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Preparing students for future careers: NHL Stenden and Design Based Education

Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
February 8, 2021
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How can we prepare students for the labour market in a society that is changing more rapidly now than ever? How do we educate them for jobs that don’t even exist today?

These are important pedagogical questions that require an innovative response. At FeedbackFruits, we believe that in order to successfully respond to contemporary social challenges, innovating education is key. One of our partner institutions, NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, recently implemented a new educational concept which aims to prepare students for the future, while simultaneously making a positive societal impact: Design Based Education (DBE).

To learn more about this innovative approach, our colleague Ananda Verheijen - educationalist and head of our Teacher Relations team - spoke to some of the people at NHL Stenden who are involved in the implementation process of DBE since its introduction at the beginning of 2018. NHL Stenden is a Dutch University of Applied Sciences located in Leeuwarden. Their goal is to bridge the gap between higher education and the labour market by adopting an interdisciplinary approach with real-life assignments to solve. In this interview we discuss the pedagogical value of DBE and NHL Stenden’s journey to roll out this concept throughout their institution.

What is Design-Based Education and how has it been adopted at NHL Stenden?

With DBE, students collaborate in interdisciplinary, (and often) international groups on real-life problems. At NHL Stenden the students come together in a Design Atelier, where they collaborate on a design project. Patrick Bemelmans - director of the academy for Communication & Creative Business - emphasises that the students always work for real clients: “It is a collaboration between the client, the students and the teachers. Within this ‘triangle’ they try to  come up with  an innovative solution”.

So, what exactly does this DBE process entail? In detail, groups of students gather in the Design Atelier where they will conduct the research: from asking clarifying questions to define the problem, to coming up with a proto-solution, testing it together, and finally proposing the solution to the client. The six phases of the DBE are identified as follows:

      1. Research the question
      2. Define the core problem
      3. Generate ideas
      4. Design prototypes
      5. Test prototypes
      6. Research and improve [1]

As this is an iterative rather than a linear process, the students are continuously researching and discussing. In this way, they dig much deeper into the problem. Students immediately put what they have learned into practise. With such an approach, Margreeth Themmen - educational consultant at NHL Stenden - emphasises that students “put one layer of knowledge on top of another”. This immediate, practical application of creative solutions for real problems is what defines DBE.

Benefits of Design-Based Education

According to Margreeth, students enjoy working on real-life cases, because they recognize the value of their work. In contrast to hypothetical cases, working for a real client triggers their intrinsic motivation to make a bigger effort. Moreover, “students like to collaborate with students from different backgrounds, because evaluating the problem from different perspectives allows them to come to a more complete answer”. Another benefit of working in Design Ateliers is that throughout the year, students can take on different roles (e.g. team leader, advisor) and work in different compositions.

Patrick emphasizes that this gives students the opportunity to develop capabilities that are extremely important for their future careers. It forces students to think about questions such as:  “Who am I? What do I stand for? What can I contribute?”. This stimulates them to create a larger sense of self-awareness and self-confidence. This approach also appeals to the students’ empathic sides, since they have to learn to ask the right questions. Moreover, at the end of each academic year, students have an interview with their coach (teacher), mentor and preferably someone from an external party that they worked with. Margreeth points out that “during this interview students have to be able to demonstrate what they contributed to the project. Adding such a reflection moment allows students to see the progress they have booked. Compared to the start of the year, they have grown immensely. This is very motivating for the students, because it promises even more growth next year”.

The challenges of adopting this model

Shifting to a Design Based Education approach also presented everyone involved with certain challenges. The role of teachers has changed. As Margreeth emphasizes, they now also fulfill the role of a coach. “They collaborate with the students and guide them throughout the whole process”. Patrick is convinced that “every teacher is a good coach, but they need to adapt to it. It is a shift away from the traditional setting. You have to be open to different outcomes than you had in mind. This creates uncertainty for the teachers: they no longer control the learning process”.

Of course, students also need to adapt to this shift. According to Patrick, one of the major challenges for them is that there are no traditional, summative exams. “The majority of students is used to the traditional educational system that utilizes summative exams. Therefore, they are used to a result-oriented assessment method. However, in DBE it is about the product and your own contributions to this”. Cultural conflict is another difficulty that students encounter when working in the Design Atelier. International students often find Dutch directness rather hard to accept at first. Moreover, students often do not know how to distinguish themselves from other students if there is no exam to excel on. Margreeth admits that this remains a bit difficult to solve. “However, by entering a conversation we really try to make students aware of their personal development, both in knowledge and skills. In essence, we take a holistic approach to the learning process”.

Tips for other teachers to successfully implement DBE

We also spoke with Jort Harmsen, who is a Communication & Creative Business teacher at NHL Stenden. We asked Patrick, Margreeth and Jort to share some tips for other teachers based on their experience. Patrick starts by emphasizing that the teachers’ mindsets play an important role, as they have to consider their students more as colleagues and less as students: “Take them seriously! As soon as you give them responsibility, they start to perform better”. Margreeth illustrates this with an example: “Whenever we have a first year module and the students have to design a product - for example a video - and they don’t know how to use a camera, they approach Jort and ask him for a class to demonstrate this. In this way, they are responsible for their own learning. Let them take the initiative”.

“Take them seriously! As soon as you give them responsibility, they start to perform better”.

The power of peer feedback

“Another essential part of our education is giving feedback throughout the process”, adds Patrick, “That is also how we ended up with FeedbackFruits”. We asked Jort about the role feedback plays in his education: “We work with weekly feedback moments. The students take what they’ve learned to the next week. Thanks to this continuous feedback process the quality of the final project is significantly higher”. Jort already implemented peer feedback as an integral part of his education before using FeedbackFruits to do this. We asked him if there were any notable differences. “Thanks to the Peer Review and Group Member Evaluation tools, the feedback process has significantly improved. Students find it easier to give feedback to their fellow students online compared to a face to face setting in the Atelier - probably due to peer pressure”. However, in order to implement peer feedback successfully, Jort’s role as a teacher is crucial. “In the first year we always start by teaching students how to give good, constructive feedback”. He adds that “We also notice that it helps to let new students review each other anonymously to stimulate more constructive feedback. However, throughout the years the students start caring less about anonymity. They get used to giving and receiving feedback and don’t take it too personal if someone criticizes them”. Jort maintains that “Students really appreciate giving and getting feedback. They have to get used to this at first, though as soon as they are comfortable with it, they even ask for more feedback!”. In terms of measuring their progress, Margreeth says that “students collect all the feedback they receive through the tools into their portfolio. In this way, they can access and revise this at any given time. It also helps them to see their progress”. Patrick points out that his colleagues even noticed that “at the end of the first year, students often act at the level of second- or even third year students!”

“Thanks to the Peer Review and Group Member Evaluation tools, the feedback process has significantly improved. Students find it easier to give feedback to their fellow students online compared to a face to face setting in the Atelier - probably due to peer pressure”.
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