Increasing Inclusivity through Pedagogical Partnerships between Students and Faculty

How do you create and sustain a classroom that is conducive to the learning of a diverse group of students? Since 2006, the Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) program has supported students and faculty as they form pedagogical partnerships to address this question. Through classroom observation, dialogue, and reflection, undergraduate students affirm faculty members’ already inclusive practices and catalyze shifts toward greater inclusivity.

Program Design and Participants

SaLT positions undergraduate students as paid pedagogical consultants to faculty who teach at Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and nearby colleges. (Different kinds of colleges and universities around the world employ similar partnership initiatives, some based on the SaLT model and some with other foundations.) Students bring life experiences informed by their identities, insights from their varied classroom experiences, and capacity to pose questions to help faculty identify their assumptions about learning and students. Thus, students both offer and develop knowledge of learning and teaching (de Bie et al. 2019) through their semester-long (and sometimes longer) collaborations with faculty. The student consultants are not enrolled in the courses on which they focus but visit one class session per week. They take notes on classroom interactions and pedagogical practices, attending first to issues their faculty partners identify and then exploring areas of focus the partners generate together.

Student consultants meet weekly with their faculty partners to affirm what is working well and note what might be revised to make classrooms and coursework more inclusive of and responsive to a diverse group of students (Cook-Sather 2015). Through attending an orientation, familiarizing themselves with extensive guidelines, and participating in weekly meetings with other student consultants and me in my role as director of the SaLT program, student consultants develop the language, confidence, empathy, and commitment to engage in constructive dialogue with their faculty partners. They also carry those capacities into all their teaching and learning relationships as well as other areas of their lives (Brunson 2018; Colón García 2017; Cook-Sather 2011, 2018a; Mejia 2019).

Of the 165 second-, third-, and fourth-year undergraduates who have participated in SaLT since its advent, ninety-eight self-identify as belonging to one or more of the following equity-seeking groups: African American, Asian American, Latinx, female, first-generation college student, low socioeconomic status, disabled, or queer. Student partners who are not from equity-seeking groups or are not majoring in the professor’s field of expertise can also draw on their experiences to help develop more inclusive practices (Daviduke 2018). Student consultants have partnered with more than 240 faculty members, including faculty with many years of teaching experience, who choose to participate for the benefits of partnership but no financial compensation, and incoming faculty, who can participate in such partnerships and a pedagogy seminar in exchange for a reduced teaching load in their first year (Cook-Sather 2016).

Program Development and Recommendations

A group of faculty, students, and administrators developed the SaLT program with the support of several grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They launched the program in response to requests from faculty to make their classrooms more inclusive and the desire of administrators to support pedagogical reflection. Students from underrepresented groups on campus participated in a focus group that helped conceptualize the program. They recommended that the first cohort of consultants be students of color (Cook-Sather 2018b).

Five faculty members (in chemistry, education, English, and psychology) and five student partners regularly reflected on their work together, and their reflections informed a set of interrelated recommendations for how faculty can develop inclusive, culturally responsive classrooms. These recommendations are not intended to be one-time, surefire strategies but rather starting points in a necessarily ongoing dialogue (Cook-Sather and Agu 2013):

1. Be explicit about aspects of pedagogical practices and classroom interactions that tend to remain implicit or assumed.

a. Make your stance and pedagogical rationale explicit.

b. Make expectations explicit, including both the professor’s and students’ expectations.

2. Interact with students and build strong human relationships while working through the subject matter.

a. Get to know students.

b. Share your own experiences.

3. Increase the number of literal and conceptual spaces provided in a class.

a. Provide various forums for participation.

b. Use multiple, inclusive examples and illustrations.

4. Investigate silence and advocacy, including who speaks with and to whom, and why and how they speak.

a. Analyze the role of silence in classrooms.

b. Be allies and advocates to students from underrepresented groups.

Faculty and student partners continue to act on and refine these recommendations. For an extensive discussion of each of them, see Cook-Sather and Des-Ogugua (2018).

Expanding Projects

In addition to the pedagogical partnerships, other projects have emerged through SaLT both organically and as a result of further grant support. For example, faculty have redesigned entire courses in partnership with student consultants (Charkoudian et al. 2015). SaLT student consultants have collaborated with the offices of access and support services on both Bryn Mawr’s and Haverford’s campuses to learn from students about their accessibility needs and the support faculty require to meet those needs.

Supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations through the Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts, four SaLT student consultants participated in the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The students attended nineteen sessions and drew on these and their experiences as pedagogical consultants to develop a three-hour workshop for faculty and staff at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and nearby colleges. This workshop inspired faculty participants to create additional forums to explore the issues raised, such as a summer journal club focused on reading research pertaining to accessibility and obstacles to inclusion.

A Lumina Foundation grant awarded to Haverford College has supported both a faculty pedagogy seminar and one-on-one student-faculty partnerships focused on working toward greater equity, inclusion, and belonging within and beyond classrooms. A donor gift to Haverford College has supported an entire department in its work with student consultants to make its introductory course sequence more inclusive.

Three Ways Pedagogical Partnerships Increase Inclusivity

This pedagogical partnership work affords student consultants three ways to increase inclusivity by supporting faculty in thinking critically about their pedagogy and revising their approaches when necessary. The first is through positioning students to bring their identities and lived experiences to bear on developing inclusive classrooms. The role of the “student consultant” itself complicates the institutional roles of student, instructor, and educational developer; positions students to mobilize their own cultural identities; and contributes to the transformation of universities into more egalitarian learning communities (Cook-Sather et al. 2019). As one student consultant explained, “I think it might have been important for other students of color or underrepresented groups to have seen me in this new and ‘high-level’ role with respect to the professor”—positioned as a partner whose “perspective was welcomed” and who “was valued as a driving force to change classroom dynamics” (Cook-Sather and Agu 2013, 277).

The second way in which student consultants act as agents to increase inclusivity is by drawing on their experiences to recommend pedagogical approaches that are responsive to a greater diversity of students. One student consultant explained that, as an international student whose first language is not English, “I was able to use my experience as a student with certain needs . . . to advocate for others who might be in similar positions.” This student consultant reminded her faculty partners “that not all students feel as comfortable participating in traditional classroom settings or approaching professors for a variety of reasons.” She explained, “I advocated for more exercises like the ones that empowered me to feel confident in my sense of place in the classroom.”

Another student consultant, who belonged to a group traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, helped her faculty partner see the danger of an approach he had planned to use—giving a difficult pretest to students enrolled in his STEM course without explaining why. His student consultant argued that this approach would exacerbate the “belonging uncertainty” (Cohen and Garcia 2008) many underrepresented students experience and undermine their confidence. In response, the faculty member revised his approach.

The third way in which student consultants can increase inclusivity is by making faculty aware of—and reinforcing—pedagogical practices they already use but may not recognize as fostering inclusivity. One faculty member noted pedagogical approaches she employed “in a conscious way but wouldn’t have thought of as culturally responsive” as well as other practices that were “unconscious.” When her student consultant pointed out how both kinds of practices contributed to greater inclusivity, this faculty member explained that she became “more conscious and deliberate in doing them” (Cook-Sather and Des-Ogugua 2018, 605). Affirmation of existing practices is as important as revision; affirming good practices in one aspect of a course can build courage (Perez 2016) that helps faculty address a lack of inclusivity in other aspects.

Conclusion

The power of positioning undergraduates as pedagogical consultants to faculty lies in dialogue and collaboration, making it more likely that differences of position, perspective, and identity can foster insight and connection rather than further divisions (Cook-Sather 2015). Pedagogical partnerships affirm for students that they can, in their words, be “agent[s] of change within . . . classroom spaces” (Cook-Sather 2018a, 929) and that their perspectives can “drive important transformation in classrooms and in the student-teacher relationship” (Cook-Sather and Agu 2013, 277–78).

This work both constitutes and contributes to inclusivity. As one student partner, Ana Colón García (2017), has argued, “If we all engaged in partnerships through which we reflect and discuss how teaching and learning experiences can include and value everyone, our campuses would become places of belonging.”

For guidance on how to support this work, see Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten (2014) and Cook-Sather, Bahti, and Ntem (forthcoming).

References

Brunson, Mary. 2018. “The Formation and Power of Trust: How It Was Created and Enacted through Collaboration.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, no. 23. https://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss23/2.

Charkoudian, Louise K., Anna C. Bitners, Noah B. Bloch, and Saadia Nawal. 2015. “Dynamic Discussion and Informed Improvements: Student-Led Revision of First-Semester Organic Chemistry.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, no. 15. https://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss15/5.

Cohen, Geoffrey L., and Julio Garcia. 2008. “Identity, Belonging, and Achievement: A Model, Interventions, Implications.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17 (6): 365–69.

Colón García, Ana. 2017. “Building a Sense of Belonging through Pedagogical Partnership.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, no. 22. http://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss22/2.

Cook-Sather, Alison. 2011. “Layered Learning: Student Consultants Deepening Classroom and Life Lessons.” Educational Action Research 19 (1): 41–57.

———. 2015. “Dialogue across Differences of Position, Perspective, and Identity: Reflective Practice in/on a Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnership Program.” Teachers College Record 117 (2).

———. 2016. “Undergraduate Students as Partners in New Faculty Orientation and Academic Development.” International Journal of Academic Development 21 (2): 151–62.

———. 2018a. “Listening to Equity-Seeking Perspectives: How Students’ Experiences of Pedagogical Partnership Can Inform Wider Discussions of Student Success.” Higher Education Research and Development 37 (5): 923–36. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07294360.2018.1457629.

———. 2018b. “Developing ‘Students as Learners and Teachers’: Lessons from Ten Years of Pedagogical Partnership that Strives to Foster Inclusive and Responsive Practice.” Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership, and Change 4 (1). https://journals.gre.ac.uk/index.php/studentchangeagents/article/view/746.

Cook-Sather, Alison, and Praise Agu. 2013. “Students of Color and Faculty Members Working Together toward Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy.” In To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, vol. 32, edited by James E. Groccia and Laura Cruz, 271–85. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Melanie Bahti, and Anita Ntem. Forthcoming. Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships in the Classroom and Curriculum: A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education. Elon, NC: Elon University Center for Engaged Teaching Open-Access Series.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten. 2014. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cook-Sather, Alison, and Crystal Des-Ogugua. 2018. “Lessons We Still Need to Learn on Creating More Inclusive and Responsive Classrooms: Recommendations from One Student-Faculty Partnership Program.” International Journal of Inclusive Education 23 (6): 594–608. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13603116.2018.1441912.

Cook-Sather, Alison, Elizabeth Marquis, Anita Ntem, and Srikripa Krishna Prasad. 2019. “Mobilizing a Culture Shift on Campus: Underrepresented Students as Educational Developers.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 159: 21–30.

Daviduke, Natasha. 2018. “Growing into Pedagogical Partnerships over Time and across Disciplines: My Experience as a Non-STEM Student Consultant in STEM Courses.” International Journal for Students as Partners 2 (2): 151–56. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3443.

de Bie, Alise, Elizabeth Marquis, Alison Cook-Sather, and Leslie Luqueño. 2019. “Valuing Knowledge(s) and Cultivating Confidence: Contributing to Epistemic Justice via Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships.” In Strategies for Fostering Inclusive Classrooms in Higher Education: International Perspectives on Equity and Inclusion, edited by Jaimie Hoffman, Patrick Blessinger, and Mandla Makhanya, 35–48, vol. 16 of Innovations in Higher Education Teaching and Learning. Emerald Publishing Limited. https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S2055-364120190000016004.

Mejia, Yeidaly. 2019. “Carrying Partnership Skills Beyond Formal Partnerships: When Conflicts Grow into Connections.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, no. 26. https://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss26/6.

Perez, Kerstin. 2016. “Striving toward a Space for Equity and Inclusion in Physics Classrooms.” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, no. 18. http://repository.brynmawr.edu/tlthe/vol1/iss18/3.


Alison Cook-Sather is the Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education and Director of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice Studies Concentration at Bryn Mawr College and Director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.

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