Learning from the pandemic to embed empathy in students-as-partners practice

Overnight the pandemic levelled the experiences of students and staff like no other development in students-as-partners (SaP) practice.  While some existing inequities were exacerbated, and some new ones emerged during the pandemic, we all found ourselves going through a collectively-shared trauma and checking in on, and caring for each other, from our isolated bedrooms and kitchen tables.  At the same time, we found ourselves working with tools and approaches that were new to many of us.  This unprecedented and sudden change to the daily running of mass Higher Education created different kinds of dialogues between students and staff, which were fundamentally underpinned by empathy.

This unprecedented and sudden change to the daily running of mass Higher Education created different kinds of dialogues between students and staff, which were fundamentally underpinned by empathy.  Universities across the globe began to reflect on their assessment structures to prevent students from being adversely affected by the pandemic (including longer extension options, no detriment policies, and re-submission opportunities) – with some universities reflecting, in particular, on how partnership could support such revisions (Cook-Sather, 2021).  And on a day-to-day level students and staff gained glimpses into each other’s lives and the range of challenges each was experiencing in the ‘new normal’ (including mental health difficulties, long COVID, caring responsibilities, job insecurity, and digital poverty).

Reflecting on what matters

In reflecting on students as partners since the beginning of the pandemic, it is helpful to explore, in the words of Cook-Sather and Bala (2020: 1), “what matters and is necessary … and what perhaps does not matter as much or may not be necessary.”  As we move towards a post-pandemic future, “what matters and is necessary” is empathy for each other.  In building on what we have learnt from our experiences of emergency teaching and learning, empathy for students and staff should always be placed at the centre of student-staff partnership practice.

This might sound like an obvious statement, and many partnerships have always been based on empathy.  Yet the pandemic revealed and required new levels of empathy.  For example, in their review of the impacts of COVID-19 on SaP, five student editors from the International Journal for Students as Partners noted: “an increased awareness of the similar, yet distinct, ways students and staff are vulnerable. … has reinforced our responsibilities as students to be mindful of the pressures staff face” (Ntem et al. 2020: 5).  Furthermore, in a community poll across the sector several participants commented about greater understanding of one another (Matthews et al. 2020), for example: “I think students have a greater understanding of the work-life pressures of staff and they are having huge insights into the personal side of lecturers. I think it has flattened the hierarchy somewhat in a good way.”

Building on what matters

So how might we build on the positives of this higher level of empathy for one another, developing an ‘alternative normal’ as we emerge from the pandemic?  This is not a simple task, as empathy takes time and consideration, and maintaining empathy-based relationships between students and staff works against long-established hierarchical and more distancing structures and practices.  Sustaining empathy-based student-staff relationships requires providing space for people to share their stories and recognising that from an equity perspective some people may need more space than others.  The pandemic has brought many difficulties, but it has also demonstrated alternative ways of engaging and working together, some of which have the potential to enhance future students-as-partners practice.

Carrying forward what matters

Why not take time to reflect on your own SaP experiences through the pandemic?  Think through “what matters and is necessary” from your perspective. Use this opportunity to build on the unanticipated outcomes arising from engaging in pedagogical partnerships ‘at a distance’, such as that found by one respondent to the community poll:
“I think my relationship with my students is deeper as a result. We are communicating effectively and using humour to get over the hurdles. We are working more collaboratively and teaching each other” (Matthews et al. 2020). 

Ruth L Healey, University of Chester (rhealey@chester.ac.uk) and Healey HE Consultants

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Alison Cook-Sather, Kelly Matthews and Mick Healey for their insightful and thought-provoking feedback on earlier drafts of this blog.


Cook-Sather, A. (2021). Responding to twin pandemics: Reconceptualizing assessment practices for equity and justice. Research & Practice in Assessment 16(2), 5-16

Cook-Sather, A. & Bala, N. (Eds) (2020). Naming and navigating troubling transitions: Pedagogical partnership during the pandemic. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education Issue 30

Matthews, K. E., Cook-Sather, A., Godbold, N., Healey, M., & Rafferty, C. (2020). Learner-teacher partnership in times of COVID-19: A community poll to share practices and perspectives. Brisbane: University of Queensland.  Findings available on this website.

Ntem, A., Nguyen, E., Rafferty, C., Kwan, C., & Benlahcene, A. (2020). Students as partners in crisis? Student co-editors’ perspectives on COVID-19, values, and the shift to virtual spaces. International Journal for Students as Partners 4(2), 1–8.

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