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Students as Partners Toolkit


Introduction to Students as Partners

Dr Mollie Dollinger


Defining Students as Partners

Students as partners (SaP) is an increasingly recognised approach to co-design with students at our universities. The term itself arises from decades-long research on student voice and the growing consensus that students have a right to actively drive their educational experiences (Cook-Sather, 2018; Matthews & Dollinger, forthcoming). A well-known definition of SaP from Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten (2014) defines the approach as a:

…reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualisation, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis (p. 6-7). 

Inherent in this definition is the principle of reciprocal learning, which is a key feature of SaP that sets it apart from similar concepts such as student engagement or student centredness. Reciprocal learning stresses that when staff work in partnership with students, they should not only be providing a learning opportunity for the students, but also learning from students. In other words, SaP is about recognising that students have expertise in their lived experiences, for example, what it’s like to be a taught to in a classroom, or to experience a service or program. Without students, staff can only guess or assume what students experience and how best to support students in their learning. 

Other unique features of SaP are the concepts of ‘equal contribution’ and ‘shared responsibility’. These concepts are critical when supporting students and staff to work collaboratively in partnership. To illustrate, while students and staff might contribute differently to a project, everyone is expected to contribute and should be supported to do so. Staff can help enable student contributions in partnership by providing transparency or background to the project and creating an environment of respect and inclusion, as well as facilitating any necessary training. Further, by actively involving students in the design, implementation, or analysis of our educational services and products, we also signal that the provision of education, and the learning process itself, is a shared responsibility across students and staff. 

At its core, SaP is a relationship-based pedagogy that challenges traditional the traditional teacher-student dynamic by acknowledging students’ expertise in their lived experiences. The approach repositions students as colleagues or peers to staff and highlights that we all have an important role to play in the provision of innovative and inclusive learning environments. 

Types of Student Partners Activities 

While all partnership activities are based on several key principles, such as reciprocal learning and respect, practices can vary depending on the context and goal of SaP. Factors to consider when selecting the appropriate practice can include stage of the project, available time and resourcing, and the previous experience of working in partnership that involved students and staff have. In this section, we provide an overview of four types of SaP activities that can be utilised by staff to embed a culture of partnership. 

Students as Consultants

The first approach to embed partnership is known as ‘students as consultants’. This is often considered an entry approach to partnership, as it is the easiest and quickest method to kickstart partnership. In this approach, student partners are positioned as expert consultants and supported to help provide staff with feedback, guidance, or potential ideas. Examples of practices that align to the approach of students as consultants include:

  • Involving students as participants in UX design 
  • Engaging with students in co-design workshops
  • Gathering student feedback and ideas through collaborative whiteboards or hackathons 

Distinct to students as consultants, compared to other partnership approaches, is that dialogue with students does not necessarily have to be ongoing. For example, staff could host a one-day workshop where they ask students to help them improve services or programs. However, students as consultants should not be confused with involving students through survey design or automated feedback submission portals, as all partnership approaches must foster dialogue between students and staff. 

Students as Staff Mentors

The next approach to embed partnership is known as ‘students as staff mentors’. This approach is considered a more mature version of ‘students as consultants’ as students are positioned as ongoing mentors or experts that can, over time, help to mentor staff on what it’s like to be a student. Examples of practices could include:

  • Creation of a student advisory group or student reference committee 
  • Supporting a 1:1 students’ mentoring staff program 

In these practices, the traditional student-teacher dynamic is reversed, and staff are encouraged to reflect on what they could learn from students. It is important to also remember that mentorship is a practice that unfolds over time and starts with building a strong relationship and creating a sense of trust and mutual respect. Staff who seek to engage with student mentors should first spend time getting to know the students and helping them build confidence that will support them in their mentorship roles. 

Students as Co-Creators

Another popular approach to embed partnership is known as ‘students as co-creators’. In this approach students and staff work together towards a specific output or outcome. For example, students and staff could collaboratively create learning resources, marketing materials, or co-draft new policies. 

In instances where student and staff co-creation is the goal, it’s also important to provide role clarity and set goals to everyone involved upfront. How will students and staff equally contribute? How will the project stay to timeline and within scope? As, while the process of co-creation often results in innovative and fit-for-purpose outputs, the projects themselves are often more time-consuming and complicated than staff anticipate. 

Students as Co-Leaders 

The final approach of SaP is known as ‘students as co-leaders’. These are activities where students and staff share the responsibility in directing, facilitating, or deciding work or initiatives. Examples could include:

  • Students and staff as co-researchers
  • Students and staff co-facilitating training workshops or events 

Critical in these practices, however, is ensuring that students are truly colleagues or peers with staff and not superficial figureheads. For example, if the project calls for students and staff to co-research, then students should be properly supported to first learn about the research process and help to inform the design of study. Students should also be given input to help frame research questions or methods. Students should help co-facilitate in collecting data, analysing results, and writing up any findings. If the time or resources do not allow for this level of partnership, then staff should consider a ‘students as staff mentors’ approach instead, where students mentor staff on specific aspects of the research project. 


Students as Partners in the Library 

While the frame of SaP has more commonly been applied to discuss classroom experiences, the university library is also a fertile ground to enact the practice. In fact, many libraries already base their service provision around ideas of partnership, for example, with academics in their unit or subject design or with industry partners. Students are also typically involved in the library, though not necessarily in partnership, such as hiring students as greeters or support staff, or as student casuals to shelve books. 

Salisbury, Dollinger and Vanderlelie (2020) have previously identified six potential domains of student partnership in the library. The CAUL project team behind this toolkit also added a seventh dimension to this framework, library learning and teaching. 

Domains of Student Partnership in the Library. 1. Library Space Design or Transformation. 2. Library Governance. 3. Service Improvement. 4. Resource Design. 5. Research. 6. Collection Renewal. 7. Library Learning and Teaching.



Library Space Design or Transformation

Relates directly to the changing or reimagining of library space. This could be relevant to creating a specific space in the library, changing of furniture, or having a completely new build

Library Governance

Relates to the strategic directions of the library, redesigning or introducing new policy, and/or specific committee groups

Service Improvement

Relates to service design, support, or evaluation of services that are managed by the library

Resource Design

Relates to the creation of instructional or support resources (not collection materials) for the library, either physical or online


Relates to research undertaken by the library

Collection Renewal

Relates to the collection renewal of books, serials and other artefacts managed by the library

Library Learning and Teaching

Relates to the teaching provided by the library staff, including study support workshops

These dimensions are useful examples for library staff to reflect on where they already support student partnership and in what other areas, they may want to support partnership in the future. 

Through this toolkit, we hope to provide tangible examples and guidance for staff who wish to embed SaP activities in their academic libraries. As ample evidence has shown (Curran, 2017; Dollinger & Lodge, 2020; Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017), engaging with students as partners can help improve services and teaching, help to create vibrant learning communities, and support students and staff to feel more connected and confident in their roles. 

Keep reading to begin your journey!