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InsightAug 17, 2022

The way forward in design education: Teaching teamwork with Michelle Desgroseilliers

Diana Varma RGD shares takeaways from her conversation with fellow design educator Michelle Desgroseilliers on fostering accountability in group work and how to scaffold assignments to mimic agency settings.

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do, and I understand."

The above quote is attributed to Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who is known for playing a critical role in developing the art of teaching as a vocation. His words continue to resonate nearly 2500 years later. While most of us are inundated with new information daily — making us all life-long learners by default — it’s the practicing of a new skill that provides the greatest possibility for learning.

Practicing teamwork is top of mind for design educator Michelle Desgroseilliers. When I sat down with Michelle earlier this year, she shared her approach to fostering accountability in group work, as well as how she scaffolds assignments to mimic agency settings in her Communicating Design class at George Brown College in Toronto. The course has a dual focus: creating design outputs to solve a problem, as well as learning how to communicate this work to various stakeholders. The way she structures her course allows students to test-drive industry experiences within the safe space of the classroom.

The Project(s)

This course is centered around a semester-long project that includes both individual elements and group components interwoven throughout. Not only must students work with different types of people in their groups (formed around a mixture of working styles derived from Deloitte’s Business Chemistry tool), but students must then create work for different types of people, understanding their audiences both internally and externally.

Michelle lays out various smaller projects along the way, asking teams to create a brief (internal communication to a superior), develop and deliver a concept pitch (external communication for a client) and produce a design spec (instructions for another team internally to be able to build the project as intended). Finally, there is a peer assessment component where teammates rate one another, providing feedback on the interpersonal soft skills required of teamwork. It’s her most complex project in all the courses she teaches, interlacing projects and people, design work and teamwork (and I got a sneak peek at the spreadsheet to prove it!).

Furthermore, in communicating about design in Communicating Design, Michelle intentionally spends a lot of time focused on the ‘why’, including why students are being asked to complete assignments in the team-based framework and how it ties into industry. “I do a lot of work to try to connect what they're doing in the assignments with what they're supposed to get out of the class... I remember being a student and I couldn’t have told you what the course outcomes were for a single one of my classes, so I talk about them every time I give out an assignment. ‘Here's what you're doing... Here's the core idea... These are all the course outcomes that you are practicing...’ because I want them to know why.”

Introducing Accountability Metrics in Teaching Teamwork

Most of what Michelle teaches is group work so she provides opportunities for students to work on projects aligned with industry, in the supportive environment needed for students learning new skills. She recognizes that while teamwork is part of most courses, instructors often don’t explicitly teach group collaboration skills. “We don't really give them tools. We just put them in a team and figure they'll learn by doing. I try to actively give them criteria for interacting with each other.”

Towards the end of the project, students receive a grade based on their teamwork skills, mimicking the way they might be assessed by their peers in industry. Students complete a survey where they rank each other (scored from 1-5) and Michelle uses this ranking to help her inform her decision about students’ final peer evaluation mark.

“What I have found is that this has drastically reduced the amount of personal interventions I need to do with teams coming to me and saying ‘This person hasn't shown up for any meetings...’ I used to get that constantly when I would [facilitate] group projects; it would be a minimum of two or three groups coming to me and complaining about a member. I hadn't built in any way to provide consequences. Once I started doing the peer assessment, I found it stopped.”

When asked whether group politics and people ‘playing favorites’ (or other factors that don’t represent students’ actual work) impact this peer assessment grade, Michelle acknowledged that the answer is ‘definitely yes’. For example, if a group is made up of four friends and one friend doesn’t do any work, they will likely still receive a high score. However, she identifies that the peer rating isn’t really about contribution and more about the social skills demonstrated within a group, so it’s less of a concern than it might appear on the surface.

Scaffolding Assignments in Teaching Teamwork

As the semester progresses, students continue to work in their project groups, creating outputs for various stakeholders and navigating design work that builds on itself. Michelle also uses the opportunity within this multi-faceted project to allow students to try on different roles and tasks within the projects that wouldn’t normally be completed by a designer (ex: creating a project timeline or writing a brief). Michelle sees her role in teaching post-secondary college courses as needing to be practical, experiential and hands-on, versus teaching high-level academic theory.

“This [type of tiered assignment] is much more closely aligning with what happens in a real project at a real design agency because you don't do a bunch of one-off assignments that end and never go anywhere else. Projects travel through different phases.”

What’s the result of this complex, multi-faceted, team-based experiential assessment?

“I do find the quality of the work that comes from some of these projects surprises even me sometimes, so I do find that it works. They really feel like [students think] '...it matters what I do on this assignment because I'm going to have to do more. I'm going to have to keep working on this project'.”

The RGD’s The Way Forward in Design Education series captures unique teaching and assessment strategies from educators spanning the continent. The thoughts and opinions contained within this article do not necessarily reflect the affiliated institution.


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