TU Delft has a magnificent design teaching environment for students of Bouwkunde and Industrial Design. However, its challenging nature can cause a great deal of stress and that can have a negative effect on students' health. In a research project, Urbanism and 4TU educational leader Remon Rooij took a closer look at the learning environment of design teaching, together with colleagues, students and experts. In this article he talks to students and Stylos commissioner Lotte van der Horst about the balance between learning and performance.

Bouwkunde and Industrial Design students experience more stress than any others at TU Delft. That conclusion of the research performed by the VSSD student union in 2019 was quite a shock to Remon Rooij who was, at the time, the Architecture bachelor programme coordinator. For him and his Industrial Design colleague, Sylvia Mooij, the VSSD report was the reason why they decided to take a closer look at the problem. "We first checked whether the conclusion resonated with our community. And this turned out to be the case. After that we set up a project to assess how we can deal more effectively with the challenging nature of design teaching. Our findings led to the publication of the book entitled 'Healthy Challenging Design Education."

Students start designing on day 1

According to Remon Rooij, design teaching is at the heart of the Bouwkunde and Industrial Design training programme. "Other faculties also focus on design, but not to such a huge extent as at Bouwkunde and Industrial Design. Students there start designing on day 1 and don't stop until they graduate. Design teaching offers a wonderful learning environment. You work in small groups and are therefore 'visible', you can put your heart and soul into what you make, you learn together, receive feedback all the time and work on important societal themes."

Design teaching implies vulnerabilities

However wonderful and valuable design teaching is, it also implies vulnerabilities, Remon Rooij acknowledges. "One of those is that the assignments we work on are always open ended. So there's an infinite amount of space in which to find solutions. Consequently students, and particularly new students, never really know when a design is good enough. After all, there's always something to change or improve. That can create uncertainty, work-related pressure and stress, which is exacerbated by students often spending many hours on a design and feeling vulnerable when they present it. The eyes of many other students and several tutors are on them."

Late into the night and still not satisfied

Lotte van der Horst, Commissioner of Education & Well-Being at the D.B.S.G. Stylos student union, concurs. "Designing requires a great deal of creativity and that's certainly true of Bouwkunde and Industrial Design. It's an art form. Although there are certain basic rules for the design process, nothing is really ever right or wrong. Because it's difficult for students to assess when something is good enough or finished, they often just keep going. Sometimes they work late into the night, several nights in a row. This cannot and should not be the intention. And when they have to present or hand in something, they're sometimes still not satisfied."

Students find it very difficult to assess when something is good enough.

Dare to set and declare boundaries

The combination of stress, uncertainty and insufficient rest regularly make design teaching unhealthy challenging, explains Remon Rooij. "At that point studying is torment rather than enjoyable. We want to educate students to become (landscape) architects, urbanists, or architectural engineers  who are excellent designers, but we also want to teach them to take a stance and know their limits. For first year students, that's certainly no easy task. It's not something you learn at secondary school. That's why it's important that we create a safe learning environment here and provide assistance." 

Support by lecturers

Lecturers also play an important role, explains Lotte van der Horst. As an example she refers to the moments students have to make choices during the design process. "Students often find it difficult to make a definitive choice for a design at an early stage. As a result they postpone important design choices. It would be helpful if lecturers provide tips on how to make decisions. Students need guidance to find out what is expected of them. Sometimes they place the bar far too high, or they make it unnecessarily complicated.”

A greater focus on personal development

Another key focal point with regard to design teaching is clarification about the focus. According to Lotte Van der Horst students tend to focus blindly on how their final product is going to be graded. “But the way they develop is at least as important. I only figured that out myself in my third bachelor year. That was mainly because my design tutors at the time really engaged with my skills, wishes and ideas rather than focusing on the assignment or their own vision. Once an assignment had been completed we jointly reflected on what I had learnt and what I wanted to take on board. That was a very valuable experience." 

Personal development must be assigned a more prominent role in education.

A better balance between learning and performance

Remon Rooij completely agrees. "From the perspective of society and our educational system we are very much focused on students achieving the best possible grade. The fact is that someone who goes from a 2 to a 6 has probably taken many more steps than someone who goes from a 7 to a 8. Currently we're assessing how we can give that personal development a more prominent place in education. And that's quite difficult to achieve. Ultimately, a high-quality end product is, of course, also important. We'll have to find a balance between learning and achieving and between personal development and the design product."


Starting point for cultural change dialogue

Remon Rooij hopes that the book is a starting point for this search. "But also a broader dialogue. Ultimately, it's about a cultural change. You can't achieve that in the short term, or with just one change. It's based on interaction between students, lecturers and the parties responsible for organising education. In the book we provide several very specific relevant guidelines (see the G-model illustration, editors). It's also great that we now, in any event, have mapped how design teaching is experienced and how it can be improved. That provides a basis for discussions about how we can jointly keep education both healthy and challenging. A discussion like this starts in your own design classroom."

This article is the first in a series on healthy and challenging design teaching. In the following articles we zoom in on giving and receiving feedback, mutual interaction and communication, and final presentations and grades. 

Remon Rooij new scientific 4TU director

As of 1 July Remon Rooij is going to start work as the chair and scientific director of the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education, a partnership between the four technical universities in the Netherlands. "In this role I'm going to be working on the engineering education of the future. I intend to achieve this through educational innovations, pedagogical research and policy advice. I will focus on a range of professional, didactic, pedagogic and organisational aspects. And that will, of course, include the challenges relating to healthy challenging design teaching."