“100 days”​ – Graduating During Covid-19: Part 2

    A Study of TU Delft’s Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) Graduate Student Motivations

    Written by Rebecca Price, Assistant Professor of Transition Design at Delft University of Technology

    Master of Science Graduations and Bachelor End Projects are projects that our design students complete individually over 20 weeks. With Covid-19 and a shift to online learning as part of the response to the global pandemic, these individual projects now isolate our students from peers, companies contacts and supervision teams. The ‘Covid-Diploma’ graduation completed in a student’s bedroom-turned-study can feel like a lonely journey. This is something we must remedy as a design community. 

    This is Part 2 of an installment of findings from a survey of 100 IDE Graduate students. You can find Part 1 here for your reference: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/100-days-graduating-during-covid-part-1-rebecca-price/?trackingId=YvkRCtOdQR6D2YyYeSYMZQ%3D%3D

    A short recap of the study. I surveyed our IDE graduate student community. Two content questions were asked

    1.     What’s keeping you motivated in your studies at this time?

    2.     What’s the greatest challenge to maintaining that motivation?

    100 survey participants responded. A very small number of Bachelor End Project (BEP) students also participated. Their challenges integrate into general findings as BEP and Graduations projects share some similarities (namely an end of diploma project, completed individually in set timeframe).

    Finding 4: The Design Process is Uncertain Enough without Covid-19

    When we design, we encounter choice. The choice of whether to listen more to the user, or follow our own intuition. Choices regarding how to balance robust design with design for disassembly and recycling. Broadly, choices about what the future should, and could look like. The last example is a heavy responsibility for young design students finding their place in the world.

    There is no ‘one right answer’ to design problems, rather an array of possible directions each with nuanced potential (Buchanan, 1995). Therefore, from a theoretical point of view, the design process ensures we confront uncertainty. Expert designers are fluent and even graceful in uncertainty, making precise decisions like when to listen more to the user and when trust intuition or how to balance robust design with design for disassembly and recycling (Dorst, 2017). Expert designers also have firm foundations to approach the significant challenge; what should our future look like. 

    Our students are not expert designers. Our students are novice designers (with some exceptions), and so require ‘what to do when’ instructions (Dorst, 2017). If design is fundamentally about making decisions in the presence of choice, then decision making in a lonely (bedroom-turned-study) design process for novice designers is especially problematic. 

    At the IDE Faculty, students have reference points to navigate the design process. As I wrote in Part 1, on Faculty, these reference points for progress are all around – students can see peers’ work, engage with lecturers and coaches freely. Students gauge; ‘am I learning appropriately or am I behind.’ Reference points also clarify expectations; ‘what is expected of me? How far do I resolve technical details of my concept?’

    One student from the survey states; ‘I really miss the casual peer to peer feedback, and more contact with my coaches. I feel more like I am on my own. Secondly, when you are working at home, you it’s harder to mentally “leave” your work. This makes it hard to let go of things and relax.’

    Another student notes: ‘The greatest challenge [to sustaining motivation] is to keep involving others. Although I know it is much better for the quality, my motivation and inclusion of others, working alone at home keeps you easily away from involving others in your project.’

    When peers learn together, they take a load off teachers to continuously deliver content and scaffold learning. As teachers, we are starting to realise just how much peer-to-peer learning accounts for progress in our courses. We know because we spend many more hours checking in with students through online platforms like Skype and Zoom. The Faculty is truly part of our pedagogical approach.

    Now, a tip for students: if your design process feels lonely then it is unhealthy. You must take initiative to share decision-making moments in your design process with peers and teachers. You should not carry the weight of your design process alone on your shoulders. The onus is on you, the student, to set check-in and progress meetings with peers and teachers. Take the initiative to set up these sessions while you cannot bounce around the hallways of the Faculty for ‘spur-of-the-moment’ feedback.

    Finding 5: Technology as Inhibitor and Enabler of Learning

    For rote learning, where events, formulas and algorithms are memorised through repetition, yes, online learning is appropriate. However, degrees like medicine, design engineering, accounting, law, psychology and more require application of knowledge in social settings. Face-to-face learning in shared physical spaces always takes priority. Online learning is not ‘the future’, but can be part of it. Let me share some stories from the survey and wellbeing workshops conducted with IDE Faculty staff and students regarding technology as enabler and inhibitor to learning.

    One student in a workshop spoke of feeling like a burden. She was referring to the online backdrop of her teacher; ‘I can see into my teacher’s house, their home, and I feel intrusive. Am I a burden?’ For engaged teachers, students are quite the reverse – YOU provide us with purpose. Teaching you in these times is our privilege.

    Another student reports the source of their demotivation; ‘I just look at a screen all day’.

    Zoom/skype fatigue sets in. One students states; ‘I get tired a lot quicker when sitting behind my computer. When doing zoom meetings (sic) a whole day long I get exhausted from just sitting behind (sic) my computer. A tip [to teachers] would be to not forget to give long enough breaks also during only lectures.’

    Drop-ins work. The director of the Design for Interaction Master, Professor Elisa Giaccardi, spoke of how she has developed ‘drop-in’ meetings, where students could call into a Zoom and speak freely about their experiences, crosscheck progress and speak to peers. One student spoke in an IDE Wellbeing workshop noted how students use these Zoom drop-ins well after the teacher had logged out to continue peer-to-peer discussion.

    For efficiency in Zoom, Skype whatever the platform, one teacher spoke of the need for clear role definition and planning. The lecturer (who delivers content), cannot simultaneously be the moderator of the online session. The student assistant or course coach (or teacher) can step in and take this role. The mediator checks the chat function for questions keeps the session flowing smoothly.

    We are all learning.

    Finding 6: Talk to your Teacher about your Financial Position

    Many of our international students cover their tuition fees with state-funded scholarships.

    One student noted how they were motivated by fear; ‘Mostly, [I am motivated] by the fear of having to pay back the faculty scholarship that I have received.’ Another student reports the source of his motivation, ‘expensive tuition fees and (sic) scholarship’ pressure. It seems that failure is not an option – scholarship funds can be withdrawn leaving a student financially devastated.

    Writing as a teacher, please students if you are in this position let your teachers know. Talk to us about the external pressures you are facing. Help us to understand what will make your situation less stressful. We will help where we can. Aside from this tip, I can only point you to this website. I do not have the answers to these challenges. I am thinking of you all in this difficult time: https://www.tudelft.nl/en/student/well-being-and-study/finance/

    Finding 7: Our Students are Highly Motivated

    Let me share some positive and inspiring responses from the survey from students to cap off Part 2. Our students report sources of their motivation:

    ‘I find my courses interesting and it gives me a purpose and a way to be among people’

    ‘Group work helps keep me motivated. One day a group and I just decided to start a zoom call at 9am (forcing us all to be ready to work at 9) and then we kept the zoom call on in the background while working – there was no meeting though.’

    ‘A lot [keeps me motivated]: 1. An inspiring company to do my graduation project for; 2. The fact that this graduation project is the last part of my study time at the IDE faculty; 3. The idea that I will have achieved an MSc degree at the TU Delft after finishing this project; 4. A highly inspiring supervisory team that is constantly providing me the support that perfectly suits to me.’

    ‘I want to graduate for my bachelor this year & want to create a BEP project that I can be proud of.’

    ‘[I am motivated by] the bigger picture, and that design can be of much help in these times. The possibility of ‘opening up opportunities’’.



    Theoretically, design involves uncertainties associated with exploration and choice. Our students are novice designers (with some exceptions), and so require ‘what to do when’ instruction to make good choices. If design is fundamentally about making decisions in the presence of choice, then decision making in a lonely (bedroom-turned-study) design process for design students is especially problematic.

    The tip for students: do not carry the design process alone on your shoulders. You must share the load with peers, teachers, family, participants, company mentors, friends, etc. The onus is on you as the student to share.


    Buchanan, R. (1995). Rhetoric, Humanism and Design, in R. Buchanan, and V. Margolin (Eds.), Discovering design: explorations in design studies. (pp. 22 – 66). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Dorst, K. (2017). Notes on design: how creative practice works. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS Publishers.

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