Should students be partners in curriculum design?

As undergraduates join lecturers in rethinking reading lists and course content, Chris Havergal examines their role in pedagogical decisions

December 17, 2015
Group of women exercising in gym (17 December 2015)
Source: Rex/Alamy montage

Step inside many classes at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College and you will find that academics and undergraduates enrolled on the course in question are not the only ones in the room. Often, there is a “student consultant” too: a student who is not taking the module but is there to focus on the design and delivery of the curriculum.

A student consultant is offered to every new member of staff at Bryn Mawr and at nearby Haverford College, both private liberal arts colleges. Each week, the lecturer meets with the consultant to discuss what went well and what could be improved. Alison Cook-Sather, director of the colleges’ joint Teaching and Learning Institute, says that students from other disciplines can bring a “naive perception” to issues of curricula, pedagogy and assessment. Academics come to value this, she says, even if she acknowledges that, at first, not all of them are enthusiastic participants.

“Most people who come into the programme think: ‘What could a student teach me about teaching, and particularly a student outside my subject area?’” says Cook-Sather. “They also feel vulnerable that people will be watching them and judging them. [But] what happens for 99 per cent of the people who participate is that they realise it isn’t about expertise in a subject area: it is about understanding how the student experiences pedagogy, curriculum and assessment in the class. It is not calling their authority or expertise into question, it is about [offering] a different angle on what’s happening in the classroom.”

The Bryn Mawr and Haverford initiative, which has involved about 250 academics and 200 student consultants from the two institutions since its launch in 2007, is one of a growing number around the world that treat students as partners in curriculum design and pedagogical practice.

Going beyond the idea of listening to the “student voice”, these programmes aim to engage teachers and learners in a much more meaningful, and more equal, relationship; one that, according to proponents of “students as partners”, leads to better teaching, more effective learning and graduates who are better prepared for the workplace.

How widely, then, has this approach been adopted? More institutions have certainly embraced this process in recent years, but there is little quantitative evidence on its uptake in higher education systems on either side of the Atlantic. The evidence there is suggests that there is some way to go before the model becomes mainstream practice in the UK. When they were asked how often they worked with teaching staff on activities other than coursework, 58 per cent of the 24,387 students at 24 institutions who responded to the Higher Education Academy’s 2015 UK Engagement Survey replied “never”. And a 2011 survey conducted by the National Union of Students found that, while 86 per cent of students questioned wanted to be involved in shaping the content, curriculum or design of their course, 71 per cent had no or limited actual involvement in this process.

Mick Healey, emeritus professor of geography at the University of Gloucestershire and co-author of an HEA report on students as partners, says that it takes time to change the traditional hierarchical relationship between students and academics.

“We are pretty good at listening to students in terms of moans, groans and satisfaction,” says Healey. “We are not as good at going to the next stage, where partnership comes in, where we have students sitting at the table with us and making decisions.”

Measuring the growing role of students in curriculum design and pedagogical consultancy is complicated by the fact that it can take so many different forms.

In the UK, one of the most developed examples is the University of Lincoln’s HEA-funded “student as producer” programme, which has seen students integrated into decision-making across the institution. Students sit on every curriculum validation panel and often take part in curriculum redesign workshops.

At the University of Southampton, the Southampton Opportunity initiative has involved students working as “champions” to help embed issues such as employability and digital literacy into curricula (see below), while at Coventry University, students are appointed as course representatives and play a central role in the curriculum review events that take place twice a year.

As long ago as 2006, one lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport – now the University of South Wales – invited final-year students to set most of the questions for their end-of-module exam, arguing that, by doing so, students felt more engaged in the assessment process; further afield, third- and fourth-year science students at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Canada, take an applied curriculum design module during which they develop modules that become part of the first-year course.

When staff at Elon University in North Carolina look to redesign curricula, they are invited to form a team with students. According to Peter Felten, assistant provost and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the institution, involving students in module design leads to better courses.

“As a historian, I have disciplinary knowledge and I also have pedagogical knowledge because I have been teaching for a while,” he says. “But I don’t know what it means to be a student today, at this university; I didn’t attend this university, it is a long time since I was an undergraduate, and maybe I wasn’t a typical undergraduate to begin with. We don’t ask students to pretend to be PhD historians, but to represent what they understand the student experience to be, and to be peers to the students who will be taking the course.”

The benefits of engaging students as partners go far beyond the immediate improvement to a course that has been rethought with their assistance, says Karin Crawford, director of Lincoln’s educational development and enhancement unit. She argues that the process can also deliver considerable benefits to the students who take part.

“We see students becoming much more confident in terms of putting their hands up and being involved in things, and also having a much more dynamic interaction with their own learning because they have got a deeper understanding of their learning and their discipline,” says Crawford. “Students realise that they have a more active role in shaping their future because they are shaping their own learning.”

Catherine Bovill, a senior lecturer in the University of Glasgow’s Academic Development Unit, who has extensively researched student partnerships, argues that many of these benefits are shared by academics who take part, too.

“There seems to be an increased engagement from staff [who say] they find their teaching more rewarding because they are getting feedback from classes of more motivated students,” says Bovill. “Another big group of findings is around increased metacognitive awareness: both staff and students become much more aware of their own learning and teaching and it becomes a more shared endeavour. By getting involved in design, students get much more aware of the kinds of things that are usually closed to them, and the student reflections that staff hear seem to open up a better understanding of their own teaching practices.”

Where students have become involved in assessment, there is evidence that it gives them an understanding of the expectations and marking criteria that enables them to perform much better in exams themselves, she adds.

There is a possibility, however, that student involvement in course design could lead to much more radical change in higher education: ending what is perceived by some to be the domination of curricula by Western, white and male thinking, and opening them up to be more representative of university communities that are increasingly diverse, and ever more internationalised.

Sorana Vieru, vice-president (higher education) of the NUS, argues that significant progress could be made on this front if undergraduates and academics were genuine partners in co-design. In particular, she would like to see student representatives working with ethnic minority networks and equality campaigners to challenge academics’ views about what curricula should look like.

“I don’t trust many academics to be able to do this because some of them will have no interest in doing this kind of thing,” says Vieru. “A lot of academia involves gatekeeping: why change a system if the system works for them? If their view on an issue is the status quo, why would they give the time of day to competing worldviews?”

Why, then, if student partnership can apparently be so beneficial, is it only being adopted at a relatively gradual pace? It is not that students’ main interest would be in making things easier for themselves: Vieru highlights evidence indicating that, when students become involved in assessment, for example, they often mark more harshly than their lecturers.

However, it is true that engaging in curriculum design may not be a priority for some students during their time at university; Vieru admits that some student representatives are more inclined to press lecturers about printer credits in the library rather than on the representativeness of curricula and reading lists.

Cook-Sather’s story of initial reluctance on the part of many academics is a common one, and this may also be part of the reason for the slow progress on implementation. Indeed, some academics believe that putting students at the heart of curriculum design risks missing the whole point of higher education.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology at the University of Cambridge, argues that it is not the “job” of higher education to “catch and hold [the] attention” of students, although a good lecturer does that naturally; instead, she believes that the “responsibility lies on the student to put in the effort to get on top of the subject matter so as to find out why it is interesting”.

She also warns that, in her experience, successive student representatives are rarely consistent in their views about syllabuses, and are, in any case, “not necessarily representative of student opinion because the ones who stand for such posts tend to be young politicians and so on”.

“The big problem”, she continues, “is that, by definition, students don’t know what there is to learn because they haven’t learned it yet. Nor have they read the latest literature on it. So they are not equipped to ask for more than whatever seems the current fashion.”

It follows from Evans’ point about subject knowledge that there may be more scope for student involvement in curriculum design in some disciplines than in others. In particular, scientific and technical courses, which are often accredited by professional bodies, may have syllabuses that are more tightly controlled than those in the humanities, where there is significant variety among reading lists and study areas.

However, proponents of partnership with students emphasise that it does not have to be a one-size-fits-all approach, with potential for pedagogical consultancy even where there is less room to consider the curriculum itself.

And they would argue that partnership does not challenge the status of the academic as the expert in the discipline; instead, it is about how the student experiences and engages with the curriculum.

Despite the slow progress, many observers believe that the UK is leading the way on the development of student partnership, with the NUS, the HEA and the Quality Assurance Agency being credited with pushing the issue higher up institutional agendas.

“It’s changing a culture of higher education in many ways, but it takes time to build trust and it takes a while to get started because many students don’t believe we want to listen to them,” Gloucestershire’s Healey observes.

But some researchers worry that the introduction of higher tuition fees in England could hamper further efforts to develop partnerships with students. Vieru, a passionate campaigner for the abolition of fees, admits that she often wonders “whether you can have real partnership unless you have free education. [Being charged high fees] does develop some attitudes in students such as: ‘Why would I get engaged and improve a course? It should be as good as it can be before I get to university.’”

But many university leaders argue that higher fees have actually made students more enthusiastic about engaging. This has certainly been the case at Lincoln, says Crawford.

“Students are paying a lot of money so they are going to get everything they can [out of it]. This is an opportunity, and the students look at it and think that if they [get involved in curriculum design], they are increasing their skills and are going to be more employable.”

Alex Neill, the pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Southampton who has led the development of Southampton Opportunity, agrees.

“What the introduction of fees has done is make students much more inclined to take their studies seriously,” he says. “The idea that you just go off and drink your way through three years has gone. So if you go to students and offer the right type of opportunities, the likelihood is that we will see more of this, not less.”

Group of people exercising in gym (17 December 2015)
Corbis/iStock montage

We are the champions: ‘students may be ahead of the game’

Students, says Alex Neill, should be “right in the centre of creating the opportunities that, as a university, we aspire to offer”.

As pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Southampton, Neill has acted on this conviction with the creation of the Southampton Opportunity programme. This has seen more than 100 students being employed as “champions”, working with staff to improve the student experience.

Unlike at some institutions, Southampton’s focus is very much on how the course is delivered, rather than the content of the curriculum, says Neill. But earlier this year it was recognised by the Quality Assurance Agency as a leading example of how universities can work with their students, rather than simply listening to them.

The first student champion team was formed in 2013 and worked with academics to test and integrate new digital tools such as video content into the curriculum.

Since then, feedback champions have carried out interviews to discover examples of good assessment feedback and have created a video, website and e-learning tool to develop awareness of what good feedback is. They have also run staff development workshops. The latest project involves students reviewing modules to identify where there are opportunities to develop enterprise skills.

For Neill, the benefits of partnership with students are clear. “The individual students are engaged in something that is pretty professional, they are trained and developed and they can see that the upshot of their work is actually making a difference,” he says. “It gives them confidence that they can translate fairly easily into other contexts, be it their own academic work or future prospects.

“The benefit for the wider student community is that their experience is being informed by what their peers have not just told us, but have done work on and come up with evidence on.

“The benefit for academics is that, frankly, in a lot of these areas, our students may be ahead of the game. So, rather than having to go and learn a whole new area themselves, they have got a bunch of bright, committed, well-motivated people coming to them with ideas and [thoughts about] how to implement them.”

Neill believes that providing the champions with training has been key to the scheme’s success.

“It has been clear to us from the start that what these champions come up with has got to be [high] quality,” he says. “We have only got to have one bit of flaky or amateurish work and the whole project loses credibility.”

Another key to the project’s success has been the fact that it has been “driven from the top of the university”, says Neill.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he concludes. “And what our champs have come up with is, for the most part, very good eating.”

Chris Havergal

Group of women exercising in park (17 December 2015)
Corbis/iStock montage

Heard and heeded: ‘you had a feeling you could really make a difference’

Linford Butler feels that his lecturers “genuinely listened” to his ideas about how to redesign the undergraduate drama course at the University of Lincoln.

Now a master’s student at Lincoln, he took part in an initiative called “Design a First Year” during the final months of his bachelor’s course.

As part of a working group with lecturers and fellow students, Butler made the point that new undergraduates “were not getting as much out of the first year as they might like to”. The group’s recommendations led to changes in assessment and increased opportunities for students to give feedback.

Reflecting the strong interest among students on the course in arts administration careers, Butler and his peers also pushed successfully for the introduction of a third-year module on British theatre and industry.

“Our views were genuinely listened to,” says Butler. “I was able to feed into the process in a meaningful way, knowing that the things I was saying had an impact on the student experience and helped to fix problems.”

Butler adds that the training he was given in curriculum redesign gave him an understanding of the “language” of higher education institutions, enabling him to “use the university in a better way”.

Another student, Ute Treptau, says that the issues she raised about the BSc in occupational therapy at Coventry University were “looked at and tweaked”.

“In higher education, you normally get what you’re given – you choose your course and that’s it,” says Treptau. “With this, you had a feeling you could really make a difference.”

Although the NHS specification for the course limited the curriculum changes that could be made, Treptau and her peers were able to push for students to be able to choose optional modules, and for increased research opportunities.

“It was really interesting to see how the course was working out and how it all fits together, and how you can make your opinions known without upsetting anyone,” Treptau adds.

“It helped me because I am in healthcare and you have to work in multidisciplinary teams, and as a newly qualified practitioner you have to hold your own.”

Chris Havergal

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Print headline: Calling in the consultants

Reader's comments (3)

Perfect response to Mrs Evans comment :“I don’t trust many academics to be able to do this because some of them will have no interest in doing this kind of thing,” says Vieru. “A lot of academia involves gatekeeping: why change a system if the system works for them? If their view on an issue is the status quo, why would they give the time of day to competing worldviews?” Archaic views do not go on pair with building partnerships with students- HE cannot be based any more on superior attitudes of some academics.
While I have no problem at all with involving students as partners (or producers), the real problem - from a design perspective - is that while those sitting around the curriculum design table may be excellent teachers, students, researchers, administrators, etc, that does not make them, even with the best intentions, excellent curriculum designers. A good architect will of course consult and work closely with their clients, but the finished building is their responsibility. What we don't have in higher education is the equivalent 'curriculum architect'. As with many aspects of higher education (and other sectors) we stand to gain much from really good design, and employing really good educational architects.
A very interesting read - thank you. Here is perhaps an extension of this approach? In design education in Swansea around 1987 we started to use alumni as opposed to just current students to help to develop our programmes of study. Alumni have the benefits of being able to link their learning experiences to their programmes of study and to help to keep things fresh by responding to current student questions and aspects of relevance beyond University. Now known as the 'Continuous Conceptual Review Model', it is employed in many courses that look to develop innovative and enterprising skills in their students. The use of alumni knowledge is recommended by the European Commission and is an integral part of the QAA's Guidance on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, which states, "Enterprise education needs to be considered within its broader 'eco structure', and external engagement with businesses and other contacts in the broader community is encouraged, including active participation in the assessment process. The educator manages and leads effective partnerships. Particularly deserving of consideration is the contribution that can be made by alumni and their extended networks, both through formal institutional strategies and through informal personal interactions. Alumni views and opinions offer rich opportunities for gaining an insight into longer-term possibilities ('longitudinal evaluation')." (Qaa, 23). Links to the above can be found at:

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