Students as partners as a threshold concept for students and teachers?

One of my goals as a teacher is to change culture towards responsibility for student learning being shared equally between teachers and students. This is an idea that is met with some resistance, both from students who need to put in more work, and from teachers. An article by Cook-Sather (2014) sheds light on difficulties teachers often experience when letting go of traditional understandings of the relationship between teacher and students, and adopting this new form of collaboration with students:

Taking on a students as partners mindset is described as a threshold concept for teachers: a gateway that, once crossed, opens up a whole new world. While walking through such a portal is transformative and irreversible (evidence of both is given from teacher reflections after they have adopted the new mindset), it is also troublesome. Especially for new teachers who are struggling with legitimacy issues, accepting students as equal partners can be a daunting and difficult process, where students might be perceived as adversaries rather than partners, or as not contributing any new and inspiring thought.

Crossing the threshold might be aided by academic developers inviting for reflection, or by supporting teachers in taking small actions towards giving students more responsibility on a confined and “safe” aspect of the course (note by Mirjam: for some ideas, check out our collection here!). The beginner-level one-on-one setting of teacher and student in partnership (for example working with student representatives) can then, in the long run, be widened to include more students. Providing spaces for reflection, discussion, and revision within and beyond course settings (for example also including educational researchers) can support the transformation towards students as partners.

Reading quotes from teachers struggling to see the benefit of collaborating with students on developing their teaching opened my eyes to struggles with the changing relationship – especially around seeing the student partners as enemies rather than supportive partners — that I did not anticipate for our own application, but that might quite possibly exist. This might be another aspect of threshold concepts – that it is retrospectively difficult to imagine what life was like before crossing the threshold. Therefore, reading this article was a good reminder that supporting reflections on roles, identities, relationships should be an important part of any project if we want to successfully implement students as partners.

Alison Cook-Sather (2014) Student-faculty partnership in explorations of
pedagogical practice: a threshold concept in academic development, International Journal for Academic Development, 19:3, 186-198, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2013.805694

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