Innovative Methodology Encourages Learning by Doing

Innovative Methodology Encourages Learning by Doing

Instructor: Leticia Britos Cavagnaro
Department/School: Management Science and Engineering, School of Engineering
Course: Design Thinking Action Lab
Audience: 12,073 participants -- from 133 countries, and speaking 62 languages -- started the course; 5,667 initiated the main course project (on week 2), and 3,493 of them (62%) successfully completed it.
Teaching and Learning Approach: Expansive Learning MOOC (no prerequisites)


This MOOC was designed to provide learners from different backgrounds and experiences with the opportunity to learn design thinking skills and mindsets by:

  • tackling a real world innovation challenge;

  • taking ownership of their learning process by creating their own learning path;

  • learning with and from others;

  • incorporating reflection as a key part of their learning process.

The course design is compatible with the model of expansive learning (1), which moves away from knowledge acquisition, towards production of new knowledge and meaning as an outcome for the learner.

The 5-week learning journey

Week 1 - The Mindset and Context of the Innovator

The first week provided learners with short active and reflective tasks to get a grasp on platform functionalities, to connect with other learners, and to reflect on the strengths, motivations and goals they brought to the course, as well as the process they habitually rely on to solve problems. Completing these tasks prepared participants to tackle the main course project which started the following week.  

Week 2 to Week 4 - Design Challenge 

The central part of the course provided learners with inspiration and skill-building resources to approach each stage of the design thinking process, requiring them to get away from the computer and interact with people in the real world to complete the proposed design challenge. Each week had a different deliverable that was subjected to calibrated peer review:

  • Frame the Problem: Empathize and Define

  • Generate Novel Solutions: Ideate

  • Make Ideas Real: Prototype and Test

Week 5 -  Take it Home: Apply Design Thinking

The content for the closing week combined recorded interviews with design thinking practitioners in the corporate and non-profit sectors with reflective activities, and a final deliverable exploring the application of what they learned to their own projects and interests.

During the development phase, the elements of the course, including the design challenge that was the main course project, were prototyped in several low resolution iterations, with an audience of students with different levels of mastery of design thinking.

Two design elements - language, and the relatively limited visibility of the instructor - were intentionally used to shape the values of the learning community and the perception of the learning process by the students. For instance, language suggestive of learning by doing (“Do Now”) was used for the mini-assignments tied to every video, instead of the traditional “Quiz”, which conveys evaluation of knowledge acquisition. Instead of having the instructor as presenter, the video “lectures” used a narrative style, showing a fictionalized, scripted story of people working on different design challenges, to demonstrate the key learning outcomes in action. This aimed at encouraging learners to put themselves in the shoes of the story protagonists in preparation for their own work on the proposed challenge away from the computer.

Online strategies

Create your own learning adventure!  The course experience was designed as a web of interaction opportunities for students to navigate. This aimed at creating a personalized learning path, with triage elements that pointed students in different directions according to their responses and actions. This web was composed of the following:

  • Students’ engagement started with weekly video episodes in which the basic concepts were introduced as part of a story of people navigating a design challenge similar (but distinct) to the one that was proposed as main course project. Each episode was broken down in 3-4 short video segments, of 2-3 min each;

  • After watching each video segment, students were presented with a short activity (“Do Now”) that required them to submit a response. This short activity took different forms, such as a real or hypothetical scenario related to the concept introduced in the video, where students were asked to decide what they would do in that situation. According to the answer they provided, they would receive specific pre-written feedback, and be directed to specific threads in the forum; other Do Nows required students to perform a small task, such as sketching or writing down a few solutions for a given problem, or answer a question about themselves;

  • The forum threads where the students were directed after responding to the Do Nows provided a place for conversations with peers, catalysts and the teaching team related to their responses;

  • Do Nows also directed students to Toolkits containing skill-building resources that added more details and nuances to the concepts presented in the video narratives and supported their approach to each task in the course project.

Overall, the combination of these elements allowed students to progressively uncover greater nuances in the content, while being continuously and actively engaged.

Curated crowdsourcing

We used curated crowdsourcing to reinforce the social learning nature of the course and facilitate the completion of some of the most challenging tasks required for the main project, such as interviewing stakeholders in the empathy stage of design thinking. For that purpose, students were invited to contribute, in a dedicated forum thread, ideas about relevant stakeholders and topics to consider for the interview. A small group of curators translated and distilled the students’ comments into a graphic mindmap that all students could use as guide to formulate their own interview questions (see mindmap here).

Calibrated peer-review

Feedback is crucial for learning. While the open-ended nature of the deliverables for this course (in most cases using multimedia) did not allow for automatic grading, Britos Cavagnaro crafted rubrics for each deliverable. A sample set of submissions representing different levels of achievement was graded by the teaching team, with extensive annotation. In the first step of the peer feedback process, students received three of these selected submissions, and were able to compare their grading and feedback with that provided by the teaching team, before moving on to reviewing additional submissions (which had not been graded by the teaching team).   

Based on the final reflection questionnaire, most students valued feedback, assigning a higher value to the process of giving, compared to receiving, feedback. 79% of the respondents acknowledged using the rubrics to self-evaluate their work for some or all submissions. Recognizing the value of feedback and practicing their feedback giving and receiving skills was an important learning outcome of the course.

Reflection activities

The value of reflection as a key part of the learning process was explicitly highlighted throughout the course in multiple ways. One of them was the implementation of questionnaires on the first and last week of the course. These included questions related to creative confidence, creative mindset and productive struggle. In some cases questions were taken from previously validated instruments, while others were crafted for this course. In addition to encouraging students to reflect on topics they might not have considered before, these questionnaires provided data that is being analyzed to explore correlations between self-reported measures and course behaviors and outcomes.


A group of about 50 design thinking practitioners from industry, along with Stanford students and alumni who have taken classes, acted as ‘catalysts’ for the course. They shared resources and experiences in the forum and commented on assignments. The role of catalysts was designed to be distinct from the role of mentors or experts (read more on the role of catalysts here).

Learning squads

Design thinking benefits from multi-disciplinary teams whose members bring different perspectives to the definition and creative solution of a problem. Yet, as a first experience with this methodology, Britos Cavagnaro assessed that it would be more valuable for all students to submit their own work, to ensure that everyone effectively engaged with the experiential activities away from the computer. In order to offer students some of the benefits of teamwork (hearing someone else’s perspective, receiving feedback and encouragement, etc.), and to counter the possible overwhelming effect of being part of a very large virtual community, students were encouraged to get together in ‘Learning Squads’ with up to five peers. For each assignment, students were nudged to virtually meet with their Learning Squad to exchange experiences and give and receive feedback before or after assignment submissions. While forming a squad was optional, 92% of the students who finished the course belonged to a learning squad.   

Lessons Learned

Britos Cavagnaro believes that almost anything can be taught and learned experientially and putting the students in the driver seat can have a transformational effect on their approach to learning beyond any given course or experience. Hence, one of the goals for the design and implementation of this course was to stand in contrast to the lecture model that focuses on information transmission and does not promote student agency. It took a sustained effort and consistent use of language throughout the course to get students to take ownership of the learning process and dive into learning by doing, which can be intimidating when contrasted to being on the receiving end of a lecture. In the final reflection questionnaire, 95% of the participants expressed that they “got something of value that [they] did not anticipate when [they] enrolled”, 98.5% agreed that they “learned the basic principles of design thinking”, and 95% agreed that “they learned something about themselves.”  

For those participants who started the course with low confidence in their creative capabilities, a statistically significant increase in their creative confidence was observed at the end of the course. The questions that measured creative confidence at the beginning and the end of the course included dimensions such as being comfortable with ambiguity, shaping the external environment to support one’s own creativity, finding non-obvious sources of inspiration and being open to reframing problems (see reference 2).

Expansive learning MOOCs, such as this one, allow for the expression of a diversity of perspectives and ideas that can’t be matched by smaller, time-limited classes, or by MOOCs that do not intentionally leverage social learning. On the flip side, navigating and making sense of all the students’ contributions is challenging.  Approaches such as the ‘curated crowdsourcing’ described above can help address that challenge.

There is growing evidence that experiencing “productive struggle” supports deeper learning. In order to probe whether participants felt challenged by this course experience, the final questionnaire asked if they had found themselves “doubting [their] ability to complete an assignment (NOT due to technical problems or time constraints), and then [were] surprised with what [they] accomplished.” A majority of respondents (76%) agreed with that statement. Further exploration of how these moments of productive struggle contributed to the learning process in the context of this experience is an area of interest for Britos Cavagnaro.

Plans for Next Iteration of Course

An upcoming iteration of the course will guide participants in applying design thinking to the identification and creative solving of human-centered problems related to the Grand Challenges postulated by the National Academy of Engineering. The release of this course is projected for March 2015. 

About the Teaching Team

Photograph of Leticia Britos CavagnaroLeticia Britos Cavagnaro is Deputy Director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter), and lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (

Students who collaborated in the design, prototyping and implementation of the course are: Adam Eastman (UC Berkeley - Teaching Assistant), Francisco Ramirez (Ohlone College - Teaching Assistant), Leila Moinpour (Stanford University), Lauryn Isford (Stanford University), and Lucas Arzola (UC Davis). Ben Coleman (Stanford Technology Ventures Program), Eli Shell (Stanford Technology Ventures Program) and Francisco Ramirez were responsible for video capture and editing. Laurie Moore (Epicenter) and Anna Li participated as class reporters; Peter Vigeant collaborated with the design of learning games for the course; and Kathy Liu (Stanford Graduate School of Education) and AJ Ferrick (MS&E) collaborated with data analysis and research.


  1. B Lucas, G Claxton and E Spencer. Expansive Education: Teaching Learners for the Real World. Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK: Open University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780335247554
  2. Cheat sheet of some of the questions included in the reflection questionnaires:
  3. Thoughts on the role of catalysts in the course:
  4. Rubric example: