Teaching & Learning


Creating inclusive student-staff partnerships

To embrace UCL's diverse student body, fostering strong student-staff partnerships is vital. This resource offers practical guidance for those in partnership with marginalised students.

Green logo with white text reading Teaching Toolkit

13 September 2023

This toolkit highlights the importance of creating an inclusive and culturally sensitive environment in educational partnership initiatives. This can be acheived through open communication, acknowledging diverse experiences and managing power dynamics, while safe-guarding wellbeing.

Student partnership enhances collaborative learning, empowering critical thinking, especially for marginalised students, crucially amplifying their voices and perspectives for inclusive academic success. This resource offers practical guidance for staff and students, drawing from both the lived experiences of marginalised students and UCL staff insights. 

View all teaching toolkits

Note: pseudonyms have been applied to all quoted excerpts. 

* Terms used

“Marginalised" typically refers to individuals or groups who are excluded or disadvantaged in some way. Marginalisation can take many forms, including socio-economic status, historical bias, discrimination based on age, race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc resulting in inequitable access to resources (such as healthcare, education, or housing), social exclusion, reduced life opportunities, and treatment. 

Student partners collaborate with staff in a joint effort to achieve project goals or objectives. They share responsibilities and decision-making, and contribute their expertise, resources, or efforts to deliver the project. 

Student participants engage with the intention of contributing, interacting, or being involved in a project, with varying levels of involvement and roles within the context of the activity. 

About this toolkit

This toolkit is useful for enhancing positive and safe practices in managing power dynamics and promoting wellbeing throughout a project cycle, from planning to delivery and conclusion. By utilising this resource, staff can improve their engagement with students and create better experiences for students and staff alike. 

This toolkit is an output from a wider project that included three distinct groups:

  1.  student partners from marginalised backgrounds
  2. staff who have had leadership roles in student-staff partnership initiatives
  3. student participants from marginalised groups.

The ensuing sections of this toolkit were informed by the themes and insights identified through these collaborative conversations. You can view the full project report (UCL staff only) for more detailed information. 

It is important to recognise that every partnership is unique and context specific. The ideas and recommendations presented here while not exhaustive, provide practical insights and adaptable strategies for fostering positive student-staff partnerships with marginalised students. By engaging with this guide, you can gain valuable insights and suggestions to guide your thinking and decision-making, enabling you to create a partnership that best suits your project.   

What does inclusive partnership mean? 

Inclusive partnerships are designed and delivered in a way that: 

  • creates spaces where participants’ mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing is nurtured and safeguarded
  • respects the diverse perspectives, lived experiences, and backgrounds of students and staff
  • removes barriers that prevent students from participating
  • recognises that some students may require different support to develop particular skills in order to fully participate
  • fosters equitable engagement ensuring all participants have opportunities to actively engage and contribute to the partnership
  • goes beyond a mere focus on curriculum development for institutional advancement and involves a commitment to fostering the student partner as an individual. 

Planning effective partnerships 

Begin by outlining the partnership's purpose, roles, and required skills to establish a clear approach. Reflect on project aims and benefits to marginalised students (partners and participants).  

Our role, as you know, if you are a lecturer, is to get the students involved and feel like they're part of the of the learning and part of the teaching. So it's just really how you present it and if they say something, how you respond to that." – Mina, Staff member. 

TIP: clarify project goals, define roles, and determine the level of student involvement to ensure a focused collaboration. Consider how students can contribute based on their expertise and personal experience with the subject matter and the curriculum to promote engagement. 

Collaborating with student partners 

Engage student partners in project design, invite and listen to their feedback.  

“During the interview, she (staff interviewer) was very agitated and impatient. She wasn't happy with the critique I had and didn't seem interested in the correlation I found between the observation and the presentations.”- Nina, student partner.  

Ensure they are kept informed of any project plan changes and encourage ongoing feedback even after project completion. 

Provide necessary resources and training to empower student partners in fulfilling their roles and ensure they understand the option to leave the project if necessary. 

Ensure equitable compensation by transparently outlining financial methods, rates, and dates, consider wider benefits such as training and conference opportunities.  

Prioritise parity. For instance, use first names to establish a welcoming atmosphere but be mindful cultural norms may make this uncomfortable for some. 

Adopt terms like 'partner’, ‘project researcher’ to highlight expertise and contribution

Accommodate commitments (part-time work, caring responsibilities, cultural/religious events) through a flexible project schedule.  

Ensure student partners have access to mental health resources, time management tips, and work-life balance guidance. Customise assistance and preparation materials as required, make regular check-ins on wellbeing. Offer personalised training and guidance as needed. 

The students have said to me that they like getting my emails because they're from a person... as an example, one of the things that they've said they see my icon my face (profile photo). Whatever it is that comes up when they see the e-mail and so they know it's from me. […] And so over a period of time, that's another way of building up trust in communication.” – Khloe, Staff Member 

Return to top

Creating an inclusive environment 

Recognising and addressing the power dynamics between staff and students is crucial, enabling students to confidently express disagreements with ideas or approaches. This approach can be unsettling as it challenges the conventional hierarchical framework within university learning and professional interactions. However it is essential to ensure equitable participation, foster mutual respect, and create a collaborative environment that empowers students to retain their authentic voices without feeling marginalised.

Strategies to consider: 

  • Be transparent about limitations in understanding others' experiences
  • Balance power by valuing students' experiences
  • Actively listen, promote group participation and ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute
  • Collaborate as equal partners, sharing responsibilities and encouraging student leadership
  • Publicly acknowledge student contributions to project outputs. 

Inclusive recruitment and selection

Ensuring inclusive and fair practice in the selection of student partners and participants is essential for cultivating a diverse and vibrant community.

Here are some guidelines to help you achieve these goals: 

  • Define relevant, unbiased selection traits (see ‘Using inclusive language in education’ toolkit)
  • Target communications to attract diverse participants
  • Form diverse committees to avoid bias 
  • Train committees to spot and counter unconscious bias
  • Hide personal information for fair evaluation
  • Assess whole qualifications, not just academic achievements
  • Collaborate with identity-based organisations
  • Acknowledge diverse intersecting identities' impact
  • Collect student feedback for fairness improvements
  • Communicate process, timeline, and criteria openly
  • Use quotas mindfully for underrepresented groups, avoid tokenism
  • Ongoing evaluation: Identify any missing groups. Analyse diversity outcomes continually. Examine possible obstacles that might hinder specific individuals from engaging with the project and take steps to overcome these barriers (for instance, by offering adjustments)
  • Stay updated on equity practices
  • Cater to participant needs for inclusivity
  • Encourage diverse voices for lasting impact. 
In my opinion, when asked to educate oneself or when asked to be aware, it's important to have contact with different groups, cultures, and experiences… Everyone I've worked with in… the university has absolutely valued my experiences and opinions. This is predominantly because they are from marginalised groups too… It felt more like being able to be myself without those performances that we tend to do as part of a minority group.” – Dan, student partner. 

TIP: Students from marginalised communities may lack exposure to certain skills and environments, so providing support to bridge a skills gap is positive action*.  

*Positive action refers to proactive steps to address any potential inequities or disadvantages that may be encountered by an individual or a group of individuals possessing one or more protected characteristics. See further information and examples.

Template: participant recruitment message

Dear [Student's Name], 

We warmly invite you to play a key role in our upcoming project with [Project aim] at [Faculty/Dept]. Our goal is to ensure every student feels valued, respected, and empowered to excel. 

By participating, you will help us better understand your unique perspectives. Your voice can shape our efforts, identify improvements, and foster an inclusive campus culture. Together, we can enhance university practices and build a thriving community. 

We are seeking students from [specify marginalised communities] to join [interviews, focus groups, or discussions]. Your insights matter, and we are eager to hear from you. As a gesture of appreciation, [incentives/rewards details]. 

Your privacy is paramount; all information shared will remain confidential. Express your interest via [registration form/link] by [deadline date]. Your input will shape our dept/faculty/university's future. 

We are committed to providing funding for accommodations related to disabilities and neurodivergence. If you need any adjustments to enhance our interactions, please inform us. 

For queries, contact [contact information]. Your contribution matters as we journey towards inclusivity. 

Looking forward to your involvement. 

Kind regards, 

[Your Name]; [Your Title/Position]; [Contact Information] 


Note: If you want to collect demographic information on your participants, please ensure appropriate data protection and ethics approvals are in place. 

Example of ground rules and preamble 

It can be helpful to establish expectations and ground rules, here are some suggestions: 

  • Thank for participation
  • Share the project plan/overview
  • Outline structure and expectations during interviews/focus group*: For instance: 
    • There is no pressure to respond to all the questions
    • If you find anything upsetting, please let us know. It’s fine to take a break or withdraw
    • Our lived experiences and perspective will differ, but let’s assume everyone here is well intentioned
    • We will actively listen to each other without interrupting or judging
    • We will share our thoughts and opinions based on our own experiences, rather than generalising or making assumptions about others
    • We will encourage and value the contributions of all participants, recognising that inclusivity means honouring individual voices. 

* Providing questions or outlining discussion topics beforehand can prove advantageous for certain groups and often facilitates more meaningful discussions for all.  

Facilitating activities with student participants 

I think being naturally friendly is often a good solution. If someone appears distant or standoffish, it creates a sense of power imbalance.” – Aida, student participant 

Create an open atmosphere through introductions and inclusive language.  

Set ground rules that foster respectful communication and participation. For instance, establish a non-judgmental environment where participants can express themselves freely.  

Use anonymous participation tools like Mentimeter to encourage more reserved individuals to share.  

Actively listen without interruption, make a genuine effort to understand and validate marginalised student voices.  

Refrain from using autobiographical responses, which involve sharing personal experiences to relate to participants' stories. Although well-intentioned, this might inadvertently divert focus from the participant and impede genuine understanding. For instance, if a Nigerian international student shares their challenges, a facilitator's attempt to empathise by recounting their own experience studying abroad in the USA could unintentionally lessen the importance of the student's unique perspective, potentially making them feel unheard or invalidated. 

Respect participants' time by honouring scheduling arrangements. 

Acknowledging contributions and progress 

It is essential to acknowledge and update partners and participants on the outcomes of their involvement in the project. This validates their contributions, fosters a sense of accomplishment, and maintains ongoing engagement while affirming the importance of their voices. 

Strategies to consider: 

  • Cultivate a non-hierarchical environment between staff and student partners, recognising and referring to student partners as "panellists" or collaborators, when publicly crediting their work (with consent)
  • Utilise an evolving project design when working with student partners, actively including their perspectives
  • Engage student partners in opportunities to write conference abstracts and subsequently to co-present project findings at national or international conferences. 

To create a truly collaborative experience that fosters a sense of ownership, involve participants in providing feedback on project outputs before publication.

Practices to consider: 

  • Keep participants informed of project progress (with their consent), particularly for longer-duration projects, to sustain engagement and collaboration
  • Create opportunities for additional input after the core work is completed, and certainly before disseminating project outputs
  • Engage with participants if there is follow-on work
  • Grant students the empowerment to collaboratively shape their own learning journey and actively participate in curriculum change.  

TIP: validate contributions by crediting students' work in project outputs. 

Key takeaways

  1. Enhance positive practices and wellbeing: manage power dynamics; promote inclusivity; nurturing participants' mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing throughout the project cycle. 
  2. Inclusive partnership design: prioritise inclusivity by co-designing projects with student partners, respecting diverse perspectives, removing barriers, and providing support tailored to individual needs, ensuring equitable engagement for all participants. 
  3. Clear planning and collaboration: establish a strong foundation through transparent project planning, clear roles, and effective communication, fostering collaboration between staff and students while valuing students' unique expertise. 
  4. Empowering marginalised voices: Recognise the importance of marginalised perspectives, address representation gaps, and create safe spaces where all students feel understood, valued, and empowered to contribute to the project's success. 
  5. Acknowledging contributions and progress: Maintain ongoing engagement by crediting participants' contributions, involving them in providing feedback on project outputs, and celebrating their achievements, reinforcing a sense of accomplishment and shared ownership. 

Further help and resources

View the full project report (UCL staff only). 

Reflective resource for creating positive partnerships with marginalised students in extracurricular projects

Download this reflective resource [Word]

ActivityReflectionsConsiderations for student partner roleConsiderations for student participants
Planning your student-staff partnership
  • What are the aims and objectives of your project?   What are the outputs?  
  • What will this partnership contribute to?  
  • Why do you want to work with marginalised student(s)/ student partner(s)?  
  • What are the benefits for students and/or to student partners?
  • Define role(s) clearly
  • Determine the desired level of students' involvement
  • Consider the student partner expertise and purposefully include their perspectives
  • Pre-partnership interview to understand student needs
  • Organise project activities that are inclusive of specific groups of students. 
Creating a collaborative and supportive environment
  • Are you effectively recognising and addressing potential barriers that marginalised students may encounter?
  • Are you providing clear and accessible guidance to a wide range of resources? 
  • In what ways are you developing and acknowledging the contributions of student partners in project outcomes and successes? 
  • Create negotiable terms and deadlines and offer flexibility in student partner workload
  • Offer fair (financial or other) compensation
  • Recognise expertise by celebrating successes, naming role appropriately, etc
  • Organise regular catchups and check-ins on safeguarding and wellbeing
  • Make use of established resources and if necessary, offer personalised support over general signposting. 
Facilitation of activities for student participants 
  • Are you aware of important religious or cultural events when scheduling activities?  
  • Are you aware of, and honest about the limitations of your understanding regarding the unique lived experiences of your students? 
  • In what ways are you practicing inclusive facilitation, and are you offering sufficient options, like camera on/off and chat, in online partnership settings? 
  • Are you actively listening?  
  • Do you consider language and tone when engaging in these activities? 
Use student partners as intermediaries between staff and students. 
  • Provide preamble and ground rules at the beginning of the project
  • Show kindness, empathy and openness. 
Acknowledging contributions and sharing project progress 
  • Are you validating participant contributions and providing feedback on the outcomes of their involvement? 
  • How are you inviting participants to provide feedback on project outcomes and incorporating their perspectives in final results? 
  • Are you keeping all parties informed about project progress, particularly in the case of longer projects? 

Recognise contributions in project outputs, incorporate their names or pseudonyms as appropriate. 

Collect feedback from partners and participants on outputs before dissemination.  

SMART Goal framework for cultivating inclusive staff-student partnerships

SMART objectives should be tailored to individual needs and circumstances. These examples can serve as a starting point, and you can further refine them to align with your specific goals and timeframes. 

Download this goal framework [Word]

 Example 1Example 2
SpecificImplement the toolkit's strategies to enhance positive power dynamics, student engagement, and staff-student collaboration in at least two ongoing projects within the next academic year.Enhance the selection process for student partners and participants in upcoming projects by incorporating the toolkit's inclusive selection guidelines. 
MeasureableIncrease overall participant satisfaction and engagement by 25%, as measured by pre- and post-project surveys, feedback sessions, and participant testimonials. Increase representation of underrepresented groups among student partners and participants by 20%, compared to previous project cycles, as evidenced by demographic data. 
AchievableCollaborate with project teams to tailor the toolkit's recommendations to the specific context of each project, ensuring that staff and student roles, as well as goals, are clearly defined and aligned. Collaborate with selection committees to incorporate the toolkit's selection criteria, conduct bias training, and develop a transparent and inclusive selection process. 
RelevantThe implementation aligns with the organisation's commitment to fostering inclusive partnerships, thereby improving participant well-being, equitable engagement, and overall project outcomes. Aligns with the organization's commitment to inclusivity and equitable representation, leading to richer project outcomes and a more diverse collaborative environment. 
TimeboundInitiate the implementation of the toolkit's strategies within the next three months and complete the rollout across the two selected projects within the academic year. Implement the updated selection process in the next project cycle, commencing within the next two months, and monitor progress throughout the project to assess the effectiveness of the changes. 
Examples Goal Statements

By the end of the current semester, I will strive to...  

Example 1: enhance staff-student collaboration and engagement in two ongoing projects within the academic year using toolkit strategies. Tailor recommendations, clarify roles, and foster an inclusive environment, aiming for a 25% increase in participant satisfaction. 

Example 2: implement toolkit's inclusive selection guidelines to enhance diversity among student partners and participants in upcoming projects. Aim for a 20% increase in underrepresented group representation, fostering inclusivity and varied perspectives. 

Further help

UCL Student Union – find a range of free support on: academic issues; personal support and wellbeing; housing; employment; money; and many other personal and university matters.  

Dignity at UCL – Information on UCL's policy towards harassment, intimidation, and bullying, as well as advice for staff and students. This includes: Prevention of Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy. UCL has signed up to the Can’t Buy My Silence pledge. This supports the 2019 policy decision to no longer use confidentiality clauses or “Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)” in settlement agreements with individuals who have complained of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying as a matter of course. For further information, visit the Can’t Buy My Silence website. 

Disability Equality at UCL – Information and guidance on disabilities and accessibility 

Accessibility at UCL – UCL is committed to making all aspects of university life accessible. You'll find resources and policies that support our disabled staff and students participate fully in university life. They also aim to provide guidance to managers and academic staff, about the provisions they should make for disabled staff and students 

Inclusive language in education toolkit

Student Support and Wellbeing – Our team of expert wellbeing, disability and mental health staff provide a safe, confidential and non-judgemental space. All of our support services are free of charge and open to all UCL students of all levels.  

UCL Equality areas (race, gender, disability, LGBTQ+, religion and belief) - support for students, staff and managers. 

Further reading

Healey, M., Flint, A., and Harrington, K. 2016. “Students as Partners: Reflections on a Conceptual Model”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 4 (2):8-20. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.3. 

Student-staff partnership: what is the key to success? 

Haywood MM. Forming equitable partnerships with black students. Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, Vol 8, No 2, 2022. 

Student Empowerment in Higher Education

Will you be making changes? Let us know

This guide has been produced by Anielka Pieniazek (Doctoral Researcher, Institute of Education), Audrey Zhang (Doctoral Researcher, Psychology and Language Sciences) and Manjula Patrick (Inclusive Education Lead, Arena). 

Reviewers and contributors: 

  • Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez (Academic Lead, Integrated Medical Sciences programmes and Vice-Dean EDI, Medical Sciences) 
  • Anjoom Mukadam (Lecturer (Teaching) Arena) 
  • Fiona Wilkie (Changemakers Manager, Arena) 

We extend our gratitude to all our interviewees (student partners, student participants and staff) for their invaluable insights and contributions, which have enriched our understanding and helped shape the project report and this toolkit.   

You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the UCL Arena Centre.  

Return to top

Inclusive education events

Funnelback feed: https://cms-feed.ucl.ac.uk/s/search.json?collection=drupal-teaching-lear...Double click the feed URL above to edit