Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Retrospective

written by admin on November 4, 2020 in CEL Retrospective and Student Voices and Student-Faculty Partnership with no comments

by Sophia Abbot and Cameron Shirley

In their book Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (2014), Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten present a definition of and guiding principles for partnership work, both of which have remained relevant through the last six years. The authors identify the three guiding pillars of partnership as respect, reciprocity, and trust and define student-faculty partnership as: “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (6-7). This definition is not designed to falsely put students and faculty on equal footing, but instead gives space for both parties to contribute and know they are equally valued. This specific, yet inclusive, definition sets the stage for the rest of the book, which provides a practical guide to student-faculty partnership.

Readers will find examples of student-faculty partnership work at the individual and program level in this guide. Each chapter provides a space for faculty to imagine this work at an individual course level without needing significant institutional support. For example, the authors describe partnership work at University College Dublin where two faculty worked with a small group of third-year students to redesign their Introduction to Human Geography module in a first-year geography course. From small examples like this, to a longer case study of the Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) Program at Bryn Mawr College, readers see a wide range of partnership strategies that have been previously put into practice. Another strength of the student-faculty partnership experience described here is that it is not isolated to a specific disciplinary context, nor do the students need to be in a specific degree program to make this partnership work. The examples throughout the text range from engineering to writing, from pharmacology to geography.

In addition to making student-faculty partnership work accessible through different scales, Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten make this a user-friendly guide designed for practitioners to read and then take practical action. From addressing common questions about student interest and engagement to discussion of outcomes and assessments, this book provides faculty an on-ramp to begin engaging with students as partners. In addition to sharing strengths of partnership programs, the sixth chapter focuses on challenges in student-faculty partnerships. This further emphasizes the actionable nature of the text and offers guidance for recognizing and navigating challenges such as vulnerability for both students and faculty and encourages individuals or collaboratives to “start small” (138). As the literature on student-faculty partnerships has grown, there continues to be a deep focus on strategies and implementation, but there is also greater attention paid to theory and frameworks.

Scholarship since Engaging Students as Partners

Since the release of the book, the field of Students as Partners practice and scholarship has grown at what feels like an exponential rate. Some elements of the book, such as the wide-ranging case studies, have only been reinforced by the diversity of practice and scale in which partnership has been explored. In a 2017 meta-analysis of empirical articles in this field, Mercer-Mapstone et al. reviewed numerous examples and program types with focuses addressing each of the themes Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten (2014) identify. In other words, Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s invitation for partnership to happen in many ways has been fully embraced in higher education.

These new examples and studies have also shed light on some elements of partnership that were only briefly explored in Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s text, including the different experiences of faculty and staff partners, and the role of students in academic development and other professional staff spaces. Cook-Sather, Bahti, and Ntem’s (2020) book, Pedagogical Partnerships: A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education has done some of the work connecting professional staff and academic developers in particular to partnership practices. While the 2014 text focused explicitly on faculty (as the subtitle indicates), Pedagogical Partnerships offers guidance for students and those working in co-curricular academic spaces in higher education as well. Other examples of partnership are being published in academic development (e.g. Doktor et al. 2019; Felten et al. 2019; Impastato and Topper 2020; and Marquis et al. 2016), educational technology (e.g. Moriyama and Kindick 2019) and libraries (e.g. Pittaway 2016), and partnership is also being called for in higher institutional levels, because of our current global pandemic (Addy, Cook-Sather, and Felten 2020).

On a more theoretical level, scholars internationally have engaged deeply with Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s definition, questioning in conference discussions, book clubs, and editorials if students and faculty really can contribute equally to a shared goal. Most writers have embraced their definition, holding perhaps more strictly to it than the authors originally intended, thinking deeply about power and hierarchy in relationships and wondering what is truly possible in persistently power-laden relationships. Cook-Sather, Bahti, and Ntem (2020) address this questioning of the word “equal” in their updated guide. An editorial in the International Journal for Students as Partners also addresses the language of “students as partners” itself as centering students in possibly counter-productive ways (Cook-Sather et al. 2018). The introduction to The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education (Mercer-Mapstone and Abbot 2020) likewise seeks to refine the definition of partnership. We see this definition work continuing to evolve and grow with the field. Additionally, as the field grows in prominence, we see opportunities to connect more meaningfully to scholars working in areas of research such as leadership for change, social justice, student agency, undergraduate research, service-learning, and more whose work and ideologies often align closely to Students as Partners scholars.

Finally, many readers have very intentionally embraced student-faculty partnership and Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s work as a tool for advancing justice and equity on college campuses. Since 2014, scholars have called for partnership to help “envision and create a university for all rather than for just some” (O’Shea 2018), as a method for mutual empowerment (Abbot 2018), as a way of informing and advancing conversations on supporting equity-seeking students (Cook-Sather 2018), and as a tool for advancing epistemic justice (de Bie et al. 2019). As with the work of defining partnership itself, we see partnership for justice and equity as an essential theme for future work and research.

Future Paths

As the field has grown, our understanding of the potential of partnership has deepened, and new directions for research have multiplied. As mentioned above, we see roads being laid in the areas of student-professional staff partnerships, the terms we use for partnership, and partnership for justice and equity. We highlight several more emerging research directions below. The topics have come from observations we have made based on our study of the Engaging Students text and our work in the field.

How are faculty and staff experiences in partnership different from student experiences?

A comprehensive literature review (Mercer-Mapstone et al. 2017) found that authors of articles on partnership “reported considerably more outcomes for students than for staff.” Some authors have begun to take up that thread of research (see Guitman and Marquis 2020, for example), but it continues to be an area needing more study—especially regarding the experiences of equity-seeking staff and faculty.

How do we identify and encourage partnership work at community colleges?

While student-faculty partnerships have the opportunity to create more inclusive and equitable learning environments, community colleges–the environments that more often serve students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds–have not been explored deeply in the literature. In Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten (2014), the Community College of Philadelphia is mentioned once in a discussion of their collaboration with Bryn Mawr College. Additionally, Drummond and Owens (2010) used video documentation to study how students co-construct concepts in a chemistry class at North Seattle Community College. However, beyond these examples, explorations of co-creation and partnership in the community college context are scarce. One challenge is that much of this work at community colleges may go unnoticed or unstudied as a result of terminology differences. And with contingent faculty making up two-thirds of faculty at community colleges (Hurlburt and McGarrah 2016), the bandwidth for one-off partnership projects may be limited and compensation for both students and faculty may be even more critical. In spite of these challenges, we see this as a key space for future developments and learning for the partnership community.

How can partnership practices be built into university governance structures?

Some really exciting work has begun emerging in the UK regarding student academic representation systems (also called Student Unions and somewhat equivalent to US student government systems, though generally with more recognized campus authority). Flint and Goddard (2020) explore the way partnership framing would enhance the work of these student representatives and larger systems, and the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS 2015) has explicitly called for using partnership as a framing model. Beyond student governance, Addy, Cook-Sather, and Felten (2020) have very recently recommended involving students in larger institutional processes and decision-making. We echo that call: recommending both the process of partnership in governance as well as new research on this practice.

What are promising methods and methodologies to studying partnership work?

Enough empirical scholarship exists at this point to look more closely at how we study partnership and to make recommendations to new scholars in the field. Particular methods and methodologies may especially lend themselves to the exploration of this human-centered and often very individualized practice. While these recommendations should not serve as outer limits to what is possible, they may help reinforce best practice in a field of scholarship to which many are coming from afar.

Can partnership support more inclusive online classroom environments in the age of COVID-19 and beyond?

Many colleges and universities returned to classes in remote and hybrid forms this fall amidst the continuing global pandemic. This online space provides an opportunity to partner with students in small ways that may help students, and faculty, be more successful in the unexpected, and potentially unwanted, online environment. As Abbot and Stein (2020) describe in their blog post, while published studies on online learning are helpful for faculty building their courses in an online environment, these studies are focused on traditional online courses where students are choosing to learn online. In contrast, our current environment places many students who traditionally choose face-to-face courses, for a myriad of reasons, in an unfamiliar online environment. Abbot and Stein offer several suggestions for including students in course design and planning, such as asking about their preferred methods of teaching and learning and asking about prior course knowledge. While many institutions will go back to in-person courses, there is no question that COVID-19 will expand the ability of institutions to offer online instruction. By engaging students in partnership work in the online environment, we believe faculty can create more inclusive and engaged online learning experiences.


Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s “budding movement” of student-faculty partnerships has bloomed and a partnership movement is weaving through certain higher education circles. While there is much work to be done, our current efforts to reimagine teaching and learning across higher education will continue to benefit from student voice and from partnership among students, faculty, and staff in co-creating learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.



Abbot, Sophia. 2017. “Book Review of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.” International Journal for Students as Partners 1 (2). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v1i2.3230.

Abbot, Sophia, and Geneva Stein. 2020. September 7. “Ask Your Students: The Value of Student Input on Online Course Design.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), September 7, 2020. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ask-your-students-the-value-of-student-input-on-online-course-design.

Addy, Tracie Marcella, Alison Cook-Sather, and Peter Felten. 2020. “Partnering with Students Is Critical Now More than Ever.” University Business Media, August 27, 2020. https://universitybusiness.com/partnering-with-students-is-critical-now-more-than-ever/.

Cook-Sather, Alison. 2018. “Listening to Equity-Seeking Perspectives: How Students’ Experiences of Pedagogical Partnership Can Inform Wider Discussions of Student Success.” Higher Education Research & Development 37 (5): 923–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2018.1457629.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem. 2019. Pedagogical Partnerships. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. https://doi.org/10.36284/celelon.oa1.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten. 2014. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Kelly E. Matthews, Anita Ntem, and Sandra Leathwick. 2018. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Students as Partners.” International Journal for Students as Partners 2 (2): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3790.

De Bie, Alise, Elizabeth Marquis, Alison Cook-Sather, and Leslie Patricia Luqueño. 2019. “Valuing Knowledge(s) and Cultivating Confidence: Contributions of Student–Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships to Epistemic Justice.” In Innovations in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, edited by Jaimie Hoffman, Patrick Blessinger, and Mandla Makhanya, 16:35–48. Emerald Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2055-364120190000016004.

Doktor, Stephanie, Dorothe Bach, Sophia Abbot, and Jacob Hardin. 2019. “At the Threshold: A Case Study of a Partnership between a Student Organization and an Educational Development Center.” International Journal for Students as Partners 3 (1).

Drummond, Tom, and Kalyn Shea Owens. 2010. “Capturing Students’ Learning.” In Engaging Student Voices in the Study of Teaching and Learning, edited by Carmen Werder and Megan M. Otis, 162-184. Stylus.

Felten, Peter, Sophia Abbot, Jordan Kirkwood, Aaron Long, Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka, Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, and Roselynn Verwoord. 2019. “Reimagining the Place of Students in Academic Development.” International Journal for Academic Development 24 (2): 192–203. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2019.1594235.

Flint, Abbi, and Hannah Goddard. 2020. “Power, Partnership, and Representation.” In The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education, edited by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Sophia Abbot, 73–85. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/books/power-of-partnership/chapter-4/.

Guitman, Rachel, and Elizabeth Marquis. 2020. “A Radical Practice?” In The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education, edited by Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and Sophia Abbot, 136–50. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/books/power-of-partnership/chapter-9/.

Hurlburt, Steven, and Michael McGarrah. 2016. “The Shifting Academic Workforce: Where Are the Contingent Faculty?” TIAA Institute. https://deltacostproject.org/sites/default/files/products/Shifting-Academic-Workforce-November-2016_0.pdf.

Impastato, Jillian, and Langley Topper. 2020. “Support Systems and Transgressive Hierarchies: Insights We Gained through the Transition Online While Planning for Pedagogical Partnership.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education 30: 6. https://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss30/2/.

Marquis, Elizabeth, Varun Puri, Stephanie Wan, Arshad Ahmad, Lori Goff, Kris Knorr, Ianitza Vassileva, and Jason Woo. 2016. “Navigating the Threshold of Student–Staff Partnerships: A Case Study from an Ontario Teaching and Learning Institute.” International Journal for Academic Development 21 (1): 4–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2015.1113538.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, and Sophia Abbot, eds. 2020. The Power of Partnership: Students, Staff, and Faculty Revolutionizing Higher Education. Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. https://doi.org/10.36284/celelon.oa2.

Mercer-Mapstone, Lucy, Sam Lucie Dvorakova, Kelly E. Matthews, Sophia Abbot, Breagh Cheng, Peter Felten, Kris Knorr, Elizabeth Marquis, Rafaella Shammas, and Kelly Swaim. 2017. “A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education.” International Journal for Students as Partners 1 (1). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v1i1.3119.

Moriyama, Jacie, and Samuel Kindick. 2019. “Using the ‘Students as Partners’ Framework to Support Teaching and Learning.” Educause Review. January 30, 2019. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2019/1/using-the-students-as-partners-framework-to-support-teaching-and-learning.

National Union of Students. 2015. “A Manifesto for Partnership.” https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/a-manifesto-for-partnership.

O’Shea, Sarah. 2018. “Equity and Students as Partners: The Importance of Inclusive Relationships.” International Journal for Students as Partners 2 (2). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3628.

Pittaway, Sarah. 2016. “Engaging Students, Shaping Services: The Changing Face of Student Engagement at The Hive.” Insights the UKSG Journal 29 (3): 249–57. https://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.315.


Sophia Abbot has worked in the realm of student-faculty partnerships and SoTL since she was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr College. She worked as a fellow at Trinity University’s teaching center and a Graduate Apprentice at Elon University’s Center for Engaged learning before starting her Ph.D in Higher Education at George Mason University in Fall 2020. Sophia has previously published on the topic of students as partners on the CEL blog and elsewhere.

Cameron Shirley first became interested in partnership work while in the M.A. in Higher Education program at Elon University. She currently works at Davidson County Community College where she directs a Title III grant. Cameron supports teaching and learning through her work at the college and continues to study promising practices for engaging students at two and four-year institutions.  


How to cite this CEL Retrospective:

Abbot, Sophia, and Cameron Shirley. 2020. November 4. “Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Retrospective.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog). https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/engaging-students-as-partners-in-learning-and-teaching-a-retrospective.