Students as Partners: A Q&A with Lucy Mercer-Mapstone

By Mike Thorn, Communications and Marketing Assistant at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

While attending ISSOTL17, Lucy Mercer-Mapstone visited the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. One of today’s major scholarly voices in students as partners, Lucy is co-editor for the Australian group of the International Journal on Students as Partners and was a facilitator at the 2017 McMaster International Summer Institute on Students as Partners. With the upcoming conference theme on students as creators, drivers, innovators, and collaborators, her visit offered an excellent opportunity to draw on her research, experience, and contagious enthusiasm. I sat down with her to discuss her current research. Read the full interview below.

Your current research involves the topic of students as partners. What does the term “students as partners” describe, exactly? 

It is a really big question that academics, students and staff are still grappling with in different ways. I see it as an ethos and a practice that aims to flip

the power hierarchies in higher education and bring those notions of participatory democracy into all levels of an institution. That’s a pretty radical or revolutionary process. Basically, it’s about reconceptualizing students and staff as colleagues. Mike Fielding published something a little while ago that coined the term “radical collegiality.” I love that term because, to me, that’s what partnership is: a radical collegiality between students and staff that conceptualizes all as co-learners and also co-creators of knowledge. That is transformational, because it changes the dynamic of the teaching and learning process (staff on the one side, who are creators and disseminators of knowledge, and students, who are the passive recipients); it moves from that consumerist model of higher education to something where the ownership of knowledge and the responsibility for creating knowledge is shared. In practice, there’s a lot of different ways that people conceptualize it – you can split it broadly between the research and evaluation of teaching and learning, and the creation and delivery.

Why is it important to involve students as partners in the scholarship of teaching and learning?

Because they bring creativity and innovation to the process in a way that reframes how we value knowledge production. If you’re researching the teaching and learning process – and that’s very broadly how I understand SoTL – the students are the beneficiaries of why we do that. Staff are there to facilitate learning for students, and it makes pure sense to me that if you’re researching how to make learning better, then asking the learners to be involved in that research process has to be a part of it. I think teaching and learning has been a space that, within the patriarchal hegemony of higher education, has been reserved for the experts; but staff are not experts in what it means to be a student in the 21st century, and quite often, staff members haven’t been a student in that context ever, and the last time they were students was 20 or 30 years ago. The way that culture has changed and the way that the graduate and employability environment has changed means that instructors are not personally or authentically situated within what it means to be learners in the current higher education system. So, within the scholarship of teaching and learning, if we’re aiming to improve our practices then we have to include students in that process.

That research focused on non-technical communication skills, which are very rarely taught in Australia for science undergraduates, and when they are taught, they’re not taught very explicitly. I looked specifically at defining the good communication skills between scientists and non-scientists, and how to teach those in the undergraduate curriculum. The first article I published from that thesis included ten principles for good non-technical communication – things like knowing your target audience, knowing the purpose and the mode of communication, all those good communication skills that were really important to situate within the science context. Because if you’re asking scientists to teach something that they’re not familiar with, it’s very easy for them to dismiss it as not relevant to their contexts. If you bring in good communication practices, they’re likely to say, “That’s not relevant to science.” We acknowledged that you’re asking a scientific disciplinary specialist to teach communication — which is something that not only have they not had training in, they potentially are not confident doing it; so I designed tutorial activities and assessment tasks as templates that could be adopted into any science discipline. The design and the pedagogy behind it was pre-designed, so you weren’t asking scientists to do that, but it made it very easy for them to explicitly teach non-technical communication skills within their courses.

Your recent research also incorporates the development and evaluation of graduate learning outcomes. What is a learning outcome, and why is this an important area for research? 

In Australia, there are nationally designed learning outcomes in the sciences that every graduate should have. How different universities go about delivering those outcomes differs widely, but the general notion of learning outcomes is that they’re transferable and often not discipline-specific. For example, technical and non-technical written and oral communication skills are attributes that all science graduates should have, so that when they go out into the workforce, they’re able to communicate within diverse contexts. Others include critical thinking skills, disciplinary content knowledge, teamwork skills, ethical thinking… things that are relevant to all university graduates, but they’re often contextualized within a certain degree program.

We looked at the bachelor of science program itself to see how students perceived that they were developing those skills, because the way we understand what students learn is often through assessment tasks and exams, which are good at assessing content knowledge but not necessarily good at actually assessing those graduate attributes. We had a metric that asked students to rate themselves either during their degrees or just post-graduate about the extent to which they saw, for example, communication skills being included in their degree program, assessed in their degree program, important in their degree program, as well as their confidence in being able to do that. This is terrifying for science: ethical science skills was the lowest on all the metrics. Those findings are really useful when you’re looking at the larger programmatic scale – we’re not teaching them how to be ethical scientists. And that brings a serious problem if we’re producing thousands of graduates a year who don’t know how to be ethical in their research or their work. Those sorts of metrics are not nuanced, because you are looking at the very large scale (thousands of students took the survey); but they are really useful for curriculum design or re-design, and focusing on where we need to improve.

You’ve outlined four key themes in your recent essay, “Reflections on co-facilitation as partnership practice”: idealism, conflict, leadership, and labels. How do these themes relate to the topic of students as partners?

Overall, those four themes are challenges within which lie opportunities. If we take leadership, for example, it almost sounds counter-aligned with partnership, because if you’re going into a partnership project with this notion of the need for shared responsibility and reciprocity and equity, then the notion of someone taking the lead sounds problematic. That’s something I’ve encountered quite a few times in partnership, where I have been the new and less experienced partner, I don’t feel comfortable taking the lead over, for example, a professor. Those power relations come in, and that’s challenging for someone who’s new to partnership and not new to feeling empowered. On the flip side, I’ve also been a staff member in partnerships where students have the potential to see me as holding more power and more expertise. From that perspective, you don’t want to take the lead either, because you don’t want to be seen to be reinforcing those hegemonic, traditional power structures. So, you end up in this kind of space where you’re working on a project, and you have real outcomes that you need to produce; but quite often, nobody is comfortable stepping up and saying, “I think here’s what we need to do, and here’s how we might need to do it.” It’s challenging, because you’re entering this new space with a flattened power hierarchy, perhaps necessarily a flattened leadership structure; but that reduces the efficiency of a project.

Project leads are one of the most common staff roles in higher education because we need someone to lead a project, to keep to timelines and so on. There are two potential ways to overcome that challenge. One is organically – these things emerge as you develop a relationship and become more comfortable with your partner, and you become willing to say, “I think we should do this, because I think this is the best way to do it for these reasons”; but that takes a long time, to get to that point with someone who is at a very different power level. It takes a lot of soft interactions, where you start to know them and trust that they’ll be comfortable with you doing that, and vice versa. The other way to do it is to have an explicit conversation at the very beginning, and that’s what I see being the way forward for all of these things, including conflict – to sit down and have a discussion acknowledging all of the tensions and complexity that I’ve just articulated, saying, “Partnership doesn’t feel like an alliance with leadership, but we have these project outcomes we need to do. What do we each bring to the table, in a way that perhaps we can all lead different aspects of this project?” That way we’re having equally valuable contributions, but they’re different; and that really explicit conversation about expectations for working together is really useful, and often involves reflection: “What am I good at? What do I bring to the table?”

I’ve worked in partnership with some students, and they will say, “I am really good at quantitative research. We have an aspect of this project that requires survey with quantitative analysis, so I’m going to take the lead on that, because that’s my area of expertise within this context.” You’re explicitly acknowledging power hierarchies in a way that says, “Yes, they’re there. How are we going to work around them together?” I think it’s the same for conflict. The word “partnership” has a lot of very touchy-feely notions around it – respect and reciprocity and trust (when I say “touchy-feely,” I’m not being derogatory at all). These are the reasons that I love “partnership.” But conflict is something that happens on an everyday basis in any relationship, whether it’s with your partner, your parents, or your boss. There are two types of conflict: dysfunctional and functional. Functional conflict is one of the biggest drivers of learning and personal transformation, because it exposes you to somebody else’s views. If there’s tension, there’s diversity. That’s what you want in partnership: learning driven through engagement with diverse people in relationships that aren’t typical in higher education. That’s always the responsibility of the person in the traditional seat of power, to say, “It’s okay to disagree.”

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