We sat outside at a round table, surrounded by colored pencils and page after page of interview transcripts. We finished our work in the library, side by side with more colored pencils and more pages of transcripts.
For over a year, we—two undergraduate English majors (Emily and Samantha) and a tenured English department faculty member (Michael)—had developed an assessment model for a newly redesigned general education writing class at the University of North Georgia (UNG), a multi-campus regional university serving roughly twenty thousand students.
With the assessment project now at a close, we believe strongly in what we accomplished: hearing about students’ lived experiences, tapping into the high-impact practice of undergraduate research through a student-faculty partnership, and designing a project that is responsive to local contexts, answerable to local constituents, and mutually beneficial for faculty and students.
To improve undergraduate learning, retention, and one-semester persistence rates, all institutions (including UNG) within the University System of Georgia are working with the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education to identify general education courses with high failure rates and to redesign the curricula of these courses. Michael cochaired a faculty-led committee tasked with redesigning English 1101, the first step in a two-course general education writing sequence at UNG. The committee decided to redesign the course to focus on the process of writing. Within the new curriculum, students completed multiple drafts, collaborated with each other on reviewing and strengthening each draft, and completed a portfolio of their work at the end of the semester.
When it came time to assess the redesign efforts, Michael, inspired by scholarship on faculty-student partnerships, connected with Emily and Samantha to build and implement a qualitative assessment model. Together, we authored a successful human-subject research application for our university and developed interview questions and materials to recruit students as research subjects. Emily and Samantha interviewed all the students. Together, we created a scheme, using colored pencils, to code our transcripts.
Lucy Mercer-Mapstone and her colleagues describe faculty-student partnerships as a process in which students and faculty shift to being “co-teachers, co-inquirers, curriculum co-creators, and co-learners across all facets of the educational enterprise.” But this shifting is hard; we stumbled around as much as we walked forward.
UNG is a five-campus university. Emily and Michael are at one campus, Samantha at another. With class schedules, work schedules, and family life schedules, we found it difficult to meet together in person. We had difficulty finding a location for interviews, a quiet space but not too secluded for safety reasons. Michael struggled to know when to use his expertise to push the project forward and when to let Emily and Samantha take the lead. We stumbled, quite simply, because research is hard.
Our research found three themes regarding students’ learning experiences in English 1101: process, reflection, and collaboration. These themes came directly from the language our research subjects used and illustrates that the emphasis on process pedagogies made its way into how students talked about the class, described their individual writing, and reflected on their work.
These data are valuable for our local context because they provide a rich qualitative picture of students’ lived experiences with institutionally redesigned courses, and they complement quantitative data, like students’ GPA and one-semester persistence rates, gathered by our university’s office on institutional effectiveness. Aligning our qualitative data with their quantitative data provides a robust picture of student learning.
We presented on our research at an international conference, authored two manuscripts currently under peer review, and shared our research locally to ensure it is answerable to the community from which it came.
The students and faculty member came away from the partnership with mutual benefits. Participating in a high-impact practice like undergraduate research helped Emily and Samantha develop the strong research, writing, design, and communication skills that will serve them well as they move toward life after graduation. They grew in their academic engagement and sense of belonging, driven by working on a project with immediate impact on the institution. Michael collaborated on a research project that built his CV and served the current needs of his institution, while broadening his understanding of how to accomplish future research projects by working closely with students and not going it alone.
Attention toward faculty-student partnerships could not be timelier for meeting current challenges. According to social scientist Nathan D. Grawe, US higher education is preparing for dwindling student populations around the year 2026. The potential scarcity of students is causing colleges and universities to renew their attention on undergraduate liberal education as they ramp up recruitment efforts, bolster undergraduate course offerings, and redefine general education curricula. At the same time, a global pandemic is having dramatic, yet-to-be-determined effects on US higher education as colleges and universities grapple with renewed calls for racial justice, access, and equity for students of color.
These challenges leave us, frankly, scared and overwhelmed. But we believe US higher education is best equipped to address these challenges when students and faculty come together as partners.
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