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Students typically know about design in their own career fields. Civil engineering majors, for instance, typically know what a good bridge, a well-designed intersection, or an efficiently designed airport looks like. They may not be able to design and build one yet, but they can tell the difference between a good design and a bad one.
This active learning strategy taps into students’ prior knowledge on design and then asks them to apply what they know to document design. The activity has two parts: first, students document their own knowledge, and second, they collaboratively draw conclusions about design and consider how the concepts apply to writing. The Individual Activity described below is presented as it would be to students while the Follow-Up Group Activities are presented as instructions for the teacher.
The Individual Activity
Before we begin our discussion of the principles of design that apply to writing, I want you to think about how design principles shape work in your own career field. For this activity, find an object related to your career field that demonstrates strong design principles and then prepare an informal presentation that explains the design principles to your group. Using the presentations from all your group members, you will reflect on what we can say about design across disciplinary and career fields.
- Focusing on your career field, choose a well-designed object. A civil engineer could choose a bridge. A software developer could choose a program interface. A packaging science major could choose a reusable packaging system. A building construction major could choose a hand or power tool. Whatever you choose, be sure that you would say it is well-designed and that you are familiar enough with the object to talk about it.
- Brainstorm a list of features that demonstrate the object’s good design. Just jot down the features that come to mind. You will come back to this list later in this activity.
- Find information on your object that you can share in class. Ideally, find digital versions that you can incorporate into your presentation. Possible sources include the following:
- Photos or screen shots
- Drawings or illustrations
- Instruction manuals
- Schematic diagrams
- Advertising materials
- Demonstration or instructional videos
- Review the information you collected for additional features that point to the fact that the object is well-designed. As you find characteristics, add them to your brainstormed list.
- Create a chart that aligns characteristics that make the object well-designed with the evidence from the information you have gathered. For instance, you might point to details in a photo that demonstrate a feature that contributes to the design. You can add or remove features from your list as you work.
- Create a slideshow presentation to share the features you have identified as integral to a well-designed object in your field, following these guidelines:
- Add a title slide that shows an image of your object and provides a title that identifies the object. For instance, you might use a title such as “Strong Design in the Humpback Covered Bridge.”
- Add a slide for each characteristic of good design you have identified, following these suggestions:
- For the title of the slide, use a word or two to name the characteristic.
- Include the evidence that you found that demonstrates that characteristic.
- Add a source citation for your evidence.
- Do not add any more description or bullet points since you will explain the details to your group.
- Add speaker’s notes if you like.
- Practice your presentation so that you are ready to share your well-designed object with your group. Aim to share your information in two to three minutes. Revise your presentation as necessary after your practice session.
Follow-Up Group Activities
- After students have their presentations ready, arrange the class in small groups and ask students to share their presentations with one another. Have students listen for similarities among the principles that are presented. Remind them that the same underlying principle or idea may not use the same name in every career field.
- Once students complete the individual presentations to their groups, ask them to identify five characteristics that transcend a single career field. Explain that students are looking for similarities among all the principles that have been presented. If students need additional help, suggest that they look at what the principles focus on. For instance, are there principles that focus on what the object looks like? Consider how they are similar.
- Have groups share their five characteristics by writing them on a section of the board, on a Google Slide, or on chart paper. Ask each group to explain their five characteristics briefly.
- Use a full-class discussion to look for patterns and similarities among all of the characteristics that have been posted. Ask students to share their immediate observations, and use questions to help them see any details that are less obvious.
- Display a well-designed document, or pass out copies for students to observe. You can also point to a document in your textbook. Ideally, choose an example related to an current or upcoming writing assignment.
- Invite students to apply the characteristics posted by their small groups to the example document. As necessary, ask questions that help students apply their career-field knowledge to the example. For example, ask students to apply design principles about an object’s appearance to the appearance of the example document.
- Synthesize student observations by listing the characteristics that apply to document design. Take advantage of the opportunity to introduce and discuss key principles of design (such as contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity) by connecting to the principles that students have identified.
- Follow this activity with one of the ideas from Examining Design Principles through Active Learning Tasks or ask students to apply the design principles discussed in the class sessions to the drafts they are currently working on. Alternately, students can apply the design principles to their presentation slides.
Writing and document design can feel alien to students whose area of expertise lies outside the writing classroom. This activity makes students experts in the classroom, telling us all about their career field and then applying that expertise to document design. Students work as active learners, building connections between what they know and the work of the writing classroom. How do you help students understand concepts in the writing classroom that may not seem obvious to them? Do you have classroom activities or assignments to share? I would love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below.
Photo credit: Virginia's Oldest Covered Bridge, Humpback Covered Bridge by Don O’Brien on Wikimedia Commons, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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