Media, Technology, and Education
Design ThinkingIntegrated Clusters

Design Thinking and the Curriculum Planning Guide

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you know that I am working with a group of faculty to modify Plymouth State University’s First Year Seminar  (FYS). We’ve been talking a lot about wanting FYS to be the place where students begin to plan and take ownership of their educational story, to be able to talk about how the courses they’re taking are supporting their educational goals. I think we need to intentionally design experiences that will help the students learn how to tell their stories. I’ve written about student experiences before. When I teach game design, we focus on player experience goals. That is, we first create a goal for what we want our players to experience and then we design a game that is likely to give the players that experience. Every change we make during game development is focused on improving the possibility of the player to experience the things we have identified. I think we can use this same idea in the design of what it means to be educated at Plymouth State University. Therefore, we should identify our goals for the PSU educational experience. For example, we might say that we want students to be able to articulate their educational story, that we want them to be able to explain why they took the courses that they did and how those courses prepare them to do the things they want to do when they graduate from PSU. With these goals in mind, we can then design student experiences that will help them articulate their educational story.  To understand how we might design curricula to support these experiences, I’ve been doing research on design.

My research led me back to a great book called The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. I read this book a number of years ago and so it was already on my shelf. But reading it again, with this new focus on student experience in mind, I have been inspired and have gained new insights into things we might change in FYS. For example, one of the things that we currently do in FYS is explain our general education (GE) program. The idea is that we want students to understand the GE program so that they understand the role it plays in their overall education. We designed the GE program to try to ensure that the courses in the program would be relevant to the students’ lives and that students would understand that relevance. But I think we mostly have fallen short of that goal and students tend to see their GE courses as simply a checklist of requirements, hoops they have to jump through in order to receive their degree. So how might The Design of Everyday Things provide insight into what we might do differently with FYS (and/or the GE program) so that students don’t see GE (or their major program) as a simple checklist? Let me begin by explaining the first two design principles that Norman discusses.

Norman says that when an item is well-designed, it makes visible the designer’s idea of how the item works so that the user of the item can develop a conceptual model that matches the conceptual model of the designer. What does he mean by conceptual model? And how do we make it visible?

Let me give an example. I have a cyclometer, a device that measures the distance that I ride on my bicycle. It has three buttons, two on the side and one on the bottom, which are not labeled. When the front wheel on the bike begins to spin after a period of inactivity, the cyclometer asks me whether I want to start a new ride. It says, “New Ride? No.” In other words, the device wants to know whether I want to begin my mileage counting for this ride at 0 but assumes that my answer will be no. When I ride, I nearly always want to track the mileage for this ride separately from the previous ride which means I want to start at 0. I need to change the “No” to “Yes.”  But because none of the buttons are labeled, I have to randomly press buttons until I figure out which one will toggle the “No” to “Yes.” It isn’t immediately clear which of the three buttons will do this. So I’ve owned this device for a couple of months now. In most situations, I have a pretty clear understanding of what each of these three buttons do. My conceptual model of how the buttons work matches what the designer of the device intended. Through trial and error, I have figured out what the buttons do and I can remember it because I have an understanding of the buttons fixed in my mind. That’s my conceptual model. But in the situation of toggling between “No” and “Yes,” I still have to randomly figure it out by pressing the various buttons until “No” changes to “Yes.” Why? Because this is an action I just have to memorize. It uses one of the buttons randomly and that button usually does something different than toggle between “No” and “Yes.” The designers of the device have provided me with a conceptual model that works in most situations but in this one situation, the consequences of pressing the various buttons is not visible until I actually press the buttons.


I clearly have not been able to discern the designer’s intention for how these three buttons should work. If the designer had put an arrow next to the word “No” that pointed to the button I should press in order to toggle to “Yes,” the designer would have made their conceptual model of the buttons visible to me. I would not have to try to remember which button toggles between “No” and “Yes” but instead could simply pay attention to the arrow.

Rereading The Design of Everyday Things has started me thinking about the ways in which we support (or don’t) students in understanding the role of GE in their educational story. We have two major tools through which we keep track of students’ progress to completing the GE program. The first tool is DegreeWorks, a piece of software that lists all degree requirements for a particular student and their progress toward completing them. The second tool is the curriculum planning guide. It is a paper form that lists all requirements for every degree program that we offer. I realize that using these tools pushes students to think about their degree requirements, including GE, as a checklist. The tools don’t support the students in developing an educational story in which they can explain how their courses relate to each other or to their individual goals.

Let me use the curriculum planning guide to explain what I mean. Here’s the planning guide for the Media Studies degree in Communication and Media Studies. There is one for every major at PSU.


The GE program is listed beginning with the line that says “EN1200 Composition.” Notice what I said there. The GE program is listed. In other words, we present the GE program as a list. So no wonder our students see it as a simple list of requirements that they need to get through, that they need to check off. And the list isn’t even identified as their GE program. It is simply a list of course designations that they must complete. We have designed a form (and a software tool) that creates a conceptual model of the degree program as a checklist of requirements because the form (and the software tool) take the form of a checklist of requirements.

How could we keep track of progress toward degree in a way that encouraged students to create a conceptual model of their program that emphasized the connections between the individual courses and with their degree program and their interests? How can we discourage the idea that the requirements are a simple checklist? I don’t know the answer to this yet. But I’m intrigued by the possibilities. I think design thinking can help us in our efforts to get students to “own” their educational story.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Crystal Gaff

    Great post! What if we created an interactive GE course selection tool that prompts students to answer a series of questions that helps lead them in purposefully selecting their courses? How could we word the questions so they would create the outcome and we would not lead them to the outcome? I’m not sure, but your post has me thinking. Thank you. Crystal

  2. Cathie LeBlanc

    Right! That’s the kind of stuff I’m thinking about. It would also be great to have a tool where students identified the courses they’re interested in taking and then we figure out how to meet the demand rather than the way we do it now–put the supply of courses out there with very little data about the demand and then it’s first come, first served. We collect no data about the demand so that we can use it for planning for the next time around.

  3. Crystal Gaff

    Agreed! I believe students also need to learn about workforce demands and needed workplace skills when making career decisions – thus course/degree decisions. It would be great if those things are also taught in FYE.

  4. Jayashree Vyasarajan

    I loved reading your post. Designing and thinking about learning experiences is one of my passion as well. Choosing a major and other such elements in Higher Education is always linked to establishing successful career. And, as a Career Psychologist, I can say that the career development theories provide the rubric for one to design their career paths. I wonder how that could be thought through when we are thinking about First Year Experience, as well! To illustrate, the four main stages in which one explores their career path is: Understanding of self, Understanding the world of work -> Using these two as a basis, the students engage in decision making process to choose their career alternatives (having more than one suitable alternative) and develop an action plan. If one can imagine the FYE as an opportunity to explore the first two stages of knowing oneself and knowing the world out there, it may ease our students into declaring/ revisiting their major decisions. While these are the exact steps that we follow through in a course in Career Exploration, I strongly think that there is a greater application of the theory to become an experience across courses rather than one 3-credit course. Just my two cents. Thanks, Jay.

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