Add your advice to "Those Who Can, Teach"

"Talk to undergrads like they’re grads; talk to grads like they’re undergrads.
This is the best trick I’ve learned in 11 years of teaching. Undergraduates have youth, fearlessness, and great tolerance for being pushed around. What they don’t have is people talking to them like they matter. They are used to being talked to like children by people of authority (high school didn’t help), and will be stunned when you address them like real designers who have ideas of worth.

Graduate students have wisdom, life experience, and a desire to actually be in school. But graduate students also are old enough to know that ideas have consequences, and as a result they run, basically, on fear. They have refrains like “I didn’t think that idea would be any good, so I didn’t mock it up,” or “I wasn’t sure what to build, so I read these books.”

Treat the undergrads like they’re grown-ups (which they are); show them crazy respect, and ask their opinions all the time. Tell your graduate students to stop talking and start building; tell them not to come to class next week if they don’t bring in 12 sketches. And then thank your lucky stars when they arrive with 3."

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Great topic! I agree with the first part of your assessment that undergrads should be treated like grown-ups. My own observations have been that most of the instructors who treat students with obsessive grade school hard-love are typically covering for a lack of teaching ability and general patience for instructing. Undergrads aren’t children, and it doesn’t do them any good to teach to the lowest common denominator.

Regarding grad students, I have to disagree with you. The fastest way to alienate adults with real world experience is to treat them like children or boss them around. I think a better plan for addressing the issue of older students “getting stuck” is to teach with a greater emphasis on Socratic method. The key is that adult students need to teach each others more than to be talked at by an instructor. An instructors job is to set the guidelines, build the dynamic of the group, and then let the individual test their own preconceived notions by taking on some of the teaching! Grad school is not merely a way to get “more knowledge” on the same subject, it’s a transition into learning how to teach others what you have locked in your head. Grad students are typically ready to be heard, and it’s that same level of wisdom that can contribute most to their learning.

Just my .02cents!

Nice article Allan.

I have to agree.

When I was an undergrad, it seemed like a lot of the grad students tried to hide in cerebral thought… the thought about doing stuff instead of actually doing stuff. I’m not saying they needed to be treated like kids, but they needed to be pushed.

I tried to use that experience when I started teaching. I’ve only taught undergrads, but many of them have been older, and the same advice applies. I found found the harder I pushed them, the more they respected the fact they were getting their money’s worth (since they paid themselves). They also really had that “FEAR” of screwing up and looking stupid in front of their younger classmates… design is all about screwing up and looking stupid… luckily I lead by example, so I think they got comfortable with it…

I also find having one on ones are very important as you point out. I always grade on an improvement basis. Kind that came in rock stars better leave uber rock stars if they want a good grade (no coasting), and kids that come in lower on the ability level, I just want to get them to feel more comfortable, and get learning… be in a better spot than when they walked in…meeting one on one seems key to communicate the individual expectations on them.


As a former student of yours Allan, I have to say thank to you in this very public forum. Now as a fellow part time teacher at Pratt now, I have to thank you again for your sharing a few of your insights into teaching.

Always a fan, Brett

I would add that it is important to frequently bring both undergrad and grad students into real field settings (ie professional design studios, factories and markets). These after all are the design playing fields to which most pre-professional designers will one day be held (but not limited to :wink: ).

Thanks for the very introspective look, Evan

I hope one day the “globally” reputable design studios collectively come together and start their own private University. Not as a marketing ploy but a real legitimate school based on real design theory from the practical front lines. In turn, studio feeds the problems, students supply the solution, studio applies solution,…then the cycle repeats. At least it will have a really great storyline for student portfolios. This may already be happening for all that I know…