Learner-centred approaches in design education

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Image of students looking at notes on a wall


My First Six Months (MF6M) is a learning and teaching initiative that was recently implemented in three first year studio courses in Industrial Design. The project introduced students to learner-centred teaching approaches in their first semester to set them up for independence as learners in these courses and their future studies.

MF6M aimed to incorporate learning and teaching practices that would encourage students to engage in learning that was personal and socially constructed through their interactions, negotiations and collaboration with peers and teachers, privileging the notion of ‘students as partners’ (Matthews, 2016). The intention was to begin to cultivate students’ independence and self-regulation as learners, rather than default to learning as a performative representation of an assumed habitus (Webster, 2005).

The three MF6M courses were therefore deliberately designed to challenge the role of learners and teachers. Students therefore had less direction from tutors in leading and evaluating learning than it was assumed they would be familiar with as first year university students. Tutors had specific instructions to not ‘talk at students’ by way of lectures or seminars, but to embody partnering dispositions and work alongside students to support and prompt but not lead learning. Classes in each course were combined as a weekly studio workshop. The teaching team (three tutors) physically located themselves to be among the 60 students in the workshop space to facilitate and guide the weekly activities where students needed to be highly active and participatory in exploring, experimenting, researching and constructing design solutions collaboratively.

A feature of the MF6M approach was students working in small groups to develop responses to design briefs, setting their own solutions and standards according to their combined skills and knowledge. Classes were free from the direction and external influence of an expert or ‘master’ and students were provided with a range of digital resources, site visits and expert talks that were not prescribed throughout each course but offered for students to curate and engage with for their own needs and interests. Using inherent design processes of pinup, peer review and self-assessment, there was an underlying objective for students to also begin developing their own understanding and language of design concepts and standards nurtured through emerging and ongoing dialogues about quality and standards of their work (Boud, 2000; Sambell, McDowell, & Montgomery, 2012). At heart, these methods sought to seed students’ independence and to avert a ‘master’ and ‘apprentice’ model of learning that may become construed through power relations often established in assessment practices like the studio review or presentation (Webster, 2005).

Student perceptions of roles in a learner-centred context

At the outset of MF6M it was assumed that the introduction of learner-centred methods would stimulate shifts in students’ expectations about roles and responsibilities in learning and teaching. Students participated in a focus group at the end of the semester to share their observations of the experience. Following is a summary of their perceptions of the enacted roles of Learner and Teacher that they experienced in the courses.

Facilitating rather than Directing: Students were mixed in their responses to tutors not taking the lead in directing their learning. They enjoyed aspects of being able to follow their own interest areas and interpret briefs in ways that aligned to their skills and abilities as first year students. However, some students assumed they would get specific direction from tutors, particularly for personal time management and ensuring efficiency in their engagement.

Students also expected that tutors would help them understand difficult concepts and theoretical constructs and liked hearing tutors give their opinions to challenge students. Student P4 indicated that the most memorable class was when the course coordinator gave a provocation where ‘he was saying that “if you’re going to be a designer, you’re going to be producing waste. That’s your job”. I’m not sure if it was to get us motivated or to get people more interested. It annoyed a lot of people… I really liked that talk. I thought it was a bit of a wake up.

Working in Groups: Students were overwhelmingly positive about collaborating in groups and organizing themselves to meet goals and deadlines and did not mention needing teaching staff to intervene to sort out group dynamics. They were also genuinely impressed by what they had achieved with their peers, as student P4 said, ‘seeing the work that we produced, it’s more than I’d be comfortably producing as an individual because some of the people had skills that I just don’t have… seeing the poster go up on the wall and watching our video… that was pretty amazing.

Guidance and Clarity: While students were trusting to engage in introductory activities that inducted them to the design discipline and the program, they wanted more clarity about the specific requirements and standards for learning activities and tasks that were oriented to assessment. They also expected specific guidance for managing their first encounters with design education protocols and practices like the pinup and presentation. As student P1 recalled, ‘our first pinup, we were like, “so what do we pin up?”… and then no-one brought any pins. How were we meant to know? This was our second week.’

Feedback and Review: Students felt that giving each other feedback in the pinup and presentation processes was valuable although they realised it was a skill that they would need to develop to be more constructive and confident, as student P4 reflected, ‘some of the students would sort of zero in on one thing that you’d done. They probably needed to step back a little bit and have a broader vision.’ Thus, they also wanted more ‘expert’ critical feedback from tutors to scaffold their coming to understand standards of the discipline, as student P1 stated: ‘students don’t really know as well as the teachers do about what your group needs to improve on.’ Similarly, student P3 felt that while everyone could learn from the peer feedback that they gave each other, ‘the feedback was kind of similar every time and it was sometimes a bit obvious what they’d missed.’

Reorienting students to changed learning and teaching roles

Some considerations that could help reorient students to navigate the gaps or issues that they revealed about their experience of learner-centred strategies above include:

  1. Provide context at the outset and ongoing narrative that the learning and teaching approach is intended to reorient students towards increased independence and self-responsibility as learners and partners in learning
  2. Provide a clearer definition of responsibilities of students and tutors in this learning relationship so students have aligned expectations about the role that tutors will play
  3. Provide explicit guidance, feedback and benchmarks early on to scaffold students’ development in managing their anxiety about their progress and improvement, and support their growing awareness of standards and expectations
  4. Students and staff could reflect and share how ‘partnering’ was experienced at the end of the course to confirm milestones and expectations around independence and self-regulation development

Some closing thoughts

The language used by these first year students in their responses about their experiences suggests that most were yet to fully instill a habitus that would support them to immediately lead their own learning. However, how they described the perceived gaps in learning and teaching roles points to learning needs that are relational and dialogic, resonating with sociocultural strategies and values that are essential for nurturing and developing in environments for ‘students as partners’ and independent learning (Matthews, 2017; Sambell et al., 2012). It should be noted that as students in the first six months of their study, they displayed strong skills in setting goals, solving problems and completing work, suggesting that with ongoing socializing and enacting of practices and expectations, their independence and partnering in learning are clearly achievable goals for their ongoing time in their studies.

We have presented the perceptions of this group of students about the shifts they experienced in learning and teaching roles in MF6M with the intention that that you may gain useful insights into the experience as well as the sustained design and support of approaches for nurturing student independence as learners and partners.

If you would like more detail about the project and its evaluation, or you would like to initiate an MF6M project in your area, please contact Assoc Prof Soumitri Varadarajan (School of Design), and Dr Helen McLean (DSC College).

We would like to also acknowledge the students who generously shared their views about this learning and teaching experience.


Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151–167.
DOI: 10.1080/713695728

Matthews, K. (2016). Students as partners as the future of student engagement. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 1(1).

Matthews, K. (2017). Five propositions for genuine students as partners practice. International Journal for Students As Partners, 1(2). DOI:

Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Montgomery, C. (2012). Assessment for learning in higher education. New York: Routledge.

Webster, H. (2005). The architectural review: A study of ritual, acculturation and reproduction in architectural education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 4(3), 265–282. DOI: 10.1177/1474022205056169

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