Engaging Students as Partners in Chinese Contexts

Tracy X. P. Zou, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Administration and Policy, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. See more about Tracy’s research here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tracy-Zou

Students as partners (SaP) involves students and faculty members working collaboratively and contributing equally to curricular and pedagogical development (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014). One form of SaP is to position students as co-researchers who participate in research design and development to inquire into their own learning and make recommendations to enhance the curriculum or the pedagogy (Dollinger et al., 2023). SaP has emerged as an impactful practice because it empowers students to exercise their agency to improve the learning process, generating benefits such as students being more active in learning. However, many scholars and practitioners do not see SaP as viable in Chinese contexts because SaP requires teachers and students to have equal status, which challenges the traditional hierarchical relationship between them. Liang and Matthews (2021) note that 17 out of 18 articles in Asian contexts highlight characteristics of Asian cultures as a barrier to successful SaP.

In the past four years, I have worked with several faculty members on three SaP projects involving 43 undergraduate student partners in two research-intensive universities in Hong Kong. These student partners all assumed a co-researcher’s role as one form of SaP. In the three SaP projects, students and faculty members collaboratively researched three aspects of learning: the impact of COVID-19 on learning, student identity and learning, and undergraduate research experiences.

We found that students in Chinese contexts can confidently assume partnership even though most of them had initial hesitation and uncertainty (Zou et al., 2023a). It needs to be noted that such initial hesitation and uncertainty have also been identified in studies in Western contexts (Bovill, 2019; Godbold et al., 2022), indicating that Chinese cultural characteristics might not be a major barrier. This finding has interested editors of University World News who invited us to contribute a news item (Zou et al., 2023b).

Furthermore, our research identified multiple contradictions between the SaP project design and students’ enactment of partnership (Zou et al., 2023a). For example, the project funding was obtained by faculty members, and student partners were recruited at a later stage, making it impossible for the student partners to participate in any decision-making on the project deliverables, timelines, and budgets. Based on our research, the project design elements exert a more substantial influence on students’ enactment of partnership than the Chinese cultural characteristics; the latter primarily affected the initial stage of partnership development.

Meanwhile, we are also aware of the limitations of our research and are cautious not to over- generalise findings to all Chinese contexts. Some parts of mainland China maintain a stronger power distance between teachers and students, which may pose additional challenges to SaP. Additionally, our involvement of student partners only focuses on the co-researchers’ role, leaving questions unanswered about other roles, such as co-inquirers and co-creators.

Nevertheless, we still propose four practical suggestions for engaging students as partners in Chinese contexts. These suggestions are: 

  1. Choose a topic of inquiry that is relevant and of interest to students. When students are interested in the topic, they are more likely to be partners as they want to contribute to resolving the issue.
  2. Align project design elements with the partnership concept as far as possible. For example, involving students earlier in the project conceptualisation stage might enhance partnership.
  3. Build a collaborative environment among student partners. When students collaborate among themselves, they are likely to be more confident in making contributions.
  4. Help students comprehend the partnership concept by encouraging different opinions and counter-arguments. When students realise they do not always have to follow faculty members’ views, they are more likely to assume worthwhile partnership roles.

Finally, we would like to point out that SaP is only a means, not an end. We hope that SaP projects eventually become a normal practice in education in such a way that reflects mutual respect, reciprocity and shared responsibility. To achieve this, project-based SaP initiatives that are often one-off and bound by specific timelines and budgets are insufficient. Therefore, we suggest that colleagues work towards a more inclusive learning environment through developing SaP-informed practices and ethos. Effective learning surely involves partnership between students and teachers.


Bovill, C. (2019). Student-staff partnerships in learning and teaching: an overview of current practice and discourse. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 43(4), 385-398. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2019.1660628

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. Jossey-Bass.

Dollinger, M., Tai, J., St Jorre, T. J., Ajjawi, R., Krattli, S., Prezioso, D., & McCarthy, D. (2023). Student partners as co-contributors in research: a collective autoethnographic account. Higher Education Research & Development, 42(6), 1377-1390. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2022.2139359

Godbold, N., Hung, T.-Y., & Matthews, K. E. (2022). Exploring the role of conflict in co-creation of curriculum through engaging students as partners in the classroom. Higher Education Research & Development, 41(4), 1104-1118. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.1887095

Liang, Y., & Matthews, K. E. (2021). Students as partners practices and theorisations in Asia: a scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development, 40(3), 552-566. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1773771

Zou, T. X. P., Kochhar-Lindgren, G., Hoang, A. P., Lam, K., Barry, T. J., & Leung, L. Y. Y. (2023a). Facilitating students as partners: co-researching with undergraduates in Asian university contexts. Educational Review. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2023.2246674

Zou, T. X. P., Kochhar-Lindgren, G., Hoang, A. P., Lam, K., Barry, T. J., & Leung, L. Y. Y. (2023b, September 23). Why students should be partners in their own learning. University World News. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20230920104611689

4 thoughts on “Engaging Students as Partners in Chinese Contexts”

  1. This type of SaP sounds suspicious as it seems to be using students as research assistants without even acknowledge them as the co-authors.

    1. Hi, Joy. Thanks for the comments. Yes, it could be problematic if we do not design the project in a way that recognises students’ contributions. In the projects I was involved, we had co-authored manuscripts published with students as named co-authors (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07294360.2022.2157799) and presentations in seminars that were led by students. Just the papers about how students assume partnership do not involve students as co-authors as they were subjects in these studies. Papers/presentations/projects that students contributed as partners involved their names in a significant way (e.g. co-authors and collaborators). That said, your comments are very valuable and need to be taken as design considerations. Thank you.

  2. Hi Tracy, your blog provides insightful findings about SaP, and I’m intrigued by your research. It seems that you use “Chinese contexts” in a cultural sense. However, the cultural complexity of Hong Kong makes me want to know more about the details of your research. For example, are participants in your research all Chinese? Or there are some non-Chinese participants in Chinese contexts? This may influence your findings about the relation between Chinese cultural characteristics and successful SaP.

    1. Hi, Yanzhen, thanks a lot for your comments and questions. I found them inspiring. You are very right that the cultural complexity of Hong Kong makes the interpretation of ‘Chinese contexts’ tricky. Approximately 60% of the research participants self-identified as Hong Kong Chinese, and the others came from all different backgrounds (e.g. non-Chinese who regarded Hong Kong as home; Chinese born in overseas).

      So, I suggest we make sense of the findings by viewing ‘Chinese contexts’ as related to the contexts surrounding the institutions where the study was conducted rather than individuals. Since SaP encountered many challenges in institutions located in China (and some other Asian countries), I wish to inquire into whether and how it can possibly be realised to some extent.

      By the way, I haven’t looked into how participants’ diverse cultural backgrounds are associated with their individual/collective SaP experiences, but I guess there would be some very interesting findings.

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