OTL 25th Anniversary Spotlight: Student-Faculty Partnerships
As we approach the 25th anniversary celebration of the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), we are highlighting OTL programs and collaborations. This week, we highlight the Student-Faculty Partnership Program, in which students and faculty members learn and work together as partners in addressing the question of how we can create more engaging, inclusive, learning-rich environments for every student.
Established at the University of Denver in 2017 and inspired by Bryn Mawr College’s Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) program, this initiative is premised on the belief that students and faculty members can learn much from each other regarding the experience of teaching and learning. While the focus of the partnership work is on learning about and improving the learning environment for all students, at its core this partnership program is about fostering student-faculty relationships that lead to empathy, understanding, and the kind of ongoing, collaborative dialogue across difference that results in transformational learning for both students and faculty members.
In this program, facilitated by OTL’s Director of University Teaching Dr. Virginia Pitts, students and faculty members are “paired up” as partners for a quarter. Each week throughout the quarter, students visit their faculty partner’s class, take detailed observation notes from their unique student perspective, and then meet with their faculty partner to discuss and explore their respective observations, wonderings, experiences, and insights. Students, who are compensated for their time and expertise as learners, also meet weekly as a group to support each other in this work and discuss what they are learning from this experience.
To date, 56 students and 73 faculty members have participated in this program. Students and faculty are intentionally recruited to represent a range of identities, backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines. This diversity of participants is a notable strength of the program, in that it centers voices that are currently underrepresented in shaping higher education, and allows both students and faculty members to engage with and learn from perspectives that are different from their own as they work together to create more engaging learning environments for all students.
This program has proven highly beneficial, and in many cases transformative, for both faculty and students. As a result of the partnership work, participating faculty members have learned more about their students and how the choices they make in designing and teaching their courses impact the student experience, which has led them to make changes in their teaching – even small changes – that enhance the student experience overall. As one faculty partner put it in their end-of-program reflection, “This is a program where students, truly in a meaningful way, get to be involved with something they otherwise wouldn't, to the benefit of everyone at DU. I think this program is one of the best things DU has going for it. And I know that it has changed me for the better as a teacher and as a learner, as a facilitator of learning. The takeaway has been huge and I’m 100% going to put so much of what I've learned here into my future teaching. And it's going to make it so much better.”
For student partners, part of what makes this experience transformative is that it deepens their belief in their ability to make a positive difference in higher education and in the world. As one student partner explained in their end-of-term reflection, “As a student, you often feel like nothing you do really matters. But this program made me see that my voice really does matter, and that I really can make a difference.” Another student partner spoke to this when they said, “This truly has been the most important thing that I've been a part of during my undergraduate degree, and I've done a lot of things on campus. I've tried to make a big impact on DU before leaving, and working with my faculty partner is what made me feel whole and made me feel comfortable about leaving the institution and that I did what I was supposed to do.”
Beyond that – and perhaps most importantly in terms of potential long-term impact on DU – the opportunity for students and faculty members to work “side by side” as partners and co-learners in understanding and improving the classroom experience has given both students and faculty members a greater sense of empathy for each other, a recognition of the power of student-faculty collaboration, and a deepened sense of connection to the DU community.
Student partners, when asked at the conclusion of the program what their biggest take-way was, regularly say that a highlight of the program is coming to understand their professors in a whole new way. In the words of one student partner in their end-of-program reflection, “My approach to learning definitely changed after being part of this program because I understand more the professors' perspective on teaching. By putting myself in their shoes in certain situations, I feel more patient with them. I can better understand how they chose their way of teaching and how they organize their classes. I think I can understand them better, no matter what class I'm taking, and I can remember that they are people too, not just professors. I think many students make up their own conclusions on why professors are a certain way, but at the end of the day we are all humans and we don't know the entire side of what it's like to be a professor.”
As another student partner shared, “So often, you’re looking at it like students and professors have different aims and you’re both coming at this from such different standpoints, but you both really want the same thing. Everyone wants the students to learn and everybody wants the professor to teach, even though we often we don’t see it that way. The student faculty partnership gave me specific insight into that, that we are on the same team, even if I’m a student in a class where I’m getting grades from the professor. So that was a big deal. It’s a path toward being able to actually see learning as a process of collaboration instead of one person lording over the other.”
And, in the words of one of the faculty partners, “This brings me so much closer to the DU community. It's bringing the student community and the faculty community together in a different way than our traditional classroom experience, and it's so valuable and exciting to just feel connected to the students. I know it's only one student, just one connection at a time. But each connection that we make, then I talk to other faculty about my experience with my partner. She talks about it to her friends. It just it spreads and grows. I think it connects us as a DU community and as an educational institution.”
The student-faculty partnership program epitomizes the 4D experience that is at the heart of DU’s commitment to our students. It advances academic growth by engaging students and faculty members in co-inquiry and critical reflection on teaching. It promotes well-being in helping to create a sense of belonging, connection, and efficacy for both student and faculty participants. It supports character exploration as it engages students and faculty in working/collaborating across difference in backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Finally, it supports faculty and students in pursuing careers and lives of purpose as faculty reconnect with their passion for teaching and students discover ways in which they can meaningfully contribute to the communities to which they belong and have an important impact on the lives of others.
If you would like to learn more about this program or are interested in participating, please contact Virginia.Pitts@du.edu