the capabilities of undergraduate students, recognize the boundaries of what they can do and navigate these boundaries very carefully.
Talking about some of the lessons learnt through the experience of partnership, Dr. Bernstein mentioned that he saw how students engaged in this process were developing better understanding of what learning and teaching entailed. While in the beginning he was quite skeptical of the changes that this kind of pedagogy claimed to produce in students’ attitudes towards learning, later he developed a meta-cognitive portfolio as an assignment for his students to ask them to reflect on their learning process. He came to value metacognition as an important part of deeper understanding of teaching and learning.
For anyone interesting in or skeptical of partnering with students on pedagogical issues and course (re)design, Dr. Bernstein shared that it is a really good idea, one that he would encourage people to try. It is a rich way of learning from the people from the other end. He also suggested that one develop trust with students, so that they know that their opinions are valued and heard. Faculty don’t have to do everything the students suggest, but engage in a dialogue, be present for them in what they say, engage with them, listen and, when needed, disagree.
He also underscored the importance of a structured conversation: A conversation focused on actionable items and an agenda prepared beforehand so that everybody is on task. This, of course, doesn’t mean that one cannot allow the conversation to be open, but it does mean, in Dr. Bernstein’s opinion, that having an agenda set by the faculty avoids having enjoyable but meandering meetings that have fewer tangible results.
In closing, there was one additional detail Dr. Bernstein shared that I found quite relevant: He noted that he would not have partnered with students in the same way earlier in his career. Although he was continually interacting with students and interested in their feedback, his early collaboration was primarily around the procedures and delivery of the courses. Partnership with students on course design and content came later when he had developed more confidence, as well as a solid reputation as a teacher and a scholar. I thought that this comment was particularly interesting because of some of the claims that student-faculty partnership makes regarding its transformative, revolutionary powers of going against the system, and breaking down the hierarchies. While doing this, I wonder once again if those faculty who have yet to establish their careers, earned tenure, etc. feel especially vulnerable taking risky pedagogical decisions and/or experimenting with partnership. On the other hand, engaging in partnership when one is already an experienced and confident teacher underscores the point that this pedagogy is student oriented, it is guided with the desire to help students develop a better and deeper understanding of what teaching entails, how learning happens, and what their role is in the process of teaching and learning.
Bunnell, Sarah & Bernstein, Dan. 2014. “Improving Engagement and Learning Through Sharing Course Design with Students: A Multilevel Case.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 13. Retrieved from https://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss13/2/
Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships.