5 Ideas to Shift Learning into a Co-created Teacher and Student Partnership

Four college students and a professor designing a house

Learning happens when students and faculty work together to co-create education. That is what Allison Cook-Sather, Peter Felten, and Catherine Bovill promise in their book, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (2014). Authentic and effective partnerships, they argue, “position both students and faculty as learners as well as teachers; it brings different but comparably valuable forms of expertise to bear on the educational process.” This paradigmatic shift in higher education is changing how I teach.  

The literature on teaching and learning in the last twenty years has challenged higher education to move from an instruction-centered to a learning-centered paradigm, shifting the role of the teacher from the sage-one-the-stage to the guide-on-the-side (Barr & Tagg, 1995). Active Learning Classrooms, as they are often called, demand the use of higher-order thinking skills through analysis and synthesis—by doing instead of listening, essentially (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Debates, collaborative assignments, and case studies yield deeper learning experiences. Parallel to this literature, a smaller, less headed chorus of voices has pushed the idea of the learning paradigm further, challenging a central tenant of education: the roles of teacher and students. This scholarship asks: Typically teachers teach to students. What if they teach with students?

Student-faculty partnerships are defined 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” (Cook-Sather, et. al. 2014).

There are a myriad of ways students and faculty can collaborate, from designing elements of a course and assessing student work to redesigning curricula and developing research projects (Cook-Sather et. al. 2014, Werder & Otis 2010, Mihans, et. al., 2008). Research on these partnerships demonstrates significant benefits for all participants; students report deeper engagement in courses and increased metacognitive awareness, while faculty report an awareness of students’ experiences that transform how they think about and practice teaching (Cook-Sather, et. al. 2014).

But piloting these partnerships in higher education comes with a set of challenges. The power differentials between student and teacher are deeply engrained in our educational institutions, making it difficult to challenge simply by working together. Faculty members need time and institutional support to convince colleagues (and even undergraduates themselves) that students have equally important insights about improving teaching and learning. While the aforementioned literature advocates a radical revision of student and teacher roles by sharing authority in the learning sphere, I suggest intrigued faculty start small. To harness the transformational power of student-faculty partnerships, you do not have to overhaul your entire course. Small changes to a single lesson plan or in-class activity offer a way to make incremental shifts in the classroom—shifts which give students a stake in their learning experiences and foster deep learning. Here are some ideas for engaging your students:

  • Design an in-class activity together: ask students what sort of work they want to do to practice a given skill; give them options to choose from and assign them roles in implementing the final choice.
  • Create major assignment(s): this moves beyond simply letting students pick their own paper topic and towards letting them pick the nature of the work altogether. Set aside time in class to come up with ideas and draft an assignment prompt. You’ll be surprised how ambitious and creative they get when they are in control of their own learning experiences.
  • Allow students to pick a course topic, choose readings, and determine the nature of out-of-class preparation.
  • Grading rubric: design one together to determine a model of success and a threshold for each grading level; talking about this out loud will help students better understand how to prepare for and complete the assignment.
  • Ask a few students, who have taken your course, for feedback on the textbook, tone of the syllabus, or achievability of the final project.


In case you are interested, I presented a webinar about this topic; it is below, and the presentation document is posted here.



About the Author

Stephanie Doktor

Stephanie Doktor

Stephanie Doktor is a Ph.D. candidate in the Music Department at the University of Virginia. As a Graduate Student Associate of UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence, she helped launch Co-Create UVA: a new student-led initiative, which fosters collaborations between students and faculty and trains student consultants to help faculty improve teaching and learning.) Stephanie has taught in higher education for seven years. Her favorite course objectives implore students to listen to the sounds of race, gender, and class in U.S. twentieth-century music. This interest stems from her dissertation, which examines the myriad ways black and white composers used jazz in modernist composition to confront America’s color line in the 1920s. Stephanie especially enjoys helping undergraduates from outside the music department develop critical listening skills and historical perspectives of music.



Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), 12-25.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Number 1. Washington, D.C.: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mihans, I. I., Richard, J., Long, D. T., & Felten, P. (2008). Power and expertise: Student-faculty collaboration in course design and the scholarship of teaching and learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(2), 16.

Werder, C., & Otis, M. M. (2010). Engaging student voices in the study of teaching and learning. Sterling, Va: Stylus Publishing, LLC.