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Student/Faculty Partnership Aims to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Notre Dame

April 12, 2022
ND Learning

When Notre Dame admitted the most diverse incoming class in its history last fall, ND Learning, and the university more broadly, faced an important question: how could they ensure that students with a wide variety of backgrounds and identities were fully supported in the classroom? 

While inclusive teaching has long been a priority at Notre Dame, expertise in this area has become increasingly valuable in recent years. As the class of 2025 arrived on campus in August, faculty and staff at the ND Learning | Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence were able to draw on their extensive knowledge of inclusive pedagogies to meet the moment. But they realized they were missing one key source of expertise on the topic: the students themselves. 

That is where Notre Dame’s Inclusive Pedagogy Partnership comes in. Classroom-focused pedagogical partnerships are collaborations among students, faculty, and staff, typically facilitated by teaching centers. Center staff work to pair trained undergraduate partners with interested instructors over the course of a semester. The student partner observes the instructor’s class sessions on a weekly basis, taking detailed notes, and then meets with the instructor regularly to discuss their teaching practices. 

While pedagogical partnerships can address a number of teaching concerns, the primary focus of Notre Dame’s program is creating inclusive classrooms and fostering a sense of belonging in all students—particularly underrepresented students. 

“The program allows students and faculty to connect in an entirely new way, outside of traditional educational hierarchies,” said Emily Donahoe, the program’s co-director. “It recognizes students as experts in inclusive learning and creates a space in which students and faculty alike can benefit from that expertise.”

Kaneb Center staff began recruiting students for a pilot run of the program last fall. To build the first cohort of student partners, they collaborated with campus programs that support high-achieving students from underrepresented populations. The goal was to hire student partners who could draw on their own experiences to discuss teaching practices that promote—or inhibit—a sense of belonging in the classroom. 

The pilot program began in earnest in Spring 2022 when selected students were paired with five faculty partners who hailed from a variety of disciplines but shared a commitment to making their teaching more inclusive. 

Program co-director Dominique Vargas noted that the relationships among students, faculty, and staff are key to the success of the program. “Shared values and goals help to make the program successful, but that is only possible if program participants are open to building sustainable and trusting relationships,” said Vargas. “We engage in the hard work of empathy and compassionate communication in order to build more inclusive learning environments for all students.”

Partners began building relationships in an orientation session conducted by Dr. Alison Cook-Sather, the Director of the Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges and one of the world’s leading experts on partnership programs. During this session, the partners were able to build rapport and to collaborate on a set of goals for their time in the partnership. 

Classroom observations and meetings between the student-faculty pairs began during the first week of classes. Though the new dynamic between students and faculty took a little getting used to, the partners quickly discovered the benefits of the student-faculty exchange enabled by the program. 

“This partnership has helped me to reflect on my teaching in great detail,” said Huy Huynh, Associate Teaching Professor of IT, Analytics and Operations (ITAO) in the Mendoza College of Business. “It’s nice to have a trusted student partner who has a unique background to observe and take notes of your teaching and the classroom environment and share their findings.”

Professor Huynh shared that one way the partnership improved his teaching is in helping him increase student engagement. With feedback from his student partner, he was able to adjust the mode of delivery in his course, sharing lecture slides and examples of live coding at the same time rather than separately. 

Yvette Pino, Huynh’s student partner, noted that after this small change, “the engagement just shot up. What we thought of as the ideal class at the beginning of the semester is becoming every single class,” she added. Huynh agrees: he observed that his students have appreciated the change, which “positively impacts their learning experience and outcomes.”

In her work in the program, Pino draws on the experiences of her friend group as well as her own experience of being the only Native American student in many of her classes. “That has been particularly helpful in our conversations, to make sure that students feel welcome,” she said. “If you can make a minority student feel welcome, you’re probably going to help all the other students feel welcome as well.”

One thing Pino appreciates about the program is the ability to draw on her expertise as a student to make a difference at Notre Dame. “A few weeks ago, I walked out of a meeting feeling so proud of the work we had done together and realizing that I’ve made an impact,” she said. “It’s really amazing to get that feeling of, ‘Wow, I have done something.’”

The partnership program also helps students reflect on their own learning. “Through conversations with their faculty partners, students make connections between their own experiences in the classroom and pedagogical practices,” said Vargas. “Their reflections can then help improve the experiences of all stakeholders—faculty, student partners, and students enrolled in the course.”

The program has so far been successful in creating dialogue around inclusive teaching and learning. Notre Dame Learning plans to continue the pilot phase of the program in the fall with a small cohort of partners, but program directors hope that in time it will be open to a wider swath of students and faculty. 

The Inclusive Pedagogy Partnership builds off the work of many similar programs. While pedagogical partnerships have been around for more than a decade, their numbers have been expanding in recent years. Leaders in the field of educational development have recently argued that, in the wake of a pandemic that exacerbated educational inequity, partnering with students on both a class and institutional level is more critical than ever.

“We hope Notre Dame’s Inclusive Pedagogy Partnership will help instructors reflect on and cultivate more inclusive teaching practices, obviously,” said Donahoe. “But more than that, we hope it will start to reconfigure traditional relationships between students, staff, and instructors. Students have so much to contribute to the conversation about inclusive teaching and learning. We just have to start listening.”