How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter One: Course Plans

Course outcomes

An outcome statement is an assertion, or promise. It’s something that a student will have learned, gained, practiced, exhibited, or demonstrated as a result of completing your course. Outcome statements are measurable. There is a way to view and judge the student’s progress towards attaining the outcome. Course outcomes may look like this:

As a result of taking this class, students will:

  • Be able to model complicated systems and services through the use of diagrams
  • Be able to quickly sketch ideas for interfaces by hand
  • Be able to communicate through sketching, both in a formal capacity as well as in a real-time, facilitation style
  • Be able to quickly iterate through interface design, using input from real users to inform decisions

Each outcome statement is self-contained and focused on a particular skill, concept, or idea. For example, one outcome is about interface visualizations, another on system and service modeling, and so-on. Each outcome stands alone.

Each outcome statement is measurable, and well-structured outcome statements can be measured by looking at the things a student makes. For example, the outcome statement about visualizing interface ideas through hand-drawn sketches can be measured in a variety of ways:

Was the student able to visualize ideas quickly? This can be assessed by keeping track of how long it takes the student to draw. Were they faster at the end of the course than they were at the beginning? Were they as fast as a concrete benchmark (for example, 10 sketches an hour)?

Were the student’s ideas realistic? This can be assessed by looking at what the student sketched to identify if it can actually be built, or if it is based on a sound set of assumptions. Were the ideas technically infeasible to build? Did the ideas come accompanied by explanations to justify their realism?

Was the student able to use hand-drawn sketches? This can be assessed by looking at the mechanism the student selected to create the interfaces. Did they use paper and pen, or did they jump right to a digital tool like Adobe Illustrator?

A semester or quarter-length course typically has 3-5 outcome statements. A larger number of outcomes becomes harder to assess, and teaching towards so many outcomes can become watered-down or shallow.

Creating the outcome statement

To create my course outcomes, I start by identifying the things I want a student to know how to do. I don’t worry about wordsmithing the perfect outcome statement; I just list the skills that, when the course is over, I want the student to have. Design is a practitioner field, and when students graduate, they should have a set of practical real world skills. So, whenever possible, I try to capture specific active skills—things someone can do—instead of simply passive skills—things someone can know or feel.

This often takes several iterations. For example, in crafting the outcome statement “Be able to quickly develop realistic ideas for interfaces using hand-drawn sketches”, my first few iterations may look like this:

Learn to think about sketching

Learn to sketch

Learn to sketch quickly

Sketch quickly

Learn to think about interfaces

Learn to sketch interfaces by hand

Learn to sketch interfaces by hand, quickly

Sketch interfaces by hand, quickly

There’s an evolution to these outcome statements, moving from passive (“think about sketching”) to active (“learn to sketch”), to simply describing the skill (“sketch”)—removing the “Learn to”, and focusing on outcome instead of the method.

Identifying ways to achieve outcomes

Now that I’ve identified the outcomes, I identify the ways a student can attain those outcomes. I list as many of these as I can. For example, to sketch an interface quickly, a student might:

  • Trace an interface with tracing paper
  • Sketch a copy of an existing product interface
  • Draw the components of an interface, like buttons, sliders, and so-on
  • Sketch as many interfaces as they can in a set amount of time (such as an hour or over a week)
  • Compare and contrast two products that do the same thing, such as two music playing apps, and draw the differences
  • and so on…

Each of these activities could be an in-class activity, an assignment, or even an examination; they are things that produce an artifact, and then that artifact can be judged.

Teaching to the outcome

Now, I think about how I can teach the concepts behind each of these activities. For example, to sketch a simple copy of an existing digital interface, I need to teach students to:

  • Select appropriate interface elements, such as radio buttons, check boxes, and so-on
  • Establish criteria for what makes a “good” interface
  • Draw using different line weights
  • Emulate areas where padding, margins, and whitespace create a sense of composition
  • Consider and realistically sketch the size of type

These become the things I teach—the content of the class itself.

The role of outcomes

So, to recap, we:

  • Identified a learning outcome (“Sketch interfaces by hand, quickly”)
  • Identified a way for students to arrive at that learning outcome (“Sketch a simple copy of an existing product interface”)
  • Identified content that I need to teach (“Teach students to draw using different line weights”)

With each step, we’re moving away from things the student does, and towards things the instructor does.

These outcome statements serve three core purposes.

First, outcomes act as a guide for students. They indicate what a student can anticipate in a class. This sets expectations, so they can prepare for a certain type of learning experience. I’ve found that when students know what they are going to learn ahead of time, they can better contextualize that learning as it happens. I urge students to revisit the outcome statements (that I’ve identified on the syllabus) throughout the course. This helps them reflect on their own progress—they can see, throughout the duration of their learning experience, if they are gaining the skills and methods that I’ve articulated.

Additionally, outcomes act as a guide for me. They help me determine what course content is relevant and what types of learning interactions will be most effective. As I make curriculum decisions, I can ask myself, “Does this particular activity or content support those learning outcomes?” If the answer is no, I can rethink my planning to better serve the students.

Finally, the outcomes act as a form of handshake between me and my students. They become the agreed-upon boundaries for the class. They serve as a definition of value: I agree to teach to that value proposition, and students agree to learn from it.

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