8 Months, 4 people, Client Project
This is the Capstone Project in CMU. We worked with Western Governors University (WGU), an online nonprofit university for adult learners, to help students improve their career development fluency and learning fluency. Our solutions have two parts: one module to teach students career management skills and one personalized tool to teach students strategically solve their learning problems. Here I will only present the solution for learning to learn skill, because I was mainly responsible for the design of this part.
I led the Ideation and Design stages in this project. My responsibilities include creating research and design plan, organizing brainstorming sessions, conducting user interviews and usability testing sessions, generating prototypes and designing final report.
You can download the PDF version of this project here.
Capstone Project team final presentation to our clients
Tackle a wicked problem using design thinking
The solution was initially thought as straightforward. In order to teach students how to study better, we were asked by the clients to create an online learning module.
The opportunity turned out to be much greater. And what we ultimately produced was a comprehensive solution, encompassing a web learning tool, a mobile app to boost study productivity, a dashboard for mentors to track students' performance, and a messaging service to promote family engagement.
At its core is the web learning tool that trains students to learn better by modeling, scaffolding and facilitating the use of effective learning strategies. (Due to the project constraint, we only prototyped the online learning tool.)
This reframing of the opportunity emerged from our user-centered design approach that brought to the process, in which we discovered that mere lecturing wouldn't solve the problem.
How did this happen? Let's take a look!
Explore students’ learning experience and needs
At the outset of the project we didn’t have a clear mission or specific goals for teaching learning to learn skills. Thus, we set off immediately to build a thorough understanding of the industry, the company and the students. We started from identifying three guiding questions:
1 ) What are learning to learn skills? How can they help students succeed?
2 ) What's the existing WGU experience and where does it need improvement?
3 ) How do WGU students study and what do they need?
We discovered the following learning behaviors and needs relating to learning fluency. These insights informed us in the design process.
The average age of WGU students is 37. Most of them have full-time or part-time jobs. They are very sensitive to the study load because of their busy schedule. Most of the users we talked to wanted to pass the final test as quickly as possible. Adult learners come in with their own experience, so they are very different in how they learn and where they need more improvement. Students relied heavily on mentors. They reported that they need someone to keep them accountable.
THE PROBLEM WE OBSERVED
Students may not utilize the most effective learning strategies, while they they want to accelerate their learning.
While many students are self-confident about their learning strategies, they often use a limited number of strategies — even when those methods repeatedly fail. Moreover, 80% of interviewees reported that their study strategies were improvised, and not taught to them in a formal manner. Actually, some strategies they used are even shown to be ineffective in research. On the other side, almost every student we interviewed express that they want to accelerate their learning to get the degree as soon as possible.
These findings revealed a design opportunity for us. We narrowed our scope to focus on helping students to solve their learning problems strategically and eventually accelerate their learning.
Find a common ground in learning goals and user needs
In the Ideation stage, we took a backward method. We started by thinking about the vision we have for Fast Pass, which is to enable students become effective learners in long term.
I realized that there's a need to establish a rule that guided us to make appropriate tradeoffs. Our design should begin by defining the learning goals. We should think about what we want to students to know and be able to do by defining the learning goals and behavioral indicators. We believe the what students learn are beneficial to them in long run.
Envisioning the solution
Four design directions with prototypes
We created a prototype for each design direction and conducted speed dating to validate these ideas. Based on the feedbacks, we narrowed down to our final solution.
A personalized learning tool for adult learners to learn how to strategically solve their learning problems
Fast Pass teaches and trains students to learn better and faster, by modeling, scaffolding and facilitating the use of effective learning strategies. The solution focuses on teaching students "how they should use the learning strategies" and "why they should use them".
How does it work?
1. Personalized recommendations
When students use Fast Pass for the first time, it will ask them a set questions to identify their learning problems. Then, Fast Pass will recommend the most effective learning strategy to their learning problems.
2. Explicit Instruction
Fast Pass will explicitly explain the benefits and outcomes of each learning strategy to let students understand the value of the learning activities and how they fit in the learning path.
3. Learn by doing
Fast Pass can help students perfect the strategy by providing practice opportunities in the context of content area instruction, so students can learn it by practicing.
4. Create deeper learning
A separate section showing students how to strategically think about the steps at the metacognitive level.
Fast Pass provides values to both students and WGU
PROduct & design decisions
1 ) Focus on the learning problems associated with assessments
Finding: From user interviews, we understood that WGU students want to pass the assessment as quickly as possible. Students are more motivated to use new strategies if it will help them to achieve their goals.
Design Action: We focused on the learning problems associated with assessments, and all of the learning strategies are built on the assessments. This can tap into students' intrinsic motivation.
2 ) Provide student a personalized learning experience
Finding: Because WGU students are adults with very diverse background, they have different levels of learning to learn skills. Moreover, they are very sensitive to the study load because of their busy schedule. They only want to learn things that are necessary to them.
Design Action: We want to create a more personalized solution, so that students can learn exactly what they need.
3 ) Make it clear and explicit to students that they are learning the general strategy, not to solve the specific question.
Finding: Many students are not aware of the learning to learn skills. When we first presented them the prototype of Fast Pass, they didn't understand that they were learning the strategy. For example, one user said that "Before your explanation, I thought Fast Pass would teach me how to solve this specific problem, instead of teaching me the method and process."
Design Action: We wanted to make it crystal clear that students are learning the strategies, not the domain knowledge. We separated the part where students are using the strategy on the specific question, and the part where the tool explains the strategy to them.
4 ) Change the learning science jargons into easy-to-understand terms
Finding: In the user testing, we found that students sometimes misunderstood the learning strategies because some words are too academic for them.
Design Action: We changed the wording to be more casual and understandable from students' perspective. For example: we changed one of the learning strategy's name from "Decompose The Knowledge Components" into "Break Solution Down"
What I've learned from this project
This has been my favorite design project and also the one I've spent the most time and energy on. I've learned a lot from the project. Here're some of my takeaways:
One of the challenges of learning design is the conflict between good learning and user experience. Learning is frustrating in nature because one must take some efforts to learn new things. This sometimes can end up with "unpleasant" user experience. We were constantly asking ourselves how can we find the subtle “sweet spot” that keep the balance between the good learning “suffering” and the user-friendly experience?
Sometimes what users say are different from what they think. And they may not be aware of that. For example, when I asked a student if she would turn to her course mentor if she got stuck. She said no because she can always figure out by herself. So she has no need to ask the course mentor for help. Then I changed the way I asked the question. I told her, from our other user interviews, we found some of her peers feel frustrated about asking the course mentor questions because they don’t know how to frame the questions, and the course mentors sometimes just don’t give them the feedback as they expected. Then she immediately said: “Exactly! I think that is why I don’t like to ask course mentors questions.” It turned out that it is not because she doesn’t have the need to ask course mentors questions, but because she has some troubles on how to seek effective help from the course mentors. There is a famous saying in the learning science: “ You don’t know what you don’t know.” So we as designers should think critically about the user feedback and dig deeper.
There are a lot of different techniques to choose from, each with different strengths, weaknesses, and research goals. As a design lead in the team, I had opportunities to think about how to select the right design process and methods. I found that The first step is to think about: What do I want to know? After identifying the specific goals of the project, we should look at the possible benefits of one or more co-design activities, and then align these goals and these benefits.