Students as partners

Partnerships With Students in Learning and Teaching

Partnering with students in teaching and course design is a powerful practice that can transform teaching. Relationship rich environments of learning are known to lead to improvements in student learning and the experiences of learning (Felten and Lambert 2020). Cathy Bovill (2019) defines “partnership” as the “co-creation of learning and teaching [that] occurs when students work collaboratively with one another and with the instructor to create components of curricula and/or pedagogical approaches” (p 91.) The types of instructor-student partnership vary greatly, from inviting students to choose some of the course topics, contributing readings, writing exam questions or choosing the weighting or format of assignments (Didicher, 2016) to co-facilitating course sessions and participating in teaching-inquiry or curriculum renewal projects.

There are many interpretations of partnering with students. Healey, Flint and Harrington (2014) argue that partnership is a “specific form of student engagement… a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself.” Felten (2014) and Mercer-Mapstone et. al. (2017) suggest that partnership initiatives occur in four major areas, with varying disciplinary contexts and learning/teaching circumstances. These are represented in Figure 1.

  1. Learning, teaching and assessment of learning
  2. Subject-based inquiry
  3. Scholarship of teaching and learning
  4. Curriculum and pedagogic practice


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1. Respect, Reciprocity, Shared Responsibility for Learning

When instructors and students partner in the spirit of “Students as Partners” (SaP), three major principles are found in the relationship between instructors and students: respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility in learning. The intentional presence of these principles reshapes the relationship between instructors and students and over time leads to changes in institutional culture, improved outcomes, belonging and achievements in learning. To fully realize the affordance and optimize students as partners in their own learning, we must move beyond “simply having students talk with peers or to be active in a classroom towards co-curricular, co-investigative and co-assessments" according to Felten and Lambert (2020).

2. Intention and Authenticity

Making the decision to partner in an authentic way is the first step towards achieving full potential in a relational pedagogy. Clarifying intention, motivations and depth of partnership is essential to defining the relationships and the nature of the involvement of students. Considering students’ experiences, motivations, reservations and how best to design and implement relationship-rich learning and teaching can optimize opportunities and create a foundation for successful experiences for instructors and students (Felten, 2014).

3. Communication, Expectations, Space

Setting clear expectations based on clear intentions is the gateway to clear, reciprocal communication that will support a space for partnering with students. Creating a space for partnership involves emotional and conceptual aspects of defining the scope and depth of the partnering and context, as well as the ongoing communication and presence that is necessary for successful partnership, particularly in institutional settings where sharing power with students can be challenging (Mercer-Mapstone et al, 2017).



There are many ways to engage students as partners that range from simple, low stakes with few resource requirements to intensive, complex with extensive requirements. Bovill (2019) identifies a typology for partnering in co-creating and planning that illustrates students can engage in different roles, including representative, consultant, collaborator, co-designer and co-leader/co-facilitator, enabling a range of options for instructors to consider. Partnerships vary on a continuum from light to deep, simple to complex, requiring different levels of resources, time, risk and commitments from students as well as instructors. The majority of the examples in this section are learning, teaching, and assessment partnerships. If you would like to learn more about partnerships in curriculum development or other areas, please set up a consultation with a CEE team member.

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1. Student as Representative - Responding to the instructor’s design, intention and providing feedback.

1.1. Student reps in a large class

A subset of the student representatives from a large course (~10-15 students) collect feedback from their peers on an aspect of the course and share with the instructor through a focus group. Examples of feedback they might collect include: pace, number of readings, level of difficulty, concepts students are finding challenging, usefulness of study guides, level of participation, motivation, timing of assignments & workload in other courses.

1.2. Formative feedback on course design

Students provide feedback to the instructor on a specific aspect of the course design (through survey, focus groups, process analysis?) leading to improvements in the course, for example clarity of group project, incorporation of the readings/textbook, relevance of final paper topics, design of lab, or fieldwork.

2. Student as Consultant

2.1. Students choose the format of assessments

The class works together as a group to choose how they want to demonstrate their learning in one of the modules of the course (e.g. choose between poster presentation, group project, e-portfolio, video presentation, traditional essay). Group decisions can be made by voting or by consensus.

2.2. Students provide feedback on exam questions

All students in the class are invited to review questions used for formative assessment (such as a practice midterm, clicker-questions, or in-class quizzes) and provide feedback on clarity and/or level of difficulty. The instructor applies this feedback when creating the formal assessments, such as the midterm or final exam.

2.3. Students as teaching consultants

In a study by Addy et al. (2022) students served as consultants supporting instructors’ in their efforts to make their teaching more inclusive in a variety of disciplines. Students helped conduct focus groups without the instructor present, created midterm feedback surveys, helped include decolonial perspectives in a Francophone studies course; provided recommendations for including more diverse perspectives in a grant writing course and helped reduce math anxiety and promote belonging and growth mindset in an Engineering course.

3. Student as involved Cooperator  

3.1. Students contribute exam questions

Students can be invited to write exam questions as part of a formative assessment activity. Students chose the theme and topic of the question as well as answers to this question. The class votes on the most suitable exam questions for inclusion in the final exam.

3.2. Students create learning tools

Students in a linear algebra course in Applied Math built an app that generates increasingly challenging example problem sets with solutions - supporting student learning, reducing TA and instructor time in coming up with practice questions for students.

3.3. Students act as peer mentors

Students in the fourth year Science course were invited to create study guides and mentorship resources for first and second year students to help them succeed in early coursework that is seen as challenging, but foundational to progress in the degree. Some of the resources focused on understanding threshold concepts. 

4. Student as Collaborator/Co-Designer - in the following examples students collaborate with the instructor to design assessments, or other aspects of the course.

4.1. Students co-design a new learning experience with the instructor or with community partners

In a study by Fortune et. al. (2019) occupational therapy students at an Australian university helped co-design an international, community engaged learning course; partnering with community organizations in Vietnam and India.

4.2. Students as collaborators in teaching inquiry

Students collaborated with the instructor to design a study on the impact of teaching, and serve as co-researchers during the implementation of the study (Shank and Cruz, 2023).

5. Student as Leader - students take on full responsibility for the design, implementation and assessment of a course that they co-lead with the faculty member.

5.1. Students design and facilitate experiential learning

Students design short experiential learning activities based on one of the course modules and facilitate the activity for their peers. The learning activities at Western University’s Faculty of Health Sciences were created by students to promote an understanding of Aging in a Health and Aging course, in collaboration with 3M National Teaching fellow Dr. Aleksandra Zecevic.

5.2. Student teams create learning modules

Students at McMaster University participating in an Applied Curriculum Design in Science course created learning modules that were then incorporated into the university’s first year Science Foundations course. Students worked collaboratively with educational developers and with faculty to develop and revise modules.



Relationship-rich partnerships between instructors and students have the potential to foster a more inclusive and dynamic relational learning environment that ultimately leads to better outcomes. Partnerships with students in relationship-rich pedagogies help instructors to be better teachers, students better learners and all better citizens (Felten, 2014; Mercer-Mapstone et al, 2017). There are well documented benefits and positive outcomes that result from partnering with students including deeper learning, increased confidence and self-efficacy, improved academic performance and leadership. For instructors, there is a sense of enhanced satisfaction, new beliefs about teaching, enhanced trust of students and a more fulfilling teaching experience (Mercer-Mapstone, 2017). In an environment of relationship-rich education (Felten and Lambert, 2020), that embodies respect, reciprocity and shared responsibility for learning, every student experiences a genuine welcome and deep care, all are inspired to learn and to develop a web of significant relationships that contribute to a sense of belonging and finally all students explore questions of personal meaning and purpose.


While the benefits to partnering outweigh the challenges, there can be tensions, which can be mitigated by considering the following (Bovill 2016).

  • Integrating a partnering approach will benefit from preparing students and instructors.
  • Sharing power and authority offers opportunities for faculty to explore innovations and alternative teaching and pedagogic practices.
  • Performance expectations for the scope and depth of partnership needs consideration.
  • Institutional cultures and practices may require creative solutions.


Begin with self-reflection or teaching team reflection using these questions as a guide:

  1. In what ways are students already partnering in my course/our curriculum?
  2. How might students and instructors benefit from a partnering approach?
  3. What scope of partnership might work as a starting place?
  4. How could the principles of partnership be applied in simple but impactful ways?
  5. Where do I/we go for additional support?

Further Reading

  • Addy, T. M., Berkove, E., Borzone, M., Butler, M., Cham, F., deSaussure, A., Exarhos, A., Mancuso, M., Rizk, M., Rossmann, T., Ruebeck, C., & Younas, H. (2022). Student pedagogical partnerships to advance inclusive teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal for Students As Partners6(1), 81–89.
  • Cook-Sather, A. Boville, C., Felten, P., (2014). Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching : A Guide for Faculty, Wiley.  ProQuest Ebook Central
  • Bovill, C. (2019). A co-creation of learning and teaching typology: What kind of co-creation are you planning or doing?. International Journal for Students As Partners3(2), 91–98.
  • Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., Felten, P. (2016).  Addressing potential challenges in co-creating learning and teaching: overcoming resistance, navigating institutional norms and ensuring inclusivity in student–staff partnerships. Higher Education, 71, 195–208.
  • Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felten, P. (2011). Students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design and curricula: Implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133–145.
  • Didicher, N. (2016). Bento and buffet: Two approaches to flexible summative assessment. Collected Essays on Teaching and Learning, v. 9 167-173.
  • Fortune, T., Borkovic, S., Bhopti, A., Somoza, R., Nhan, H. C., & Rangwala, S. (2019). Transformative Learning Through International Project-Based Learning in the Global South: Applying a Students-as-Partners Lens to a “High-Impact” Capstone. Journal of Studies in International Education23(1), 49–65.
  • Healey, M. , Flint, A, and Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through Partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Academy, Yorkshire.
  • Healey, M. , Flint, A, and Harrington, K. (2016). Students as partners: Reflections on a conceptual[1]  model. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 4 (2): 8-20
  • Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., & Swaim, K. (2017). A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education. International Journal for Students As Partners1(1).
  • Peseta, Tai, Amani Bell, Amanda Clifford, Annette English, Jananie Janarthana, Chelsea Jones, Matthew Teal & Jessica Zhang (2016) Students as ambassadors and researchers of assessment renewal: puzzling over the practices of university and academic life.  International Journal for Academic Development, 21:1, 54-66, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2015.1115406
  • Shank, M., & Cruz, L. (2023). Driver’s seat: A qualitative study of transformational student partnerships in SoTL. International Journal for Students As Partners, 7(1), 110–127.

Try This...

  • Ask students what they want to learn and how they might self-assess their progress.
  • Ask students to recommend optional readings for one of the topics in the course.
  • Suggest that your students co-create an assignment, a rubric, or an activity.
  • Initiate student partners into curriculum renewal processes.
  • At the end of the course, invite students to write a one paragraph letter to students taking the course the following term, sharing study strategies and advice for student success.
  • Invite upper year students to create a video summary of how they have applied learning from first-year courses throughout their program and share with your first-year class.

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