How seeing Teachers as Designers helped me understand my past and gave me hope for the future

A recent birthday present helped me understand one of the first teaching mistakes I realized I was making, and how two current techniques I use work to overcome that mistake. The present made it clear that we teachers have an opportunity to pave pathways to success for our students.

1. Starting with the mistake

Put most simply, I was assessing students based on skills I wasn’t teaching (skills not included in the course’s learning objectives). Their grades came largely from long research essays and exams and yet I spent my classtime talking about Plato and Descartes and Berkeley. How were they to know how I understood good essay-writing? How I’d word questions to get at course content?

Perhaps I assumed that their previous training was plenty to prepare them for my assessments: teach them the philosophical content and they’d plug it into already-mature essay and exam skills. But I think this is too generous to me as a neophyte teacher. I’d bet I simply didn’t think about it. This meant that while I wanted to assess them based on the philosophical skills (which I was working to teach them), I was actually testing them on their essaying and exam-taking skills (which I was NOT working to teach them).

2. The Birthday Present

I received a copy of “The Design of Everyday Things” (hereafter, TDOET) by Donald A. Norman. Norman says, “Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly designed objects can be difficult and frustrating to use. They provide no clues-or sometimes false clues.” (TDOET, p. 2) In short, the design of an object should make clear how that object is to be used. Objects that aren’t designed properly encourage Learned Helplessness: “the situation in which people experience failure at a task, often numerous times. As a result, they decide that the task cannot be done, at least not by them: they are helpless.” (TDOET, p.42) Poorly designed objects frustrate their users by obscuring how users can achieve their goals in using the object.

Think about a pen with no obvious clicker (e.g., a pen that you twist to deploy). The reason that you pick up a pen is to write, and if you cannot get the pen tip out, you will decide that you cannot write (at least not with that pen). The real problem with twist pens is what Norman calls a “visibility problem” (TDOET, p.4): a situation in which there are no visible cues to suggest how a desired outcome might be achieved (the traditional clicker pen has an obvious [i.e., VISIBLE] button on the top, the twist pen does not obviously twist to open and is, in fact, designed to hide the twisting motion to achieve a more elegant silhouette).

3. Using TDOET to Understand Teachers as Designers.

Teachers are designers. Courses are objects students use to achieve a goal: to prove that they’ve learned course content. For well-designed courses, then, it is easy for students to understand how to prove that they’ve learned course content by getting high marks. Poorly designed courses are frustrating because it’s not clear how to show that they’ve learned course material.

Consider the case of my early teaching: my error as an instructor was designing without making visible how students could test their ability to represent their learning on assessments and correct for any possible miscommunication. They didn’t receive feedback on their essays until they received their grade. They didn’t see how I asked exam questions until the exam itself. In TDOET terms, this meant that there weren’t VISIBLE clues they could use to figure out how to achieve their goal in using the course-object (i.e., the high marks that showed they’d learned course content). The course was, then, potentially frustrating and a cause of Learned Helplessness. That’s something that no teacher wants.

4. Two Things

Fortunately, TDOET shows us that we teachers can design our way out of mistakes like I made as a young teacher. Two things I now do are a) reading quizzes and b) process-based essay assignments.

a) Reading quizzes are low-risk situations that teach students how I ask questions so that wordings and assessment methods on exams are not completely foreign. It ensures that question-wordings aren’t barriers to students showing what they’ve learned. 

b) Process-based essay assignments do two things to make clear what students need to do to achieve their goals. First, they require drafts. I read the first and give each student comments. As the comments come before they’re assessed, a pathway to success is made visible. Further, students workshop each others’ essay drafts. This gives them exposure to how others have understood and attempted the assignment, and it gives them peer-feedback on their work. Second, the process-based assignment shows students I’m expecting them to go through a draft and revision process, not simply produce a 3-5 Page essay (as early assignments asked for).

Each of these ensures that students aren’t working in a vacuum, deprived of visible paths to proving they’ve mastered course content, but instead are in an environment with multiple, concrete layers of options to help ensure they know where to put their effort in order to achieve.

5. Hope for the Future

Good course design makes visible not just course learning objectives, but also the pathways to showing how you’ve achieved those objectives. In other words, it makes clear how class assessment shows that students have learned the course content. Reading “The Design of Everyday Things” made clear that we teachers as designers have an opportunity to provide our students with visible pathways to success (perhaps we’ll call it “Learned Successfulness”!) in the midst of teaching them to understand and (hopefully) love our course content.


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center ( and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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