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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning



Whilst there are some clear benefits to working with students as partners in educational development and research, this is not to say that it is always appropriate, nor that it is without complexities. The values discussed previously help us to navigate some of these considerations if we embed them into our practice, but it is worth taking note to think them through more fully before embarking on a partnership project.

For instance, it is important to consider the ethical dimensions of the project, such as power dynamics within the partnership work; in some instances a formal ethical opinion may be appropriate. Furthermore, at the foundation of any partnership project work should be a commitment to ensuring that the opportunity to engage or apply is accessible to as many students as possible. This section will now provide a fuller reflection on each of the following considerations for your partnership project:

  • Power dynamics
  • Ethics
  • Setting boundaries
  • Timeframes and commitment
  • Payment
  • Recruitment, selection and access
  • Support


Power dynamics

There is an inherent power dynamic present in staff working with students, where the former are often positioned as the 'experts' - the figures of 'authority' (on the subject matter, systems and, ultimately, marking the assessments) - and the latter are often positioned as the passive recipients of their education. Challenging the status quo through working in partnership with students will come with some obstacles, but through ongoing dialogue about the practices and processes of education the partnership can begin to recognise, harness and develop an appreciation for the contributions being made by all parties involved.

Explaining these aspects to students will enable them to make a greater and more informed contribution to the project and work towards dismantling the perceived 'gatekeeper' position of the staff partner. Rather than seeking to remove all power imbalances, which would be difficult in the context of education, we can instead set clear boundaries for the partnership work that function to create a trusting environment for the student to bring their expertise to the table.

To do this, it is important to start any partnership project with a clear sense of both the staff and student member's responsibilities, which should be shared based on their expertise and what they can viably contribute to the project. Working with a student as a partner is not simply to assign work to a student and have them undertake a project on your behalf, but rather to see where contributions can be made by both parties and to agree together what the tasks are and who will undertake them (if they cannot be co-facilitated / co-developed). What is imperative is that both parties feel respected and that the relationship is built on trust: trust to feel confident to speak and question each other, and trust that both parties will be supported to complete the task,


Setting boundaries and expectations

One way to address ethical considerations is through boundary setting for the project. This clarity on the project's aims and focus will enable students to feel confident in voicing their thoughts, as the project's scope will be transparent. It might be that almost all aspects of the project are up for negotiation, which starts the project with a partnership approach from the beginning. Alternatively, there might still be boundaries that confine the project - such as budget, timeframes, feasibility - but so long as these are transparent this will make for a better working relationship.

For example, in working with a student on the development of some resources to support interactive learning in a lecture, you might explain that the topic of the lecture is pre-determined, but that you welcome their proposals on ways in which content could be made more interactive. In this instance, you might work with the student to develop their proposals; if you consider that some proposals might not work in practice, then you would explain your reasoning. What is important here is to develop shared understanding of what the project entails and of the impact it could have, and to be mindful that any staff-student partnership work involves power dynamics which need to be acknowledged and addressed in an equitable way.


Timeframes and commitment

One aspect of a project that will place an immediate boundary for the project is the timeframe in which in must be undertaken. This might be restricted through budgetary requirements (completed within the financial year) or in time for a particular Term's activities - research or teaching. Again, being clear about this from the start will set clear expectations.

The time commitment required should also be an early conversation. Cambridge Terms are short, and so be mindful of the students' own commitments in setting realistic and feasible timeframes for your project. Be clear what is required of them time-wise both with the student(s) and also with yourself: be sure that you have the time to support the student(s) and work with them on the project. That does not necessarily equate to spending masses of time together working in the same room, because the work might be divided between you both, but being available to answer questions and meeting regularly is important for effective partnership work.



The topic of paying students in partnership initiatives divides many student engagement practitioners, as it makes the student appear to be an 'employee', tipping the scales of partnership in favour of the staff in power. However, if we do not pay students for their contributions to a project, this is not equally valuing of their time. Important considerations include:

  1. Will payment make the opportunity more accessible to certain students who might need financial support in order to engage?
  2. How long is the project, and how much student time is required?
  3. If you do provide payment, how will you set the tone so that payment is understood as recognising their valuable contributions, rather than putting students in the position of 'employee'?

If students are paid, you will need to make sure that they are set up on the payroll, with the appropriate right-to-work checks, and that the payment is fair and in line with University policy. It is also worth noting here that due to some visa restrictions, paying students might make the opportunity inaccessible to international students; take time to consider this in line with the project's focus, aims and values. If financial reimbursement is not possible, consider reducing the workload implication for the student(s) and ensure there are other options to value their time. For example, other institutions have introduced certificates, digital badges, professional references, development opportunities (conferences, training), course credit, institutional award schemes, vouchers, etc).


Recruitment and selection

Whether you decide to recruit through an application process, select a student or offer the opportunity up to a wider cohort and work as a group, you will need to consider a few aspects to your recruitment approach first. As with all practice in education, it is important to consider the diverse voices and experiences of students and to ensure that various perspectives are being considered in the project. This might be included in the outset of the project proposal as it looks to capture students' opinions and so seeks the ensure a diverse sample of student voices in, say, the focus group, or you might be recruiting a group of students and looking for diverse representation of wider experiences.

It might be that you are focused on a particular aspect of the student experience and so selecting specific students is more appropriate, such as investigating experiences of disabled students. You might also require certain expertise from the student partner(s), such as studying a particular subject. This allows them to bring their own experiences as students within the cohort and draw on the networks they have built with other students. However, if you are undertaking a project that requires some detachment from the project - i.e. not influenced by their own experience - it might be better to recruit from outside of the cohort.

If you are recruiting via applications, you might like to consider hosting an application writing working to support students who may not feel confident completing this. Some criteria to help select successful applicants might include: clarity of communication, enthusiasm for the partnership approach, commitment to representing and considering a diverse range of voices, interest in developing the student experience, commitment to the role. Be aware of the risk of (consciously or sub-consciously) considering factors which are not actually important for the work involved in the project, such as quality of writing when the student will not be producing written work.

For a more full discussion of barriers and methods for inclusive engagement, you can explore the chapter cited here which considers various barriers to engagement and methods to increase accessibility to such opportunities (Lowe et al., 2023).



It is important to consider the support networks you have available before undertaking a partnership project. CCTL are here to support you with resources (such as this guide) and providing a sounding board for ideas, but you will want to explore where your support networks are within your Department or College. This might also be a senior figure on the Students' Union. Identify any existing advocates for working with students as partners to discuss their experiences and your ideas.

Support also includes financial support. The payment of students is discussed above, but you might need broader financial support in order to undertake and evaluate an intervention in the student experience. This is where the support networks in leadership positions will be invaluable, as there might be funds available for educationally developmental activities.


Ethics review

Depending on the nature and scope of the partnership project you are seeking to undertake, you might need to consider submitting the research project for ethical review. This will depend on the focus of your project and whether it falls more into the category of research or evaluation. To help navigate whether you need to explore research ethics approval before undertaking your project and for further information on the ethical principles or research and evaluation, please see our Research & Evaluation pages.

If you are looking to work with students as co-researchers, either within your discipline or within the context of learning and teaching development, there is a greater chance that you will need to seek ethics approval first. This might be through your local Research Ethics Committee, or through the Cambridge Higher Education Studies Research Ethics Committee.


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