Center uses design thinking to enhance teaching and learning

Six people stand around a circular table, placing small round blue stickers on brightly colored sticky notes.
During a design thinking training, CTLM staff members upvote ideas they’ve brainstormed by placing blue dot stickers on sticky notes.

Armed with a new method of problem-solving, a UW–Madison center is approaching its mission of advancing teaching and learning in more innovative, effective ways.

The Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring (CTLM), which launched last July in the Division for Teaching and Learning, serves faculty, academic staff and graduate student instructors through campus-level instructional development, implementation and support, including professional development, course design and instructional consulting programs and services.

CTLM is adopting design thinking as a key strategy for shaping its work across campus advancing the craft of teaching. Design thinking is a problem-solving process that’s being widely adopted in a wide range of disciplines and is increasingly becoming a focus of academic programs. To learn the process, center staff are applying it to one of CTLM’s priorities: engaging with new instructors.

“So much of my work as a teaching and learning specialist is creating experiences for instructors to see their classroom from a different perspective, to see their classroom from the student’s perspective,” explained Julie Hunt Johnson, a member of the center’s professional development group. She views design thinking as a tool “to help them expand their mindset – so they can have more inclusive classrooms, for example.”

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The CTLM team gathered in the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab, a flexible, multipurpose space in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) created to support design thinking strategies, including collaboration, group ideation and prototyping. Whiteboards cover the lab’s walls, ready to capture ideas. Each table is stocked with markers and colorful sticky notes – a favorite idea-generating tool because they’re highly visible and easy to move around.

The goal of the session “is to give you a little taste” of design thinking, explained facilitator Michelle Kwasny, founding academic director of the university’s master of science in design + innovation, “and say, ‘How can I apply this in my work?’”

She shared an overview of the three phases of design thinking – inspiration (driven by people and their needs), ideation and implementation – and quickly got participants talking, writing and drawing.

The team began by putting themselves in the shoes of a new instructor, envisioning their experience and how it could be improved.

“I would really love for new instructors to be aware that we’re here,” shared Julie Collins, who’s part of the center’s consulting group.

“If they’re reaching out to us for questions, that’s success,” said Blaire Bundy, who leads the professional development group.

A woman speaks to a group seated with her at a circular table while another woman looks on and takes notes.
Yaa Klu, a teaching faculty member in the Department of Food Science, shares some of her experiences as a new instructor while Amy Holevas, an instructional design supervisor with CTLM, takes notes during a workshop at Memorial Union.

To learn and build empathy, the center invited a group of instructors from across campus to share their experiences.

“I wish I had a mentor – somebody that could sit in and observe my teaching and give me some feedback on the activities I’ve designed,” said Pam Doolittle, a distinguished teaching faculty member in the Chemistry Department.

Jenn Drake, a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing, said that it’s taken a while to discover resources for teaching and learning. “I feel like a lot of the things, I’ve stumbled on … Once you learn that they’re there, all these doors open.”

The center team took detailed notes. While it’s tempting to jump immediately to solutions, Kwasny said it’s important first to think about broader themes and insights that emerged from the research. She challenged them to do this by coming up with several “How might we…” questions.

Sticky notes blossomed around the room. “How might we build a map of campus resources?” “Make CTLM a highly visible resource?” “Provide a support model that is anticipatory and responsive?”

Several brightly colored sticky notes are placed on a wall representing themes and needs of new instructors.
Understanding the needs of the user – in this case, instructors who are new to campus – is a key step in design thinking.

Each table chose one “how might we” to brainstorm specific ideas. They voted on their top idea and talked through how they could create a prototype to gauge how well it works.

They ended by reflecting on how they can use design thinking in their day-to-day work.

“It is so important that we think about how we welcome new instructors to our teaching and learning community,” said John Zumbrunnen, vice provost for teaching and learning. “It was great to be part of an event that helped us think about how to best serve our new colleagues — while building the CTLM team.”

Several center staff are now beginning work on new instructor engagement and will be drawing on what they’ve learned about design thinking.

“The design thinking process was a fun way to flex brainstorming muscles in a way we haven’t as a team. It was especially fun to broaden the way we think about approaching a problem or area of opportunity,” said Amanda Ferrante, an instructional design supervisor. “Generating ideas and transforming them into solution-oriented approaches elevates the way we approach teaching and learning for our campus community.”

“I help courses, departments and schools go through curriculum and teaching transitions. Design thinking is a way to structure the work and to focus on goals and outcomes – but this method centers the human element,” said Margene Anderson, part of the center’s consulting group. “A major part of curriculum and teaching transformations is helping people with the emotional aspects of change. By approaching curriculum transformation through design thinking, that change management or human element isn’t an afterthought – it is central to the process.”

“Spending time dreaming feels like healing-centered engagement, where issues and problems seed thoughts for change,” shared Alice Traore, the center’s interim associate director for equity, diversity and inclusion. “This process definitely has me looking forward.”