Creating opportunities for student-faculty partnerships

Rather than shaking things up with a reorganization or restructuring, the team at York University’s Teaching Commons decided to bring in an educational developer from another university on a short-term basis to provide a different perspective.

Cherie Woolmer

As a result, Cherie Woolmer, a post-doctoral research Fellow at McMaster University, is sharing her expertise in faculty-student engagement with York faculty and students.
“Our idea was that after working together for a certain amount of time, groupthink develops,” said Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, an educational developer at Teaching Commons and liaison for this project. “It allows the team to function efficiently, but it’s harder to come up with new ideas.

“An experienced developer from elsewhere would bring her own ways of thinking about educational development to us in a way that would align with teaching and learning priorities at York and allow us to explore different ideas.”

Celia Popovic, director of the Teaching Commons, placed an ad for a visiting educational developer with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and received a number of applications. They chose Woolmer, a researcher from the United Kingdom with expertise in faculty-student partnerships. She has been at McMaster for a year and is eager to create linkages between her university and others.

“Cherie is educating our group about faculty-student partnerships,” Maheux-Pelletier said. “It’s her area of research and we’re hoping York will become another research site for her, providing an opportunity for collaborative research with York colleagues. We really have an expert in the field on hand and it’s very exciting to draw from her expertise.”

Although the ad originally called for a month-long partnership, Woolmer and the team realized the time period was too compressed to serve their purposes. Instead, Woolmer will devote the equivalent of a month’s work to the York project, spread over a number of months. This model will allow the Teaching Commons staff to design and execute a pilot project in faculty-student partnerships and Woolmer to evaluate the results and recommend next steps.

“Now that Cherie is here, we’ve been asking around and we find that some faculty are already engaged in student partnerships,” Maheux-Pelletier said. “This experience will force both sides to think about what we do, how we do it and whether we could do it better.”

The collaboration with Woolmer kicks off by raising awareness and exploring possibilities through workshops for interested York faculty about faculty-student partnership and how it differs from or complements the modes of engagement they already know.

“I can discuss the practicalities involved in such endeavours and what the research says about its benefits,” Woolmer said. “We can look at what they mean, the principles that underpin this way of working and how this fits with York priorities.”

She elaborates, saying that faculty-student partnerships are about “trying to provide new spaces for different kinds of conversations and learning and teaching and challenging existing hierarchies so that there is a sense of co-ownership, respect and reciprocity for both faculty and students.

“Students are not just research assistants; they have some say in how things happen.”
Once the workshops are delivered, Teaching Commons will put out a call for proposals for a pilot project to run.

“For example, students could work with faculty as part of a development team to design or re-design courses; they could be involved in a quality review process; or they could contribute to scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) research,” Woolmer said. “These workshops will draw on examples of international practice to show staff the range of possibilities so they can see what resonates and consider what we could pilot.”

When the pilot project is complete, Woolmer will work with staff to evaluate the experience, producing a report that contains recommendations and next steps. “We’re all committed to making sure that this doesn’t happen in a little bubble,” she said. “It’s clear that York University wants this to enhance activities long term. The university is willing to explore and experiment; committing resources is an indication that they take it seriously.”

Maheux-Pelletier agrees.

“This kind of model fits well with the experiential education portfolio,” she said. “It really is about considering students as equals in a relationship: Asking what they want to get out of it and shaping the project with their input. It’s about recognizing that the student perspective is important and that their ideas are valuable.

“This is an exciting model to consider, because the students are at the centre, rather than at the sidelines.”

Woolmer also views this collaboration as the start of an ongoing relationship on this topic.
“McMaster University is keen to bring people interested in faculty-student partnerships together regionally,” she said.

Woolmer’s work at Teaching Commons is also a perfect fit with its annual Teaching in Focus conference on December 5; this year’s theme is student engagement.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer