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

Chapter Five: Assignments

Practicing a method

An iteration assignment helps students learn to work quickly and ideate through a problem. Another type of assignment I use focuses on practicing a method. A method is a discrete set of tasks or steps that can be used to achieve a goal; this might be a method like we’ve already discussed, such as Heuristic Evaluation (which identifies usability problems in a product), Journey Mapping (which helps describe how people interact with a system over time), or sketching in perspective (drawing shapes that look realistic, in “3d”). In each case, students learn how to do the method in class, and are then assigned to do the same method out of class.

When I teach methods, and reinforce them through assignments, I emphasize specific steps—I tell the student exactly what to do. I’ve found that if I ask students to “create a customer journey map” after they’ve learned the method, they struggle. Even though they’ve practiced the method several times in class, they don’t know what to do or what order in which to do it when they are on their own. But if I assign them the exact steps (“First, create a timeline by drawing a horizontal line on a large piece of paper. Next, label the individual stages that a user goes through as they experience the product. Next...”), they flourish.

In the context of learning methods, this level of explicit solutioning helps them build “muscle memory” for the method. When they first encounter a new way to do something, they will probably do it wrong. By providing the explicit steps, students find that they can do the hardest part—start. Starting provides an artifact that they can respond to. And then, like other assignment types, they can iterate. They can do the process again, this time working without the explicit steps. Iteration one is mandated top-down; further iterations are worked bottom up.

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