Unlocking the Potential of Students as Partners

The internet is full of think pieces about how college students these days are lazy and passive, using AI tools to avoid doing any actual thinking, or treat their education transactionally as hoops to jump through to get a degree that will get them a job. This discourse is discouraging for instructors – who ended up in academia presumably because they once felt the spark of learning for learning’s sake and followed that feeling into  a position where they could hopefully pass that spark on to new students. What are you supposed to do with these dark predictions about the future of higher education? What can you do to keep that spark alive?

Thankfully, I have an antidote that keeps my head out of this doom-and-gloom thinking. I run a faculty development program at the UAF Center for Teaching and Learning called the Learner Experience Advocacy Program, or LEAP. It’s been going for three years and you may have already participated or heard of it before! For faculty, the program serves as a course improvement tool [1] and is a stellar accomplishment to add to a tenure file. But the thing about LEAP that keeps me going is the students – I get to work with brilliant, curious, and reflective students who care deeply about their own education and the experience of other students at UAF. 

LEAP is a semester-long program where instructors are paired with two students who observe their course and give structured feedback every two weeks. The program is currently offered for online courses only, because it allows participants to focus on the unique challenges of online instruction. LEAP is part of a genre of faculty development programs called “pedagogical partnership” or “students as partners” programs. They’ve existed for a few decades, in a diverse array of forms, but are all founded on the idea that meaningful and equal collaboration between students and instructors can be a transformative experience for both parties.


  • Pedagogical partnership programs (like UAF’s LEAP) benefit student participants
  • Students have a desire to engage with the complexities of teaching and learning and be active participants in making courses better, but often don’t know how.
  • There are many ways to incorporate student perspectives and develop opportunities for student-instructor collaboration, but it is not always easy!
  • Scaffolding student-instructor interactions to build relationships of trust is key to successful partnership.

I get such hope out of LEAP because I get to watch students develop a sense of awareness and ownership about their personal  learning journey, and what it means to be a college student in these interesting times. Conversations between faculty and students that I’ve been a part of have landed on so many interesting “aha!” moments of introspection for LEAP student participants, such as:

  • What gives me the confidence that I am capable of understanding difficult concepts, even if they seem impossible at first?
  • Besides the accommodations I already get for my disability, what little changes would make this course way easier to manage?
  • If I’m failing a class, how can an instructor communicate with me so that I feel like I can withdraw with dignity?

Chel Boue, a student in this semester of LEAP, reflected:

Many of my classmates have a lot of these same feelings or thoughts about their classes and how they could be improved, but can’t articulate them or don’t have a space for them like LEAP – it’s good to be in a non-combative space to talk these things out.

Students gain awareness of the systems at work in higher education, and find points of empathy with instructors, who also feel the constraints of these systems. This semester, many students are noticing that instructors are between a rock and a hard place with regards to the proliferation of AI tools.

Another student, Luke Martin had this realization about the ways faculty approach AI:

The issues related to AI have been a big focal point of this last year. I have seen some teachers take the perspective of just weighting grades in such a way that makes homework obsolete in relation to exams and quizzes, and then others just kept chugging along without a worry. It really boils down to a teacher’s philosophy of teaching. Some teachers have the mentality that they must be the gate-keeper for higher levels of classes or jobs, while others believe that if a student cheats their way through college then employers will notice and then there will be nowhere to hide. I never realized this fundamental duality of teaching style existed until taking LEAP and then I noticed it in just about every class I have looked at.

Metacognitive and Empathy Growth

Understanding and articulating one’s own experience as a student and developing empathy for instructors are both outcomes for students that are reflected in scholarship on similar programs. A literature review of 65 publications on student pedagogical partnership programs at universities across the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia showed similar benefits to students [2].

The study’s top five list of most frequently-reported positive impacts for student participants was:

  • Increased student engagement/motivation/ownership of learning
  • Increased student confidence/self-efficacy
  • Increased understanding of the “other’s” experience (eg. students understanding staff experiences)
  • Enhanced relationship or trust between students and staff
  • Increased student learning about their own learning (meta-cognitive learning, self-evaluation, self-awareness)

Students apply for LEAP because they are interested in the idea of working with instructors to improve courses. The program provides training and incentives to help them to engage deeply with big questions of teaching and learning, and develop their skills in verbal and written feedback. LEAP is a scholarship program, and the scholarship amount increases for repeat participants, so many students choose to participate multiple times, receiving additional training and becoming more adept each semester. The students I get to work with have a wide variety of academic performance levels and learning styles, but everyone participating in LEAP has developed a new understanding of complex issues in higher education and an ability to articulate them that makes them a uniquely valuable asset to our university.

How do the goals of pedagogical partnership programs fit into broader theories of education? I see them as a structured, highly-targeted approach to a familiar educational goal. How do students become active, engaged participants in our classrooms?  Is there a secret sauce to teaching that will create a self-motivated, self-aware, intellectually curious  student body? The past forty years have produced many frameworks for answering these questions.

The concept that  instructors should be more of a “guide on the side” instead of “sage on the stage” was coined in the 90’s and took off because an increasing body of research demonstrated that active learning had enormous benefits compared to passive absorption of information via lectures [3]. Project and community-based learning gained attention because student engagement and persistence soars when their coursework allows them to form personal connections with the subject and work toward change they find meaningful [4].

CAST’s (originally the Center for Applied Special Technology) Universal Design for Learning framework found that students become better learners when they develop an understanding of how they learn and are given opportunities to practice self-regulation and individual goal-setting [5].

“Ungrading” [6] has been a buzzword in recent years that has generated a lot of pushback due (in my opinion) to the central anxiety that underlies all these educational trends. 

If you step to the side, will your students come forward to lead? 

The answer is often “No, not immediately.”  

This is not due to some sort of student deficit, but is instead a product of our educational system.

Alison Cook-Sather, a prominent pedagogical partnership researcher, explains:

The experiences we [instructors] bring to higher education also create distance between faculty and students. In some ways, that distance is hard earned. Faculty have spent years pursuing graduate studies, and sometimes decades after that honing our craft, to become disciplinary experts. Students are not our peers in knowledge, skills, or learning, so it is no surprise that we see them as the recipients, the beneficiaries, of our scholarly achievements. This leads to a situation in which students are considered the people we teach to, not the people we are in class with. At the same time, students often come to university after years of being taught to be relatively passive learners. In many cases, they have been rewarded for following a prescribed curriculum that prepares them to successfully pass a standardized test that then gives them access to the next high-stakes exam. In many contexts, schooling is a slog, not an opportunity to explore, to learn, and to grow. [7] 

There is a lot of excellent advice out there about how to navigate power dynamics to build relationships of trust with students. Properly scaffolded student-directed learning experiences are more likely to see success. Examples of how to do that can be found in other articles from the UAF Center for Teaching and Learning. (see: Ungrading STEM, Collaborative student research, Slow Pedagogy, Journaling for Reflection)

Pedagogical partnership programs are one approach to structuring and incentivizing student participation as partners in education. Despite collaborative relationships being incredibly rewarding, mere invites to a project can come with some awkwardness as students and instructors alike can feel vulnerable. Vitally, pedagogical partnership programs invest in preparation and create time and space outside of the normal teacher-student interactions, which allow for the development of deeper relationships of trust. The insights I hear every week from LEAP students are a testament to the value of this investment.


[1] https://ctl.uaf.edu/2023/12/12/student-advice-for-designing-your-best-course-yet/

[2] Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, L.S., 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 Partners 1 (1) https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:80336938

[3] King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27558571

[4] Vaz, R. (2019). High-Impact Practices Work.  Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/06/04/why-colleges-should-involve-more-students-high-impact-practices-opinion

[5] CAST (2018). Guideline 6 – Provide options for Executive Functions. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/action-expression/executive-functions/executive-functions

[6] Blum, S. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press. https://wvupressonline.com/ungrading

[7] Cook-Sather, Alison, et al. Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching : A Guide for Faculty, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wsu/detail.action?docID=1650837.

Clara Noomah

Instructional Designer


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