March 29, 2023

Co-Learning: Students and Faculty Learning Together

by Victoria Goodman, PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

As someone who graduated from a professional degree program and returned from the workforce to complete a PGY-1 pharmacy residency, I feel there were few opportunities to truly collaborate with my professors/preceptors until after graduation. There were set roles; I was the student, and they were the teachers. This dynamic was emulated throughout schooling at most institutions. It felt like there was a stark divide between the faculty and students. But upon graduation, students are expected to flip a switch, spring into their professional role, and even teach others.

This style of teaching and learning, where there are strict roles and responsibilities, is common in many fields, including the health professions. The typical class consists of a faculty educator standing and delivering a lengthy presentation that the students are expected to commit to memory. Information flows in one direction to students as they attempt to absorb as much as possible. Unfortunately, this is not the most effective method of retaining knowledge. In recent years, many courses have incorporated active learning strategies.  This is certainly an improvement but can we improve the learning process by building more connections between our educators and students? One potential technique is a concept called co-learning.

Co-learning is the act of grouping individuals to share the workload of a given learning task or share perspectives in a conversation. Group members learn from each other's unique insight and provide a mechanism for each participant to be accountable for contributing to the learning process.1

The concept of co-learning is not new, but the practice of co-learning among educators and students is underutilized.2,3,4 When including the educator in the co-learning group, the teaching strategy is similar to Socratic teaching with students and teachers engaged in dialogue and learning from one another. The educator is not the only person speaking or delivering knowledge; instead, students are encouraged to pose questions and further the conversation.

The Cornell University's Center for Teaching Innovation webpage on Collaborative Learning details the benefits of co-learning between faculty and students.  This includes building rapport, improving faculty-student relations as well as increasing retention rates, experience, idea sharing, and organizational involvement.2,3 All of which lead to more meaningful learning experiences and strengthen the program.

Rapport Building/Deepening Connections. The opportunity is provided for students and educators to interact in a learning setting that opens doors. The traditional roles can be disbanded, allowing for new bonds to be forged. This is called “flattening the hierarchy” of the power differential between students and teachers.2

Increased Frequency and Quality of Faculty-Student Interactions.  Once the lines of communication are paved, this allows for more frequent and higher-quality interactions between the students and educator. Talking about areas of uncertainty are more likely to be discussed and this increases the confidence in both learners and teachers alike.2

Improved Retention Rate.  The practice of nurturing positive relations between students and educators will naturally begin to build positive and uplifting morale throughout the institution. Having a more understanding and embracing work/school environment will help each member of the institution to feel a higher sense of belonging and value within the program.

Sharing Ideas and Perspectives.  Through open and honest communication, everyone will have the opportunity to share the perspective they have on the situation or subject matter.2,3

Greater Organizational Involvement. Exposing students to professional organizations through the perspective lens of the faculty member will help the learner gain a better understanding and appreciation for these organizations during their tenure and post-graduate.2,3 Serving alongside each other would be less of a foreign idea and more of an ushering experience.3

Here are some helpful ideas a teacher can use to foster a co-learning model. Activities aimed at increasing social awareness, cultural competency, and connectedness often work well.4 Activities such as storytelling to get to know each member, role-playing to gain an understanding of diversity within the group, and then debriefing at the end of each activity to explore the perspectives about the activity itself.4

Another activity might involve one member of the group interviewing another member to complete a survey on socio-demographic information.4 The other members of the co-learning team can be assigned as observers of the interaction. The purpose of this is to demonstrate support, empathy, and cultural sensitivity. If it’s not possible to divide students into small groups, each with an educator as a participant, the practice and observation activity could be performed on a larger scale with larger classes. This activity will require members of co-learning teams to interact and analyze information in real-time to come together as a group to decide. Group members engage in open discussion and respect one another’s perspectives.

Dialogue and shared decision-making activities, which include the teacher as a group participant, are ideal - allowing greater time and fostering intimate connections within the group. Experiential learning is where co-learning between students and preceptors often occurs.  Using a similar model in the classroom, teachers and students can discuss and grapple with real problems that don’t have easy solutions, making learning relevant, meaningful, and transformative.

Happy Learning.


  1. Co-learning in education works wonders for future generations [Internet]. Inventionland Education. 2018 [cited 2023 Mar 26].
  2. Haddock L, Rivera J, O'Brien B. Learning together: Co-learning among faculty and trainees in the clinical workspace. Acad Med 2023; 98 (2): 228-236.
  3. Collaborative Learning [Internet]. Center for Teaching Innovation, Cornell University. [cited 2023 Mar 23]
  4. Nguyen-Truong CKY, Fritz RL, Lee J, Lau C, Le C, Kim J, et al. Interactive co-learning for research engagement and education (I-coree) curriculum to build capacity between community partners and academic researchers. Asian Pac Isl Nurs J 3(4):126–38.

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