A New Concept in Course Design and Operation

Robert A. Stager and Charles E. Wales

Engineering Education, March 1972 - page 539

"The challenge of the new era is simply the total creative process of growing up-and mere teaching and repetition of facts are as irrelevant to this process as a dowser to a nuclear power plant. To expect a 'turned-on' child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim." 2

Guided Design is a new concept in course design and operation tuned to today. In Guided Design students "grow up" by learning to learn and think for themselves. This is accomplished by having students simultaneously learn and use concepts to solve meaningful open-ended problems comparable to those they will face as educated professionals. Although this concept was developed for a freshman course in engineering, the method is applicable to course work at any level in any discipline.

Social Concern

In Guided Design each student plays the role of an educated human being who works as a member of a four to seven man team, contributing his abilities, background and frame of reference to the solution of an open-ended problem. In general, the problems are interdisciplinary in nature and involve sociological and environmental concerns. For example, the first problem presented to the students in the freshman engineering course at West Virginia University is a simulated Peace Corps assignment to develop better native housing. In this project the students must deal with both the engineering aspects of moving materials and the expectations of the alternatives. Thus, one of their first decisions is where to build the new village, at a point dictated by engineering considerations or where the natives want it.

Through this type of open-ended problem the students discover that human beings are affected by what they decide And, as expressed in the Olmsted Report, they soon learn that a "respect for facts needs to be supplemented by a concern for values; the sense of physical realities needs to be coupled with a concern for social realities, and the 'professional's' sense of orderliness and purpose needs to be combined with an awareness of the complexities and ambiguities which are also a part of real existence." 3

The integration provided by Guided Design is particularly appropriate for teaching social concerns because problems arise in a natural setting, just as they will later when the student operates as a professional. By combining social and professional considerations during the learning process, it is more likely that the student will later include both considerations in his work. The result, we hope, will be a professional who is an agent of both technical and social change.


The name Guided Design comes from the series of printed "Instructions and Feedback" which help the student learn how to proceed through the decision making process. Class time is devoted to small group discussions of project steps or to a search for required information. However, when it seems appropriate, all four student groups may discuss a technical or social aspect of their work.

The Instructions and Feedback given to the student convey a "slow-motion" portrayal of the decision-making process. Thus, one Instruction asks the students to generate possible solutions for moving clay from the bottom of a cliff to the top. When each group completes this step, one member of the group acts as a project leader and reads the "Feedback," a description of what probably has been accomplished. The project leader conveys this information to his group, not by telling them what he has read, but rather by asking appropriate questions which check the group's results. In this way, the students themselves operate as an extension of the teacher in the learning process. Because the printed feedback given the students is prepared in advance, it cannot be designed to anticipate all possible student responses. For this reason the student's solution may differ from that given in the feedback. However, the two results are usually similar enough so the students get the information they need to proceed. If that is not the case, the teacher must provide appropriate feedback.

The teacher's role in Guided Design is that of manager, guide, and model of professional thinking. He circulates among his four student groups, listens to the discussion, encourages all the students to participate, answers questions by drawing ideas from within the group, and guides the students toward their problem solution. With his help, the students learn how to search for needed information, they learn to learn by themselves, and they learn to think for themselves using what they have learned. Thus with Guided Design, education is no longer the impersonalized contact that occurs when a professor lectures to 30 or 300 students. The students talk not only to each other, but to their teachers. This pattern establishes an atmosphere in which the creative, innovative and inventive potential of the students can be stimulated and developed.

A significant weakness of the present educational system is the impact it has on students, in particular freshman students. One study showed that the students' course work touches them, "only incidentally and apparently not by design.... Not only did students find the curriculum and the libraries remote to their concern, they also recorded no meaningful contacts with the faculty." 1

This study showed further that the students' immediate peers are their "most effective and impressive pedagogues" and exert the most direct influence on what they learn. Guided Design takes advantage of this important peer influence and channels it so students have a common intellectual concern to discuss both in and out of class.

The product of the students' decision-making work is a written report which describes both the solution to a problem and the reasoning the group used to reach their result. The student who does not agree with the group's solution may also report his own conclusions. However, he is asked to report the group's results so he will be encouraged to test his ideas in the group discussion and benefit from the resulting critical discussion. When each student completes his report on the problem, he is given a copy of a report prepared by the teacher and asked to evaluate, rewrite and grade his own effort. The sample report demonstrates an appropriate behavior for the student and helps him learn to evaluate his own performance.

Facts, Concepts, Principles

Content is still an important part of Guided Design, but the emphasis on content is quite different. Guided Design is based on a series of carefully selected design problems which establish the need for the subject matter the student is expected to learn. Thus, in the housing problem, the students discover a need for information about pulley systems, which leads them to a study of the concepts of work, potential and internal energy, the energy balance, systems analysis, friction, and mechanical advantage. Because these concepts are needed to solve the design problem, they are relevant-a totally different atmosphere from the one that now prevails.

While the student studies content material, he is frequently tested to insure that he knows what is required for the group's design work. Both multiple choice and problem exams are used, not to establish a grade, but simply to give the student feedback. On each test, the student is required to meet the minimum performance, or mastery level, set by the teacher (about 90% correct) before he can proceed to the next set of content material. The student who does not meet this level on the first try is told about the kind of mistakes he made and asked to return to his books, fellow students, or teaching assistants for help. He repeats the test, or a similar form of it, until he receives a passing grade.

A one-hour examination on the content material is given at the end of each project. Here again the student must repeat the examination until he achieves the minimum performance level. This mastery pattern is of particular importance in any course where the content learning required for each project builds, as it should, on what has gone before.

The use of mastery is an important aspect of a designed educational system for another reason. If the teacher is concerned with helping students master the subject, then one of his prime responsibilities is to find out where the student went wrong and develop new or better materials so the problem won't reoccur. This policy can produce some extremely worthwhile results. For example we assumed that the linear programs used to transmit subject matter would also teach the student the intellectual abilities necessary to solve single-answer problems. This did not occur. The students apparently did not learn how to attack a problem by being led step by-step through an example solution. To solve this failure, the course materials were revised by the addition of branched programs designed to teach specific problem solving abilities. The branched program was chosen because it requires the student to make a choice of the next step he wants to take at each decision point. The combination of these branched and linear programs proved to be an effective solution to the problem.


The Guided Design pattern described in this paper is the result of an educational systems design based on a set of intellectual operations, selected communication activities, appropriate psychological principles, defined content-performance objectives, and mastery. The product of this work resembles programmed instruction in many ways, but there is a major difference, which is the size of each frame or step. Program steps are relatively small and each student works alone on a single answer problem. Guided Design involves large steps and the students construct their response to an open-ended problem through discussion. In effect, Guided Design is the logical extension of the programming concept to the decision-making process.

This pattern also represents the logical way to begin the student's development as an independent decision maker. As his ability develops, the amount of guidance used will naturally be reduced. Thus, as time passes, the student should work on case studies, games, simulations and finally with projects based on authentic involvement.


  1. Memo to the Faculty, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, no. 32, Dec., 1968.
  2. McLuhan, M., Playboy, March, 1969.
  3. Olmsted, S. P., "Liberal Learning for the Engineer", Engineering Education, vol. 59, no. 4, Dec., 1968.
  4. Wales, C., and Stager, R., "The Design of an Educational System", Engineering Education, vol. 62, no. 5, Feb., 1972.