Positive Psychology and Partnerships
by Ketevan Kupatadze
I want to start this blog post with a confession. Before reading the article I discuss in this post, I was quite skeptical of one particular partnership model championed by Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges — one that partners students with faculty by having student consultants observe faculty’s classes to offer consistent feedback. While Bryn Mawr’s SALT program had developed an impressive model, including steps to prepare students for such task, as well as continuous support from the Center’s leadership both for participating faculty and students, I always thought that having someone, especially a student, come to my classes each and every day to offer criticism, even if with the intention of improving my teaching, was too much for me to handle. Placed in such a vulnerable position, I didn’t think that the dynamics of our relationship would be inductive to partnership.
This thought was reinforced by my personal experience with peer observations in which other faculty members were involved. Despite our good intentions, it always seemed that the observations were a discreet way of us criticizing each other. As such, they were rarely beneficial and frequently pointless or downright depressing. Instead, I have always argued in favor of a consistent dialogue about our teaching practices and philosophies, outside the classroom. Simply put, for me (and, I would suspect, for many of my colleagues), the fear of being judged when observed by peers wasn’t prompting positive change. Consequently, I thought that inviting a student to my classroom, on a regular basis, would be counterproductive, and I couldn’t see how this type of relationship would lead to partnership.
But “The Pedagogical Benefits of Enacting Positive Psychology Practices Through a Student-Faculty Partnership Approach to Academic Development,” written by Alison Cook-Sather, Joel Alden Schlosser, Abigail Sweeney, Laurel M. Peterson, Kimberly Wright Cassidy and Ana Colón Garcíawas, changed my mind, or at least made me see this practice with different lenses, acknowledging its potential. The article appears in the International Journal for Academic Development.
Cook-Sather and colleagues focus on “the ways in which student partners put the positive psychology principles of affirmation and strengths-based growth into practice in the context of Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT), the student–faculty pedagogical partnership program based at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges” (2018, p. 124). They emphasize the importance of constructive dialogue between faculty and students, seeing students as effective and capable dialogue partners, creating grounds for a collaborative process that is founded on the principles of positive psychology. According to the authors, while student partners are not trained in positive psychology methods, they “use the conceptual frame and particular practices positive psychology has to offer to illuminate this partnership work” (2018, p. 127). Using the examples of two partnerships, one semester-long and another year-long, the authors show how the use of “positive psychology practices of affirmation and encouragement of strengths-based growth” has enabled the participants to reach their pedagogical and learning goals (2018, p. 127). They write:
The SaLT program supports student partners in intentionally making explicit what is working well in their faculty partners’ classrooms and what strengths and capacities faculty already draw on to engage in successful practice. In the weekly meetings of student partners with Alison, there is extensive discussion about ‘expecting the best’ and learning to trust both faculty and student efforts and intentions. That is not to say that student and faculty partners avoid or ignore difficult issues; rather, partners start with focusing on what works and move from such affirmation to consider other possibilities in relation to that strengths-based core. (2018, p. 127)
The authors also give examples of how both faculty and students experienced the process and what they learned from it. In one students’ experience, the emphasis was placed on what worked well and how to build upon it in the future. Student partners reflected on why certain pedagogical practices that they observed were effective; at the same time, they engaged in dialogue with faculty who explained their own rationale behind certain practices, tasks, or assignments. For example, if faculty wanted to create a collaborative classroom environment, the student’s task when observing the class was to document what already worked and to later think of ways to enhance these practices and/or to expand them so that they are not limited to only one class session or one task/assignment. The authors maintain that “student partners’ focus on affirmation and re-affirmation builds trust and confidence” (2018, p. 129).
As faculty develop more trust and confidence, they also find in partnership an opportunity to have a dialogue, initially with their partner, and later with their students in class, about their pedagogical goals and the rationales behind the pedagogical choices they make. They also develop more confidence to explore new pedagogical ideas and to take pedagogical risks. Focusing on affirmation, as the authors argue, also makes disappointing moments less painful as faculty have already developed trusting and positive relationships with their student partners. Citing scholarship by Tang and Schmeichel, the authors write, “individuals who have engaged in self-affirmation have less extreme physiological responses to negative feedback” (2018, p. 130).
Supporting faculty, especially new faculty, using the framework of positive psychology by building on their strengths and successes rather than pointing out the deficits, and by drawing on positive emotions rather than negative ones, encourages growth and better positions faculty for challenges and even criticism. In their conclusion, Cook-Sather and colleagues highlight a student co-author’s reflection: “The beauty of the SaLT program approach, Abby reflects, lies in the spaces it creates for students and faculty to learn from one another and tailor their conversations, note-taking approaches, and brainstorming strategies to the goals of both learners. This provides a model for all faculty-student relationships and a crucial element of successful academic practice” (2018, p. 131).
To conclude, I want to reiterate that reading this article made me reconsider my previously held skeptical attitude towards the student consultants program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. I will definitely explore ways of partnering with students using positive psychology framework and founding the partnership on the principles of affirmation and positive reinforcement. This practice can be useful not only when inviting students to observe faculty’s classes, but also when partnering outside the classroom on projects such as course and/or curriculum (re)design. Furthermore, it made me wonder if similar approaches could be successfully employed when teaching in general, as a pedagogical practice: can we use positive psychology to focus on the strengths rather than the weaknesses of our students and, in this way, encourage learning?
Alison Cook-Sather, Joel Alden Schlosser, Abigail Sweeney, Laurel M. Peterson, Kimberly Wright Cassidy, & Ana Colón García. (2018). The pedagogical benefits of enacting positive psychology practices through a student–faculty partnership approach to academic development. International Journal for Academic Development, 23:2, 123-134. DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2017.1401539
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.
How to cite this post:
Kupatadze, Ketevan. (2019, January 16). Positive Psychology and Partnerships. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/what-does-sotl-have-to-do-with-students/