[January 2021 update: I published this post on 22 January 2020; the activity was designed for a ‘f2f’ classroom setting- the activity will require adapting for online delivery in 2021].
This term I am leading a “supermodule” (undergraduate and postgraduate students combined) on User-Centred Systems Design. We had our first session on Monday morning first thing.
Sometimes we may underestimate the importance of ice-breaking activities and of getting to know each other at the beginning of a course/module. I feel like the increased costs of higher education have created a perception that any activities done in class that do not appear to be immediately related to the content of the lecture are a “waste of time”. However in order to make the most of an educational experience we need to attempt to design such experience by helping to create the circumstances that will allow students and staff to make the most of it.
It is hard to expect student engagement (their focused attention, participation via comments and questions, effective working in pairs or groups) if we haven’t made an effort to learn about each other (even if to a limited degree) and try to create an environment of trust. This trust will need to be developed over the term but we can begin to do that by making the time to introduce each other and to learn a bit more about our general and specific expectations.
Activities where students are asked to meet each other (let alone work with each other) can be very hard for different students for a plethora of reasons (I won’t go into those here). In my experience it does help if the activity introduces them to the skills and strategies that are included in the module’s learning objectives. It also helps if the activity is structured, rather than left to the students’ own devices (“talk amongst yourselves”).
Since the module I am leading provides an introduction to User-centred Design Activities, I aimed to fulfill various objectives in one through a “student trading card” creation ice-breaking activity.
The motivations behind the activity were:
- To contribute to breaking the ice between students and staff through a dynamic, engaging activity
- To prompt students to talk to each other in order to get to know each other better beyond those they already know
- To help me as module leader to know my students’ needs better
- To prompt students to reflect on the relationships between information architecture and layout, and between form and content- how the design of a template demands a particular type of data entry
- To introduce students to qualitative data collection via an in-person interview
- To prompt students to reflect on three personal and/or professional “superpowers” i.e. something they feel they are good at, prompting the rehearsal of positive thinking by focusing on diverse skills
- To prompt students to reflect on a personal and/or professional “weakness” i.e. an area of activity, knowledge or skill they wish to improve
With this requirements in mind I designed the activity reusing a very basic blank “trading card” template, which I printed out copies of, to hand them out to students, one each. I also had extra A4 blank paper to hand out and pens in case they were needed.
I introduced the activity and provided a summary of the instructions on the screen as a slide:
While I introduced the activity I got students to reflect on where they thought each answer should go on the form. No one, for example, suggested the name should go in the bottom box- but there were different views on what the top left circle and top right rectangle could contain. By doing this we were already very loosely anticipating content we will see later in the course, such as hierarchical analysis and user research activities such as semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and data collection.
What we meant by “superpowers” and “weaknesses” had to be defined- things we felt we were good at and things we though we needed/wanted to improve. It was important to not constrain these too much, allowing students to reflect on their own views on what their three “superpowers” and one “weakness” could be and to feedback each other about them. For example often during the conversations “weaknesses” could be turned into superpowers under the right circumstances. The main thing is to focus on the positives and to instill a sense that improvement is possible.
It was great to see the students engaged with the activity and ended up collecting more student trading cards than the single one I initially anticipated. As we were pressed for time we did not follow up the activity by getting students to actually “trade” the cards as a way to then find the students they represented, nor did I encourage students to draw “profile pictures” of their interviewees (some students did this without being prompted to).
I asked volunteers to feedback on the activity. They shared they found it enjoyable, had met colleagues they had not met properly before. I asked them about what they had found challenging about the activity, and indeed they shared that some had found it way harder to think of their own strengths and easier to think of their own weaknesses… or easier to think of personal “superpowers” than strictly “professional” ones. Feedback agreed that students “felt better” once they had their own cards read back to them. Some students regretted we had not had time to be more creative designing each other’s trading cards, adding illustrations, colour, etc.
We discussed how even those “superpowers” we ourselves could think of as not relevant to our professional practice could be easily transferred or useful to enhance it. I emphasised how they all had collected data from fellow participants using a standardised data collection template following a semi-structured interview, and that though this was an informal exercise giving us but a tiny glimpse of what talking to people for research purposes could be like, the module will go into detail on how to conduct user research using a range of practical methods. We also drew parallels between the trading card template and other user-centred design activities we will cover during the module, such as personas and wireframing.
What I wanted to do was to apply interaction design principles to the activity. As in that session we would cover usability and user experience, I wanted the activity to be enjoyable, fun, entertaining, motivating, aesthetically-pleasing and rewarding. The positive feedback from students during and after the lecture gave me an indication we might have achieved precisely that!
For this activity all you need is sheets of paper and pens- students can sketch their own templates. Unidrectional, hierarchical, non-dynamic classroom activities can be disempowering- and students of different educational levels (for example undergraduate and postgraduate) can feel apprehensive about their own skills, and most of the times do fail to make students become protagonists (“heroes”) of their own stories, making them feel dependent on external guidance and afraid of taking independent decisions. Allowing a safe space to reflect on our individual abilities (“superpowers”), to see each others as heroes of our own stories, without forgetting about those areas we would like to improve, can hopefully provide an initial step towards greater student empowerment.
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