In the first blog of a two-part series, we explored how University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) and University of New Mexico (UNM) demonstrated their commitment to partnering with students and communicating information and opportunities with transparency. With these foundations firmly in place at each respective institution, a culture of improvement with students began to take shape.
The foundations of coproduction (see Figure 1) help create effective and sustainable structures for deeper partnerships with student leaders. In this second part of the series, we will 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. These foundations of coproduction build upon each other to create a deep, sustainable practice of improvement. Each of their stories provide key lessons for others who want to engage in coproduction to improve student experience.
- Commit to partnering with students
- Communicate information and opportunities with transparency
- Consult students as experts
- Cultivate shared language, approach, and agreements
- Collaborate, centering on equal opportunities and power with faculty and students
Consult with students as experts
Students have rich and valuable perspectives to share about how to best support and engage other students. Universities often seek to build their capacity to truly listen to students and incorporate feedback about the support students need, but may not know how to create the systems that support this culture of partnership. When campuses elevate the voices of students, they can help inform priorities and build a practice of authentic coproduction.
University of Colorado Denver: Inclusive Excellence Interns
Drs. Laurel Hartley and Amanda Beyer-Purvis, inspired by the partnerships happening between students and faculty through the Learning Assistants (LA) program, saw an opportunity to encourage the power of student-led improvement within an entire department. In Fall 2020, they piloted a student-led program in the biology department, hiring five undergraduate students as Inclusive Excellence Interns. These students were tasked to improve the student experience in introductory biology and carried out their project with guidance from faculty advisors only when needed.
Interns initiated all meetings and determined when they wanted feedback, support, or advice. Together, the interns decided that creating a sense of community among incoming first-year students was the most meaningful way to help students find support, persist, and succeed in and beyond their introductory biology course. So, they developed a student-centered “Welcome to Biology” webpage that included resources and community forums for all intro biology students. The interns acted as moderators, answering questions, and providing community-building opportunities such as games, peer interactions, and community nights that developed a sense of community for students who were not experiencing the traditional peer connections on campus.
The interns found this to be a priority project because incoming first year students would be completely remote. Having a centralized Canvas (CU Denver’s student learning management platform) shell that served as an academic, social, and FAQ resource was something they considered key to improving equitable outcomes for first year remote learning.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that we worked on…was just creating this kind of network, this little hub for all students to feel included and be able to have a safe place to go and communicate with each other,” says Mike Swing, a fourth-year student who served as a LA and Inclusive Excellence Intern.
University of New Mexico: Supporting the Whole Student
Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs) are assigned to classes of at least 50 students, with a focus on larger classes; the goal is to have at least one PLF for every 50 students, if possible. In addition to PLFs, UNM also offers virtual student learning support though Online Learning Assistants (OLAs) who, much like PLFs, work with both faculty and student, only fully remotely. In the last year UNM had 38 PLFs supporting 43 courses which included 2,700 students.
PLFs support equity in courses with large class sizes in a variety of ways. PLFs increase access to the instructional team both during and outside class time, assist instructors in using active learning strategies shown to positively impact success for diverse groups of students, and serve as “near-peer” mentors who normalize personal and academic challenges to encourage help-seeking behaviors. PLFs are key to boosting equitable learning outcomes for students in general education courses.
“I think PLFs assist with a lot more than just material; they encourage students to be confident and help with their self-efficacy,” says Nell Johnson, an alum of UNM and former OLA for Dr. Kimran Buckholz. “We definitely are an emotionally supportive component of the class which is super important for persistence in STEM classes.”
Dr. Buckholz adds: “I can confirm that [students] often say ‘I really appreciated being taught by someone who already took the class.’ It’s a very different experience than being taught by graduate TAs. We have the opportunity to bring in students who actually took the class and understand what the most difficult concepts are and the anxiety and stress that students go through. Graduate TAs and professors cannot understand this as meaningfully as PLFs can.”
Cultivate shared language, approach, and agreements
Cultivating partnership includes building capacity, developing a shared language and approach, and policies and agreements for working with students. Creating training opportunities and compensation for work is critical. Fair compensation for students’ time and expertise helps to ensure more equitable access to leadership opportunities and representation of student voices, since many students are balancing work and school requirements and are unable to volunteer for unpaid activities. This requires that universities allocate budgets and resources to building student leadership opportunities.
University of Denver Colorado
The five students recruited as Inclusive Excellent Interns had previously served as Learning Assistants which helped build upon their previous teaching training and experience. Still, to prepare for this new role, students participated in a free Coursera course on inclusive leadership to encourage their voice and agency to lead as students. The course emphasized that people can lead from any place, helping students find their lever of power from any position.
Given the impact Learning Assistants and Inclusive Excellent Interns have on the learning environment, CU Denver ensures these roles are accessible to many students. For example, the LA role is a paid position. LAs are funded by the university’s budget, not by tuition or fees, at the Denver minimum wage of approximately $16/hour for 9 hours/week. CU Denver hires 80-100 LAs per semester to facilitate learning in lecture and lab courses in biology, chemistry, math, and physics. Inclusive Excellence interns worked on average five hours per week and earned $16/hr. Funding was provided through HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute).
Additionally, all CU Denver LAs take a 2-credit course to prepare them for the leadership positions and offers a place to learn from other LAs. CU Denver pays all or part of the tuition for the training course, because “paying people a good wage is important,” says Dr. Laurel Hartley. “This way, there isn’t a barrier to participation.”
Investing in student leadership is crucial to positioning students as equal partners in driving improvement efforts. Beck Harrott, an alum of CU Denver, former LA, and current medical student saw the LA role directly influence the class structure. “I helped initiate a pilot with a professor where we introduced concept maps to a physiology course. The integration was slow; we wanted to be sure we were adding content that helped clarify concepts student often struggled with. When classes moved to fully remote, we transitioned the concepts maps online. Given the positive feedback we received from students and the need to adapt to online learning, we decided to bring the concepts maps to a general biology course and implemented them immediately. Though it was difficult to restructure traditional lecture courses, the improvement we saw in student grades told us our efforts made an impact.”
University of New Mexico
To prepare students for the leadership and teaching required for their role, all PLFs enroll in a 3-credit EDPY (Educational Psychology) class called “Facilitating College Learning.” This class, led by Dr. Carolyn Hushman, is a co-learning space, a place to learn and share experiences among other students navigating similar challenges and successes. Specifically, students study learning theories in education and gain practical strategies they can immediately use in their courses. Taken together, this seminar is designed to build a community of practice where students and faculty are both learners and teachers.
PLFs are paid for hours spent in class and for time supporting students outside of class. They typically work around 10 hours per week at $12/hr. PLF salaries are paid through university fees.
PLFs report the experience enhancing their communication skills and helping them see the student community more positively. They also report the EDPY course being instrumental to their success. To support students in this role, they also received a once-a-week training with all PLFs about topics including networking, communal group work and professional development, e.g., resume/CV presentations.
Lyndsey Englemann, student and current PLF at UNM, used the knowledge and training she received to influence the classroom learning environment, and felt comfortable taking this initiative with the support of her faculty lead. “Once I received an email from a student who was going to class but didn’t understand the material. They felt comfortable enough to tell me they were too afraid to ask questions in class. I knew this wasn’t a unique experience, and I wanted to find a way to help more students. So, I spoke to my faculty lead and recommended we reserve time at the beginning of class to share challenges and successes. We agreed this would give students time to reflect on their experiences and normalize not understanding the course content on the first try.
Collaborate, centering on equal opportunities and power between faculty and students
Authentic collaboration distributes leadership in a way that creates equal opportunities for students to lead and sustain authentic partnerships. This requires evaluating hierarchies and power dynamics and creating opportunities where imbalances of power are minimized. This way, all collaborators have equal opportunity to engage in the improvement process.
University of Colorado Denver
Faculty understood they needed new models for the faculty-student relationship to build authentic partnership with students. To truly engage in the coproduction process, Dr. Hartley wanted “LAs that can say what needs to be said and talk as colleagues with faculty. [We have to] set up an environment where we can listen to the LAs and give them agency to do what they need to do.”
One of the ways faculty and students built this collaborative environment is through weekly one-on-one meetings to prepare for in-class instruction. Mike Swing explains: “We’re able to meet with our faculty every week and have important discussions about what went well, and what didn’t. We’re able to debrief every single week and have conversations that are meaningful with our students about what’s going well, that’s really crucial for us and the role we play in student learning.”
University of New Mexico
The majority of instructors (84%) report not being able to use strategies for active learning that are essential for student engagement during class without the support of the PLFs. The PLF is important in lowering the student-to-instructor ratios, increasing the opportunity for more students to receive personalized instruction and feedback in the classroom.
“I think the biggest difference here at UNM is that our PLFs are part of that instructional team, that they are meeting with the instructor of the course. It’s an opportunity for them to say, ‘yeah, I struggled with this unit, can I ask you a few questions before I go out there and try to help others,’” Dr. Hushman shares. ”It’s a partnership between the instructor as well as the PLF student. And I’m not aware of other programs on campus that are bringing the instructor to the table in quite the same way.”
“Learning assistants are like equalizers, because they’re in the middle and help break down power dynamics,” said Nell Johnson. “We learn from students what professors might not see happening in the classroom, and we can then go to professors and say what we heard from students. We work with professors to make sure changes are made based on what students say they need.”
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.