Why students should be partners in their own learning

Students as partners (SaP) is emerging as an impactful practice in higher education, generating many benefits, such as empowering students to own their learning and exercise agency. SaP involves students working collaboratively with teachers or other important stakeholders to improve university education.

Since SaP challenges the traditional hierarchical relationship between teachers and students, many believe that it cannot be effectively practised in most Asian regions where Confucian cultures have a formative influence on educational norms.

SaP challenges hierarchical relationships

SaP promotes mutual respect, reciprocity and shared responsibility between students and teachers. Both students’ and teachers’ views need to be equally valued through two-way exchanges, contributing to the enhancement of education. By participating in SaP, students are found to be more active in the classroom and more reflective when it comes to their learning processes.

SaP poses enormous challenges to the traditional hierarchical relationship in many educational systems in Asia or beyond, where teachers have power over students, typically through the design of the learning environment, its forms of delivery and the assessment of students.

Under a hierarchical relationship structure, students can rarely change or influence the content and process of their learning. Facilitating SaP can be challenging when teachers and students are not ready to embrace a more egalitarian, non-hierarchical and inclusive relationship.

Are Confucian heritage cultures a barrier to SaP?

Many scholars and practitioners perceive Confucian heritage cultures (CHC) to be a significant barrier to SaP in Asia, since their long history emphasises teachers’ authority and requires students to respect and obey teachers. Questioning teachers or making suggestions could be seen as problematic behaviours and may even result in disciplinary action.

It is not surprising to find perceptions of CHC being a barrier to SaP. There is also empirical evidence in several studies that indeed find reluctance on the part of both teachers and students in the implementation of SaP in Asian contexts.

Facilitating SaP in Hong Kong

We propose, however, that CHC should not be a fundamental barrier to facilitating SaP in Asia, at least in Hong Kong, where we designed three SaP projects spanning two universities and observed their processes and outcomes.

Each project focused on researching a specific aspect of students’ identities and roles, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the experience and effectiveness of university education.

Altogether, 43 undergraduates were recruited to be student partners. They served as co-researchers, offered inputs into the research design and process and participated in data collection and analysis. More importantly, student partners leveraged their insider perspectives to help devise more meaningful research questions and methodologies.

We found that appropriate SaP project designs can resolve some of the tensions between CHC and SaP. Effective project designs should allow students to participate in project conceptualisation as well as decision-making on budgets, timelines and outcomes.

Students working with their peers and having frequent interactions with staff members also contribute to the development of successful SaP. In addition, SaP can draw on some traits associated with CHCs such as respect, a deeply committed work ethic and a concern for personal and social development.

What’s more, cultural influences seem to only cause students some hesitation when it comes to taking a partner role on at the beginning of the project. The majority of the 43 students gradually assumed a partner role in the project, especially when they saw their contributions being valued by staff members.

In fact, students’ hesitation in taking on a partner role has also been found in studies in Western contexts, suggesting that CHC should not be an impenetrable barrier to such work. Rather, effective project design is found to be more important in our research.

Nevertheless, we also observed that not all students were able to take a partner role in the SaP projects. Among various factors, we found that students’ disciplinary identity made a significant difference.

Students from disciplines that shared similar approaches to the research or enhancement approaches adopted in the SaP projects were found to quickly assume a partner role. In our research, students from science backgrounds, who are more used to quantitative assessment, had more difficulty as they did not fully resonate with the qualitative research methodologies we adopted in the projects.

The future of SaP in Asia and beyond

Based on our experiences in the three SaP projects, we are confident that SaP can be practised in Asian universities and beyond with project designs that facilitate meaningful contributions from students and staff members.

We also suggest offering more nuanced support to students from science and engineering disciplines through discussing and achieving consensus about what might be the most suitable inquiry approaches in their disciplinary contexts. The meaning of ‘research’, of course, is open-ended in itself and students ‘translating’ across disciplines is a very meaningful endeavour.

Furthermore, we would like to advocate for a more inclusive and flexible approach to students taking part in designing education in a broad sense. SaP is only a means, not an end, and we hope that SaP projects finally become a normal practice in teaching and learning in a way that values mutual respect, reciprocity and shared responsibility.

Currently, many SaP projects are still one-off initiatives and confined to a certain timeframe and budget. This suggestion might not completely fit the current university environment, but we see SaP projects as some of the first steps towards a more inclusive learning environment. After all, we are all learning together as we go.

Dr Tracy XP Zou is an assistant professor in the department of educational administration and policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has led a number of cross-institutional projects on facilitating students as partners. Professor Gray Kochhar-Lindgren is recently retired as director of the common core at the University of Hong Kong, where he continues to serve as honorary professor of the humanities and affiliate faculty in comparative literature. Pintxos: Small Delicacies and Chance Encounters is being published by Utopos press, and Transdisciplinary Experiments, for which he is the lead editor, is under consideration. He is currently launching Wild Studios Consulting, which will work with students-as-partners on project development and future readiness. Dr Andrew Pau Hoang is senior lecturer in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong. He is also associate director of the bachelor of arts and sciences (BASc) programmes and programme director of the BASc (Interdisciplinary Studies) at the University of Hong Kong. Kristy Lam is currently reading for an MSc in psychology: theory and research at KU Leuven, Belgium. She previously worked as a coordinator for a students-as-partners project at the University of Hong Kong. Dr Tom Barry is a reader (associate professor) at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. For his work as a teacher and for his research into mental health problems, he has been recognised as a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science; and in 2021, as director of the bachelor of arts and sciences programme at the University of Hong Kong, he received an Early Career Teaching Award. Lily YY Leung is a research assistant in the department of educational administration and policy in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She received a bachelor degree in world history at Peking University, China. Her research interests focus on undergraduate research and engaging students as research partners.

A longer version of this
article is published in Educational Review, and has been made available for free for University World News readers for three months. The research reported is funded by the General Research Fund by the Research Grants Council of HKSAR (no 17606820) and a Teaching Development Grant funded by the University of Hong Kong (no 824).