The value(s) of working with students as partners – Kathryn A. Sutherland

How can teachers start a collaborative partnership with students?

If you’re contemplating working in collaborative partnership with students on enhancing learning and teaching, starting with ‘values’ is a good approach. What do YOU value as a teacher and what do students value as learners? How do those values coincide (or clash?) with what the university values and expects of you and of students? Staff-student partnerships can help to grapple with and answer such questions.

Why did you choose to co-present with your students in HKU’s Students as Partners Series?

I co-presented with a current student partner, Ozzman Symes-Hull and a former student, and now staff partner, Dr Emma Tennent. The first principle we shared was based on a mantra a former student partner and co-author (see Leota & Sutherland 2020) used to say to us often, “Nothing about us, without us”. When talking about students as partners, we should always include students! Hence, I invited Ozzman and Emma to be involved in the seminar series.

Our presentation described the values-based student-staff partnership programme at our university (Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand). You can read more in our co-authored book chapters (Lenihan-Ikin, et al, 2019; Sutherland, et al, 2019 and Leota & Sutherland, 2020).

Can you share a specific project/programme wherein you engaged in student-staff partnerships? Tell us more about it?

The programme is called Ako in Action. ‘Ako’ is a word from the Māori language (Māori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand) which means both “to teach” and “to learn” (i.e., there are no separate words for these activities, rather they are inseparable and reciprocal). Ako in Action pairs lecturers with two students from disciplines other than their own, in order to create a partnership to enhance teaching and learning. The students observe lectures and/or consult on learning and teaching design and share their outsider perspectives (as students from different disciplines) with the lecturer to encourage reflection upon what might enhanced or changed to improve the overall learning experience. Both lecturers and students report that they learn so much from the partnerships, about their own learning, about the machinations and challenges of teaching, about the perspectives of people from outside the discipline, and about what makes the university work as a learning organisation.

What has made the project/programme successful?

With nearly 200 participants since its inception in 2018, Ako in Action seems to work because it has been co-designed and co-created with students from the outset and because it is based on shared values that prompt reflective conversations. The students who helped co-design the programme came up with two incredibly important ideas that are the bedrock of Ako in Action: the first was that it should be based upon and structured around the values at the heart of the university’s Learning and Teaching Strategy. These values resonate deeply with the principles of effective students as partners work, as identified by Cook-Sather, Bovill & Felten (2014): respect, reciprocity and responsibility. The values gave us the shape for the workshop programme that supports the student-staff partnerships, and they also underpin the questions that the student partners ask the academic partners and the suggestions they provide for making improvements. The second idea our co-creating students came up with was that all partnerships should include at least two students. Unlike many partnership programmes, where one student is paired with one lecturer, the students in our pilot programme told us that they felt much more comfortable working with a lecturer if they were joined by at least one other student: it gave them confidence, but it also provided the lecturer with a broader range of perspectives.

What takeaway message do you have for teachers who want to try out student-staff partnerships?

Identify the values at the heart of your teaching and encourage your student partners to identify the values that drive their learning. Come to a shared understanding of the values that underpin teaching at your university and talk collectively about which of these values resonate with your practice, what you’re bumping against or confounded by, and how your partnership might help to influence what the university values. Secondly, if you’re getting a staff-student partnership underway, think about including more than one student in the partnership to give them confidence and you a wider range of perspectives. And have fun!


  • Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Lenihan-Ikin, I., Olsen, B., Sutherland, K.A., Tennent, E., & Wilson, M. (2020). Partnership as a civic process. Chapter 5, pp. 87-98. In (Eds.) L. Mercer-Mapstone & S. Abbot. The power of partnership: Students, staff, and faculty revolutionizing higher education. Center for Engaged Learning Open Access Series. ISBN: 978-1-951414-02-3.
  • Leota, A. & Sutherland, K.A. (2020). “With your basket of knowledge and my basket of knowledge, the people will prosper”: Learning and leading in a student-staff partnership program. pp. 93-102 in Building Courage, Confidence, and Capacity in Learning and Teaching through Student-Faculty Partnership. Eds. Alison Cook-Sather and Chanelle Wilson. Lexington Books.
  • Sutherland K.A., Lenihan-Ikin I., Rushforth C. (2019). The value of working with students as partners. pp. 37-54 in: Lygo-Baker S., Kinchin I., Winstone N. (eds) Engaging Student Voices in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Dr. Kathryn Sutherland

Dr. Kathryn Sutherland

Associate Professor
Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Please cite as: Sutherland, K.A. (2022, Feb). The value(s) of working with students as partners. Teaching and Learning Connections, 16. Retrieved from

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