When Stefan Persaud took over the second-year bachelor’s course Product Dynamics at Industrial Design, he brought along his motto: "If you can't reach them, you can't teach them." Persaud believes in student-centred teaching, where lecturers focus on how students best learn and engage students in active learning.

Persaud accidentally became a lecturer. He was working on the development of a ventilation system at an energy consultancy company when he was asked by a friend to serve on her graduation committee. He discovered that he really enjoyed the role.

He knew first-hand, from struggling during his own studies at TU Delft, that not all teaching methods worked well for all students and he quickly became interested in how you can best engage your students. His interest in pedagogy, the study of the theory, methods and practice of learning, led him to focusing on the connection that he could make with his students. ‘Connection before correction,’ is another one of his sayings.

Challenging Coursework

Combining mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics and design, the Product Dynamics course at Industrial Design Engineering is seen as a challenge for students and lecturers alike. Fortunately, Persaud had spent more than ten years at Rotterdam University teaching industrial design and, just before coming to Delft, he had restructured the mechanical engineering coursework there.
‘In my experience, these students are at the same level of ability. So why do some students succeed while others fail?’

The Product Dynamics course had already been running and Persaud did not change too much about the framework of the course itself. The final project was to create a ping pong ball launcher and he wanted students to have more immediate feedback while creating their launcher, so he included more opportunities for interaction. These included a ball counter and an audio output when a ball was loaded. ‘The students can’t see their calculations in the machine, so I wanted to make it visible. A beep or a light that activates is an immediate reward for success,’ he says.

Making Things Fun

‘Playfulness is at the centre,’ he says. Persaud wants his students to be having fun. He believes that if the students are enjoying themselves, they are going to learn better. Persaud changed the final ping pong ball shooter into a competition. ‘To give the students some stakes,’ he says.

And just any competition. Rather than having a challenge to shoot a pong ball the farthest or most accurately at a target, Persaud turned the final project into what he called a Buddy Pong tournament. Essentially, the final project was an alcohol-free version of the common university party game where players toss ping pong balls into cups of beer.

A Lot Of Help

With an enrolment of 400 students, creating a personal connection is difficult. ‘When I was at Rotterdam, I had 100 students. I knew everyone’s name,’ Persaud says. Fortunately, he was not alone in teaching the Product Dynamics course. With a team of seven lecturers and just as many student assistants to work with, the class could be broken into smaller sections, making it easier for the students and lecturers to have a connection. Persaud calls them ‘tribes.’ Persaud, himself, served as both lecturer and workshop coach during the course so it was easier for him to relate to the other lecturers when they had problems.

How To Connect

Persaud managed his team of lecturers and student assistants the same way he managed his classroom. Ultimately, he believes that colleagues, and students, want to feel listened to, respected, and validated. By showcasing this approach with his peers, he helped them mirror that with the students.

This involves a lot of active and empathic listening. ‘Which,’ he explains, ‘doesn’t always mean that I agree.’ When meeting with his lecturers, Persaud would give all of them the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. He has had a lot of training as a coach and in communications, so he brought that experience to his leadership. ‘When people connect with each other, suddenly everyone finds the motivation to go the extra mile,’ he says.

That is the same approach he brings to the classroom. If a student raises their hand and says, for example, their code is not working, Persaud wants to make sure that is an opportunity to connect and listen. ‘In traditional teaching methods, lecturers might look at the work the student is doing and say, “This is the error.” Or the lecturer might ask “Did you read the chapter? Did you attend the lecture?” In the first scenario, most students do not learn from the interaction. In the second, many students learn that if they have a problem, it is their fault, and they will be blamed and as a result they stop asking questions.’

Rather, Persaud suggests asking the student to explain what their approach is and asking them what they think had gone wrong. In this way, students often figure out their own errors and gain the confidence of realising they can do the work. Thus, connection before correction.

The Bigger Picture

When he looks around at the people who win the prize for the best lecturer in their faculty and at the university, Persaud sees lecturers who, above all else, connect with their students. ‘The lecturers who are valued most by their students are the ones who have the best relationships with their students,’ he says. He wants lecturers to prioritize the connection they have with their students, valuing them as people as much as valuing imparting knowledge onto them.

‘What we need to be asking is: what sort of education do our designers need?’

His results speak for themselves. Despite dealing with Covid-19 and all of the challenges it brought with online learning, physical distance in the classroom and overall stress and anxiety, more students passed the Product Dynamics course than ever before.

Even during corona, Persaud found ways to connect with his students. The Product Dynamics course began with all of the participants submitting a course-related selfie. Persaud, who practices martial arts, sent in a shot of himself doing an aerial kick with arrows to indicate his acceleration. Ever playful, Persaud offers personal information to his students to hopefully give them a point of connection while also showcasing one of the fundamental concepts he hopes to get across.