January 16, 2016 - Comments Off on Reflections From A First-Time Teacher

Reflections From A First-Time Teacher

This past fall I taught a half-semester at Lesley University College of Art and Design. The course was titled “Drawing for Design” and it was—without a doubt—one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

It’s now been nearly a month since the final class, and to tell you the truth I’m still not sure if it was a good experience. I’m still processing everything that transpired, what I tried to teach, and what I learned throughout the whole process.

First a little background: the class was essentially a new class for the university. An iteration of it had been taught to previous groups, but this semester was the first time it had been offered in the format that I taught. The objective of the class is to learn processes that enable sketching as a means for rapid ideation in the design process, as well as using sketching to communicate ideas visually to stakeholders. Given that the class was new, I was on my own to create a syllabus and outline the matter of the course. It was also my first experience teaching at the college level. In short, there were a lot of unknowns going into the experience and throughout the duration of the class.

Doubtless, there are many resources that would aid in the structuring and presentation of course materials similar to what I presented. Unfortunately, I didn’t have all the time in the world to read them. I also feel quite strongly that the approach to teaching design needs to be different than most other subjects because design walks such an interesting line between function and fancy.

Getting Down to Business

For better or worse, it’s been quite some time since I was enrolled in college level classes. My day-to-day life in the professional design world is quite a ways removed from the world of higher education. I began teaching and treating the students much as I would work peers, expecting them to take initiative where needed and be vocal when something wasn’t clear. In reality, I had to spell things out very clearly, to a level of detail that I don’t have to do with my coworkers. In addition, I often had to repeat myself several different times and in different manners to make sure instructions were clearly understood by all the students. The biggest thing that helped my cause was a method of showing students almost exactly what I wanted them to end up with by the end of the unit. The process was really the important piece, with the outcome less so, so giving students a point A and B, with instructions on how to get between them became a critical tactic.

While I had to dramatically change my presentation style to accomodate my students, I made every effort I could to give them glimpses of my world. My hope was that the verisimilitude of the assignments served to break down the wall between academia and the professional world.

Let’s Get Loose

One of my biggest struggles from the start was with encouraging students to be loose and free with their sketching. They maintained a certain amount of preciously whenever left up to their own devices that ran counter to the purpose of the class. In addition, many students would work slowly despite quantity goals and time limits. I realize that it’s not easy to work fast, especially when fresh off of a high school experience that prized polished rendering over all else, but its a habit that only serves to get in the way of the design process.

To get students working faster and looser, I required them to work in pencil for most exercises. I also kept asking for more sketches in progressively shorter amounts of time. In addition to a frequent emphasis on the purpose of the exercises (i.e. rapid ideation), students improved somewhat as the class progressed. It remains a nut that I still have to crack though.

Broken Loops

One of the biggest challenges for me as a teacher was the lack of feedback loop. As a design professional, feedback is almost constant. We put work up for scrutiny by our peers many times during the day, so some measure of performance is never far off. In contrast, when teaching the only feedback that you get—aside from excuses and whining—happens at the end of the semester. To some extent, student performance is a measuring stick, but there are so many factors that it’s difficult to get real, actionable feedback. The only ways to approach teaching then, is from a position of absolute confidence or a total lack of it. I had days where I experienced both, but probably tended towards the latter more often.

One product of teaching a half-semester class that I hadn’t factored in was the lack of feedback that I was giving students. I made this problem worse by structuring the class around projects that I wouldn’t collect until the end of the semester. I realized just past the half way point that I hadn’t given students a single grade. I rectified this immediately with an in-process grade, but it was an important realization that students needed a measure of their performance as well.

Unit Testing

Hands down the most difficult unit that I taught was on Design Thinking. Thinking back on it, it might have been to big of a thing to take on and present in just a couple classes. The first class that I taught on it was a complete flop that failed to connect with the students. I spent the next two days and nights reworking the content, and was able to salvage the second class. I would’ve liked to have spent a lot more time on this one subject, as well as talk to others that have taught it.

The biggest positive surprise that I had was during the unit on User Experience. All of my students were digital natives, and doubtless have a certain level of technical fluency coming into the class as a result. I was still quite impressed with their ability to quickly grasp UX concepts and their eagerness to try different things within the project parameters. Again, a subject that I wish that I’d had more time to dive deeper into.

A Big Slice of Pie

One of the most difficult episodes during the semester came when one of my students decided to give me some unsolicited feedback about my teaching. Though I was under the impression that all of my students were freshmen, I came to find that I had a few seniors in the class. One of the seniors was left cleaning up work after the class, and we got to talking. He gave me some feedback on my teaching style that was, frankly, difficult to take. I tried to take it gracefully, and after I’d spent some time thinking about it, I realized that the feedback had merit. Subsequently, I made some changed in my teaching approach, and I think ultimately it made me a better teacher. Humble pie never tastes good, but it’s usually good for you. As difficult as it was to hear at the time, I’m glad that the student spoke up.

It’s probably not difficult to grasp why I’m conflicted about the experience. I doubt that it’s the last time that I’ll ever teach, and indeed I hope that it isn’t. The next time around, I’ll be more prepared, and have a list of things that I would change or do differently.


I really want to give some credit to a few people that were involved with my teaching experience. First, the exceptional John Kramer made some introductions that ultimately landed me the job. Second, the always hard working and generous Josh LaFayette blazed trail with this class and created a lot of resources that he then handed to me, which he didn’t need to do. Thank you both.

Published by: Ira F. Cummings in Blog

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