Designing Rewarding Learning Experiences

A design system for team-based learning

As teachers, instructors, and course planners, we are in fact designers of learning experiences. And as any experience designer can tell you, an experience left to chance is not merely neutral; nine times out of ten the resulting experience is flawed. Same thing applies when designing for learning: the default learning experience is scattered. If not carefully designed, a learning experience will not be a “neutral” or vanilla-flavored experience that can then be improved by sprinkling “user experience design” on it. Rather, the default (i.e. non-designed) is often a rather bad experience. And just to be clear. We, as teachers, don’t have the luxury of just designing how our lectures are delivered. The complete learning experience is also comprised of the way the course plan is communicated, how the schedule is updated and found(!), what the workshops and labs look like, and how all the administration and information that comes with a course work is communicated.

A scattered experience coupled with uncontrolled challenges is a recipe for insecurity. And that is a horrible foundation to build rewarding learning experiences for a creative profession on.

In a typical university setting there is a colossal plethora of systems, content, examinations, and results reporting. I’ll say it again: the default learning experience is scattered and fragmented, and we need to put in deliberate systemic design efforts to create meaningful and rewarding learning experiences. And even though we can’t exert control over every single sub-system that comprises our students’ learning experiences, we can try to get as holistic and systemic as we can. In short, this is a service design assignment, that cannot be left to chance.

The past couple of years I have worked as senior lecturer and program director for a design-oriented bachelor program focusing on human-computer interaction (HCI) and user experience (UX) design (yes, the irony of critiquing the design of the user experience of a UX design program is not lost on me). These are some of the things I’ve learned:

A class consists of individuals

Just like in any sound human-centered design process — where we cannot accept the elastic and inexact concept of “the users” — we cannot use such a blunt concept as “our students”. Every individual student in the class has her own intent, openness, level of presence, level of trust, and level of internal motivation to study and learn. As teachers, I think we routinely apply two stereotypes (which, when it comes to user-centered design is a bad idea). The first is the stereotype of the “ideal” student who is highly motivated, interested, ambitious, trusts the teacher’s competence, has a critical mindset, and is open for new thoughts. And then — when things don’t go as planned — we complain about the negative stereotype of “the unmotivated and uncritical student” who just want to pass exams with a minimal amount of work, and who “cannot even write properly”. The ideal and the negative stereotype are not actionable models to base our learning experience design on.

Design for situational qualities

Since we have a large group of individuals in the classroom there is no viable way to accommodate the differences in motivation, intent, learning style, and competence at an individual level. Instead, I’ve found it much more fruitful to focus on the situational qualities before, during, and after a course. By designing the situational qualities of a course or program, we as teachers and course planners have a higher chance of gaining effect on the learning experience than if we try to address individual qualities. If you read this and work as a teacher, you might roll your eyes right about now and think “yeah, setting up situations for learning is what I do every day”. But hold on: my point (and this is based on several years of teaching and managing education both inside and outside the academic world) is that by focusing on situational qualities and progression between courses we have a better chance of providing coherent, meaningful, and rewarding learning experiences. It gives us a focused way of defining and addressing the aspects that have the highest effect on the learning experience.

For the series of design studio courses that I teach, there are four critical aspects that yield a significant, positive effect on the learning experience. They are: compellingness, malleability, immediacy, and coherence.

Compellingness

Compellingness is a prerequisite for any kind of motivating experience. This could be the exciting project that will look great in a work portfolio. It could be the possibility to create something meaningful for society. Or the possibility to work together with an experienced designer from industry. The thing to remember is that what’s perceived as compelling for one person, might not be particularly compelling to another. There is a need for some sort of “personalization”. Enter malleability:

Malleability

Malleability refers to the possibility for the student to shape course content according to the individual’s level of competence and interest. This is of course a prerequisite to real learning. Naturally, the course plan should dictate objectives, goals, and expected outcomes, but the individual learners’ abilities and interests should also be formalized and taken into consideration when planning courses and programs.

Immediacy

This is a big one. It’s also one of the hardest to maintain when the courses are running and everyone (teachers and students alike) seem to always be short on time. Immediacy works on several levels, and has to do with the feedback rate of both content and administrative matters. Humans learn when the feedback is rapid. That means that the traditional model of a final exam at the end of the course, that takes a week or two to assess, and then a few more days before the grade (reduced to a letter or number depending on what grading system you are using) reaches the student is of very little value when it comes to learning. If we take contemporary theories of learning seriously, we need to completely re-consider this practice. Feedback (formative evaluation) needs to be immediate, and closely tied to the situation where the issue occurred.

Immediacy also has to do with the structure of the course. The rate of communication, schedule updates, when course resources are available for the students, etc. also affect the sense of immediacy. The problem at some universities is that a lot of the administration and logistics of a course fall on the shoulders of personnel that have very little to do with actual teaching. This often causes frustration, and forces students (as well as teachers!) to focus their energy on issues that don’t necessarily contribute to a rewarding learning experience. Granted, an individual teacher may not have the means to exert any control over such matters, and perhaps it’s even possible there is an upside to a little administrative friction. But overall, I sincerely believe we can gain a lot by focusing on immediacy in our learning experience design.

Coherence

And finally — the anti-thesis to the scattered and fragmented experience: Coherence is closely tied to the idea that an education program should progress in a controlled fashion. It’s also an important quality of “making sense” of the course content in light of what the students have studied previously, and their idea of where they’re going. Just like with immediacy, the coherence quality also has a structural flavor to it. If different teachers require very different types of input from the students, communicate differently, if course literature and requirements are uneven between courses, the program runs the risk of being perceived as incoherent.

Your equipment must be in order before you climb the mountain

So these are four important situational qualities that affect the learning experience. But how do we address them? Before we throw challenges at students, we need to make sure all the tools and methods are in place. Think of it like rock climbing: if the gear is not in order — or even absent — and the climbers don’t know how to use them, the peak attempt will be perilous and the outcome will be insecurity, doubt, and loss of interest. This sounds obvious. Bordering on the elementary and naive, even. But, if we really scratch the surface of most classroom situations: how did you, as the teacher, really make sure that the students’ tools and methods were in order before you let them scramble up the exciting mountains of challenge you’ve prepared for the course?

Remember: the students’ experience comprises the whole system, not just what happens in the classroom. And the default experience is scattered. In turn, this builds a fundament of insecurity. Structure needs to be put in place before a controlled and progressive challenge can be put in front of the learners. And this structure cannot be outsourced to the IT department, or administration branch.

Now that we have a sketch over the various moving parts of this design problem, I thought I’d visualize it like this:

A design system

So, given this design space, here is my humble suggestion of a learning experience framework. Remember, the context is a series of design studio courses where students work creatively from a design brief in teams. The framework consists of three artifacts that form a system that addresses the four situational qualities of compellingness, malleability, immediacy, and coherence. The design goal is to ensure that routine and method is in place before a controlled challenge is placed in front of the learners. And since I know you desperately want to know: yes, this whole approach is informed by established theories of learning. Most notably this design system is informed by the theory of Formal Learning Sequences (cf. Selander, 2008).

1. Staging

According to the theory of Formal Learning Sequences, the Staging is fundamental to the learning that will (or will not) happen in an upcoming learning situation. Staging allows us to systematically work with preparing the conditions that will enable students to thrive in a creative learning environment. This is akin to preparing the basecamp and the equipment before the summit attempt.

Specifically, I suggest working with staging in two main ways: (1) a pre-course student competence and goal survey, and (2) working out authentic design briefs from external clients or stakeholders.

Two weeks before each design studio course starts, we send out a questionnaire that each student completes individually. The questionnaire lets the student rate her perceived competence level in the related sub-fields of UX design and HCI. It also asks the student to prioritize her focus for the upcoming course (e.g. front-end development, visual design, user research, business modeling, interaction design, project management, or testing and evaluation).

This has two effects: First, it allows us as teachers to analyze the answers and put together balanced teams (we work in design teams of 4–6 students during a five week full-time studio course). Second, it helps the students take responsibility for their own learning, since they’ve “put in print” what their focus and positioning for the course is.

The other main staging activity concerns the shaping of the design briefs that the student teams will work on during the course. Our philosophy is that external companies and other organizations provide the best design project assignments, and forces the students to deal with real-life skills, such as client contact, and other practical project management issues. Such valuable experiences are usually hard for university teachers to emulate.

It is also an excellent way to build relationships with industry — something that both academy and industry benefit from.

  • Staging by the use of a competence and goals survey, as well as design brief development with external partners, is a very important part of increasing the compellingness, malleability, and coherence attributes.

2. Design Process Mapping

Yes, I know: There are as many design processes as there are designers. And for every proponent of a specific design process I can find, I bet you can find at least two that oppose. Still, the design process that we teach, and use as anchor/metronome/[insert your own metaphor here] in our studio courses, is general enough to cover a wide range of situations digital designers will encounter in the future. Yet, it is specific enough to say something inherently “designerly” about the work process. As soon as you try to capture a creative design process on a 2D “paper” as it were, it becomes frustratingly simplified:

Feeble attempt to describe a creative design process, that ultimately leads to an artifact – that can be put in a design portfolio that communicates design competence.

And if you map this design process on learning sequences, you don’t only get an even more brutally simplified picture of creativity, communication, and learning. It also becomes a pretty complex picture at the same time:

Implementation of transformation cycles (Selander, 2008) mapped to the design process (Wärnestål, 2016).

Still, there are some specific points I’d like to make by doing this:

  • The two transformational cycles allow teachers to switch between a formative mode (1st cycle), and a summative mode (2nd cycle). By facilitating design critiques, co-design, and engage in face-to-face dialogue with each team, instead of giving lectures, a whole new level of immediacy is achieved.
  • The three genres of communication in the studio is balanced between students, teachers, stakeholders, and end-users. As we progress and the students get more competent, design critique can be tilted towards student-student communication. Co-design between teachers and students is neatly connected to the teachers’ positioning in the first (formative) cycle. Finally, presentation occurs both by students (who may present their findings during design iterations) and by teachers (who may present new methods, tools, and theories relevant to the projects in the course). This yields a boost in malleability, as the students gain more control over the discourse in the studio.

3. The seven dimensions of progression

With a well thought-through staging and a design process mapped to transformation cycles and learning sequence theory, we hopefully have achieved routine. Students are now prepared to face a challenge. A challenge that is on the “right” level. How do we know what’s right? This is the purpose of the third artefact: the 7-dimensional progression model.

Seven dimensions that help characterize a design problem or design space. Four studio courses (1–4) with increasing progression are positioned on the model as a tool for developing and modifying the courses’ challenges.

Basically, these seven dimensions allow us to characterize and shape the design briefs. For the first studio course, we obviously want the students to master the basics. Therefore, all the dials are turned to the basic spectrum. With a well-contained design problem, for a known platform, for a client that are used to work with designers, students can focus on practice their craft, and getting a grip on the design process. As the next studio course kicks in a few months later, we can gradually increase (most of) the dimensions. Maybe the target platform is less well-known, or the service spans several channels (wearable service + a website perhaps). In the third studio we add even more challenging aspects along the seven dimensions, and finally, in the fourth studio (which runs the last semester of the third year) — the students can confidently approach “wicked” design problems for new platforms, with limited prototyping tools available, and that spans several channels. And they could even work for clients that operate in industries that traditionally might not be used to work with designers.

  • The most obvious situational qualities addressed by the progression model is malleability and coherence. By using the dimensions as communication tool towards the external organization when setting up the brief we can tweak the client’s design brief so that it fits the upcoming studio. Also, as the studio course runs, we can use the dimensions to modify and control the challenge to fit the students.

Putting it all together

The complete picture then looks something like this:

The design system that helps build rewarding learning experiences by addressing the sub-goals of establishing routine and providing challenges via three artifacts that address the four situational qualities (upper right). Phew. (I have also listed individual qualities in the upper left just to show the qualities we cannot explicitly influence…)

Staging and design process mapping provide the routine, and the progression model provide the means to create and tweak great challenges for the students. The situational qualities addressed by these artifacts in turn contributes to a rewarding learning experience.

One of the main challenges with this approach is that it requires some work before the course starts. And then the underlying structure and organization of the university might work against you. Perhaps you and your colleagues are on full throttle in other courses and feel you don’t have time to dedicate time in the Staging phase. And that’s life I guess. But based on my experience you will gain so much (both in rewarding learning experiences for both you and your students, as well as saving time and energy) with a little prep work.

If you’re running project-oriented courses: try this approach, I think you’ll like it.

Ok, but does it work?

I have run 12 design studio courses during 2013–2016, at all progression levels in the table above. Being a curious researcher as well as designer, I have observed and conducted interviews with both teachers, students, and our external clients. I have also collected student evaluation surveys after every course.

Design critique session in the studio.

Short answer is: yes, this model works, and makes sense for all involved stakeholders. A more thorough write-up of the framework and evaluation is in progress, and a journal article is published here (Wärnestål, 2016). For now, I’ll include some quotes from my interviews and surveys:

“Studio 3 was the most demanding course of the program so far. Also the most fun! With real briefs I feel that I as a student MATTER. There’s no better motivation than that.”

– Second-year student

“The transformation cycle model provided me with a map that allowed me to align the focus of the conversations in the studio with the design process as the course progressed.”

– Teacher

It was great to get fresh creative eyes on our design problem. Also, our cooperation with the student team was like a five-week job interview. With five different candidates!

– External client

Thanks for reading — I hope I didn’t bore you to tears. If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, or want to discuss or share your own experiences on this matter, please feel free to contact me.

References and Credit

Selander, S. (2008). Designs for learning: a theoretical perspective. Designs for learning, 1(1), 10–23.

Wärnestål, P. (2016). Formal Learning Sequences and Progression in the Studio: A Framework for Digital Design Education. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 15, 35–52.

Icons from the Noun Project:

Alpinist by Andrew J. Young

Mountain by misirlou

Time by Richard de Vos

Anvil by Jason Dilworth

Puzzle by SooAnne

Check Mark by Alex Podolsky

Gift by Anna Nebbiati

Director of Service Design and Human-Centered AI at inUse. PhD and Associate Professor at Halmstad University. Father of two. I ride my bike to work.

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