Managing the Complexity of Design Problems through Studio-based Learning

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Katherine Cennamo
Carol Brandt
Brigitte Scott
Sarah Douglas
Margarita McGrath
Yolanda Reimer
Mitzi Vernon


The ill-structured nature of design problems makes them particularly challenging for problem-based learning. Studio-based learning (SBL), however, has much in common with problem-based learning and indeed has a long history of use in teaching students to solve design problems. The purpose of this ethnographic study of an industrial design class, an architecture class, and three human-computer-interaction classes was to develop a cross-disciplinary understanding of the goals and expectations for students in a SBL environment and the ways in which experienced facilitators assist students in solving complex design problems. The expectations that students are to iteratively generate and refine design solutions, communicate effectively, and collaborate with others establishes the studio as a dynamic place where students learn to experiment on their own, to teach and to use all studio members as resources in that search. Instructors support students as they grapple with complexity of design problem-solving through pedagogical practices that include assignments, associated meta-discussions, explicit prompts, reminders, modeling, and coaching. Using sample illustrations from our cross-case analysis, we present the studio method as a legitimate constituent of problem-based learning methods.

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