Universities are where students learn, grow, build relationships, and tackle both academic and personal challenges. To be successful, students must be supported by their institutions through accessible learning and leadership opportunities, responsive systems, and inclusive policies. Ultimately, students must feel like they belong and can thrive both academically and personally.
A sense of belonging is crucial. It affects retention and academic achievement, especially for students from structurally disadvantaged or historically underrepresented groups. Given the importance of the student experience on long-term success, universities can benefit from implementing a culture of improvement where students are not only listened to but partnered with to implement effective systemic change.
The Student Experience Project (SEP) aims to improve the student experience for and with students through coproduction. Coproduction is a term used in systems improvement with the following key tenets: Everyone within a system is interconnected and has a role to play in improving it; those most affected by a system are often best positioned to redesign or improve it, and; the greatest opportunity for more equitable outcomes is when those affected by the system (e.g., students) combine efforts with those who have professional expertise (e.g., faculty) (see Figure 1).
Developing authentic coproduction at higher education institutions includes creating opportunities for students to build agency and leadership as equal partners with faculty and others charged to serve students.
The SEP, a collaborative effort between six university partners and seven national learning partners, worked to integrate student voice, experience, and perspective within the national network and at each participating university. Examples include surveys, focus groups, and student panels. All universities also participated in a student co-led initiative, We Belong in College. This social media campaign—in partnership with GetSchooled—gathered students’ rich contributions about why they belonged in college and shared their unique insights. These combined efforts to elevate student voice played an essential role in motivating and directing the efforts of the SEP.
Two SEP university partners—University of New Mexico (UNM) and University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver)—explored the power of student leadership even further. Student leaders worked with their teams to help plan, implement, study, and act upon new strategies for improving both the student and instructor experience. At both institutions, faculty and students partnered to improve the student experience in large, introductory STEM courses. Research shows that it is within these courses—often during their first year—that students face incredible challenges with belonging, building a growth mindset, and knowing how to get the support they need for academic success.
These universities demonstrate the foundations of coproduction; all necessary elements for building authentic partnerships with students. Shift, SEP Learning Partner and expert in systems improvement, include five foundations of coproduction applied to higher education (Figure 2):
- Commit to partnering with students
- Communicate information and opportunities with transparency
- Consult students as experts
- Cultivate shared language, approach, and agreements
- Collaborate centered on equal opportunities and power with faculty and students
Shift’s five foundations of coproduction build upon each other to create an authentic practice of organizational improvement. In this first of a two-part series, we explore how CU Denver and UNM demonstrated their commitment to partnering with students and communicating information and opportunities with transparency. While both excelled, they engaged in these foundations differently based on the differences in their programs. With these foundations firmly in place at each respective institution, a culture of improvement began to take shape.
In the second part of this series, we illustrate how the subsequent foundations of coproduction helped establish effective, sustainable programs and practices for improving the student experience at both CU Denver and UNM. Each of their stories provide key lessons for others who want to engage in coproduction to improve student experience.
Commit to partnering with students
For authentic coproduction to occur within institutions of higher education, faculty and campus leadership must first commit to partnering with students and elevating the value of their diverse, unique perspectives.
At the core of SEP is a commitment to transforming the college student experience and creating equitable learning environments through innovative, evidence-based practices to increase degree attainment. Both participating universities support efforts that realize this mission through their peer-support initiatives.
University of Colorado Denver: Learning Assistants
Since 2012, undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) at CU Denver have supported students as they navigate STEM courses. Among the goals of the LA program is to join faculty as part of the instruction team. LAs engage with students inside and outside the classroom and meet weekly with the instructor to make lesson plans.
This commitment to partnership is inherent in the way faculty value student input and leadership. “Without students, what really would a university be? Not having student agency and input through back-and-forth conversations, it just doesn’t make sense,” says Dr. Laurel Hartley, STEM lead for the SEP team and co-director of the Learning Assistant program. “I wouldn’t be able to operate in or understand a university where we didn’t talk with students and bring them into what it means to learn and what it means to shape the environment that [they’re] in.”
University of New Mexico: Peer Learning Facilitators
Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs) are undergraduate students who are invited to join instructional teams in courses where they have previously been successful due to their help-seeking behaviors. Help-seeking behaviors include asking questions during and after class and attending student drop-in hours.
The PLF program was first introduced in 2010 through a grant-funded initiative and was later terminated when the funding ended. Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, a faculty lead of the UNM SEP team, advocated for its return and in Fall 2020, the program restarted with its first cohort, including Dr. Knottenbelt, along with Dr. Carolyn Hushman and Dr. Kimran Buckholz—among other faculty and instructors.
For the dedicated faculty who advocated for the return of the PLF program, a commitment to student-faculty partnership was too important to retire. This partnership was important not only for students, but for faculty, too.
“It’s a win-win strategy,” says Dr. Kimran Buckholz. “I hope that I never have to teach without PLFs. They are an amazing team of collaborators.”
Communicate information and opportunities with transparency
To ensure equitable outcomes through coproduction, communication must be multifaceted and inclusive to build authentic relationships with those most affected by a system. This includes sharing accessible information, creating space for questions, detailing priorities, and listening. This means co-creating a vision of successful partnership that engages new champions.
University of Colorado Denver
The Learning Assistant program works to improve not only student achievement, but also student relationships and sense of belonging. “LAs are a big part of the inclusivity mission,” says Dr. Laurel Hartley. “This is important in large first-year classes where faculty can’t get to know everyone—the Learning Assistants help bring insight to the faculty members.”
Beck Harrott, an alum of CU Denver, former LA, and current medical student points out that “the role is not a ‘one shoe fits all’ model.” LAs helped with classes in a variety of ways—in and outside of the classroom—and are given a lot of flexibility to help students, which he found helpful. While working as an LA, Beck recounts one time where a student in the process of a gender transition mentioned they didn’t feel comfortable working in a group.
Beck, understanding that his role required advocating for his peers and building a culture where all students feel included, felt comfortable sharing this with the course instructor. “[B]eing able to just like say, ‘Hey, I know you really want these small groups, but I don’t think this person is going to be able to learn or even show up to class if they’re forced to be in a group.’ Listening to me, the professor was able to make accommodations. And none of the other students really knew or it wasn’t a big deal. But being able to slide that in there was super helpful.”
University of New Mexico
PLFs are recruited in many ways—recommendations can come from faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants; from other PLFs; and from appeals to students through student organizations and campus communication channels. The only criterion for prospective PLFs is that they must have demonstrated academic success in the course they want to support (typically “B” or better).
Dr. Buckholz’s PLFs are a daily presence in her classes. She reminds students to attend PLF help sessions and integrates PLFs as mentors and leaders into her active learning activities in lecture. Students are inspired to become PLFs and reach out to Dr. Buckholz to join her team. Each semester, Dr. Buckholz also solicits recommendations from her current team of PLFs. “One of the things I’ve struggled with is our team is female-biased and it’s hard to recruit males and non-binary students, although our team has included all of these students over the years.” Dr. Buckholz maintains an on-going list of potential PLFs to reach out to—those who she knows or have been recommended by current PLFs. “I make efforts to reach out to a variety of students, both by gender and ethnicity.”
These efforts must be transparent, so students are aware of the opportunities available to them and that their expertise is essential and desired by faculty. It establishes students as important partners in transforming the student experience. Avery Bachman-Rhodes, a former PLF and current employee at UNM, recalls the impact of having a faculty member recognize her potential and personally seek her out for a leadership role. “I was ecstatic to be invited by Dr. Buckholz to apply as a PLF. I felt recognized as having the potential to be an effective part of creating a productive and inclusive learning environment for my peers.”
Read how UNM and CU Denver continued their commitment to establishing effective, sustainable improvement with students in the second blog post in this series on Authentic Coproduction in Action.
Ready to Coproduce More Equitable Outcomes?
Learn more about how to create opportunities for coproduction in your context with a free resource, Foundations for Authentic Coproduction from Shift—an SEP learning partner. It lays out a framework for coproduction that goes over the five foundations mentioned here, including tips and tools for each foundation.
Authentic coproduction with students, when done with intention, prioritizes their voices and experiences. This means learning from and connecting with a diverse array of students. Shift’s free video resource Building a Culture of Empathy & Capacity for Change goes more into how to do this.
The SEP has a catalog of learning from university and learning partners in its SEP Resource Hub. These resources are designed primarily for campus leadership, administrators, and staff to utilize innovative, evidence-based practices in their daily work, including ways to engage faculty to improve student experience in the classroom.
- Theresa Todd, Improvement Advisor
- Karen Zeribi, Founder and Chief Visionary
University of Colorado Denver:
- Beckston Harrott, Alum, Department of Biology
- Mike Swing, Student, Department of Biology
- Amanda Beyer-Purvis, Former Project Manager, Office of Inclusive Excellence in STEM
- Laurel Hartley, Associate Professor, Integrative Biology
University of New Mexico:
- Avery Bachman-Rhodes, Alum, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program
- Lyndsey Engelmann, Student, Department of Biology
- Nell Johnson, Alum, Department of English Language and Literature
- Kimran Buckholz, Principal Lecturer III, Department of Biology
- Carolyn Hushman, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology
- Sushilla Knottenbelt, Principal Lecturer III, Department of Chemistry
The authors wish to thank the following for their contributions to this blog series: Shay Bluemer-Miroite, Director of Programs at Shift for her insights and suggestions; Gaby España and Sara Veltkamp of Minerva Strategies, for facilitating author interviews and their significant input shaping the content.
 University of Toledo, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of Colorado Denver, Portland State University, University of New Mexico, Colorado State University
 Shift, Association of Public Land Grant Universities, Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, College Transition Collaborative, PERTS, EducationCounsel, funded by the Raikes Foundation