“100 days”​ – Graduating During Covid-19: Part 1

    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

    Covid-19 and social distancing measures are creating unique challenges for students completing their graduations (capstone projects for our US friends). Graduations are projects lasting 100 days where students typically work with a company to develop a design outcome to a defined problem. The graduation symbolises the pinnacle of their Master of Science degree and develops a sort-of ‘pecking order’ of talented students based on their final grade (1-10).

    Graduates tend to place immense pressure on themselves to perform, for a range of motivations. Then Covid-19 occurred and graduations went ‘online’. It is already plain to see that this combination of factors (online study and a pinnacle moment in their degree) hold potentially severe consequences for wellbeing. 

    To find out more, with the help of IDE colleagues Carlijn Brinkman and Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, I surveyed our IDE graduate student community. Two simple 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?

    A very clean figure of 100 survey participants responded. A very small number of Bachelor End Project (BEP) students also participated. Their challenges are integrated into findings as BEP and Graduations projects share some similarities.

    Before I start on findings, it is important to define motivation. The Oxford Dictionary defines motivation in multiple ways. First, motivation is the reason why somebody does something or behaves in a particular way. Second, motivation is the feeling of wanting to do something, especially something that involves hard work and effort. This second definition resonates well. The Graduation project is hard work, ask any of our completed alumni.

    This is the first instalment of the survey findings. I have written this piece for Graduate students as a feedback loop from the survey. My own motivation is to strive to improve how we teach and learn about design, no matter the circumstances. 

    Finding 1: Socio-spatial

    The Faculty is where we go to become designers.

    When our routine is enforced by lecture and studio time slots at the Faculty, we are absorbed into a greater socio-spatial landscape. Our motivations to ‘keep up’ with our peers or maybe to ‘stay ahead’ are continuously reinforced by cues received on Faculty. We can see our peers work, engage with lecturers and coaches freely, very different from the rigidity of online learning. Our reference points for progress are all around us. Our moments of social ‘play’ where we connect to peers outside of work are spontaneous, fun and replenishing. The Faculty is where we go to become designers.

    When we leave the Faculty, we have a strong socio-spatial sense that the ‘day is done’. Now, for many students their study, sleep and rest take place in the same room. Spatial cues provide mixed messages; ‘when I rest I look at my desk and think about work. When I work, I look at my bed and think about rest.’ Some students noted in their survey responses that they have constructed small physical barriers between their desk and bed; a bookshelf repositioned, or some new plants located to create two spaces, from one.

    You must demarcate space and assign activities; ‘in this space I study, in this space I sleep, in this place I replenish.’ The aim is to give ourselves spatial cues that are otherwise provided at the Faculty. Another tip is to simulate your commute in the morning, get up and have breakfast, and then ride your bike or walk to ‘school’. You will arrive back at your apartment refreshed and ready to go.

    Finding 2: The tension between productivity and learning

    When it comes to the act of study itself, students strongly indicated a goal-orientated approach throughout the survey. Many students set daily targets; ‘today I will achieve these things.’ The routine is built around self-imposed study times; ‘I will work from 0900-1700 with a break in between.’

    Productivity is the key metric at the end of the day; ‘did I achieve my targets?’ This approach assumes that before Covid-19, we worked 0900-1700 (or 1800) seamlessly. That is myth. At the Faculty, everyday heralds physical activity and social encounters that disperse our working hours – coffee machine impromptu meetings, the walk after lunch with colleagues and so on. We have lost these moments, and like all great things, we have only realised their value in retrospect.

    One survey respondent noted how they set up a Zoom for the day. Everyone could see each other work and felt part of something bigger. My own tip, create a small community around you. Go for walks and share meals. Build that community; let them become your people!

    It sounds light-hearted, but remember education is about learning, not productivity. Somehow, we have conditioned our students to believe that more is always better. You may not have a productive day or week, and yet still ask: what did I learn?

    Our relentless drive to be productive is determined to a large extent by the learning objectives of a course, the assignments and exams that test the attainment of those learning objectives, and our grading schemes that symbolise excellence. My tip: see beyond grades to how this study is part of your greater personal and professional journey.

    Finding 3: Activities are essential

    Due to Covid-19, our extra-curricular activities, for example sport, music and dance have all formally ended. These activities provided reward, socialisation, outlet, but also stimulated the production of vital hormones and endorphins in our body that boost mood, minimise discomfort and enable growth. So get up and move, with friends is better!

    My tip: build your day around regulating your mood, comfort and focus – rather than asking yourself to be productive to achieve certain targets. You can work for only so long before 30-60 minutes before a break is required. Your day is a journey of using and then replenishing your energy. First, take care of yourself! Then see what targets are relevant for the day or week.

    Conclusion

    There is a strong connection between the social and spatial conditions of the IDE Faculty. That which we cannot completely replicate at home. But, we can extract some principles through which to design our days. So some of my own principles are:

    –         You must demarcate space and assign activities; ‘in this space I study, in this space I sleep, in this place I replenish.’ The aim is to give ourselves spatial cues that are otherwise provided at the Faculty.

    –         Another tip is to simulate your commute in the morning, get up and have breakfast, and then ride your bike or walk to ‘school’. You will arrive back at your apartment refreshed and ready to go.

    –         Create a small community around you. Go for walks and share meals. Build that community; let them become your people!

    –         See beyond grades to how this study is part of your greater personal and professional journey.

    –         Build your day around regulating your mood, comfort and focus – rather than asking yourself to be productive to achieve certain targets.

    –         First, take care of yourself! Then see what targets are relevant for the day or week.

    Remember, a routine of study that relies on the socio-spatial presence of the Faculty will now be vulnerable. Further, we have not had to question our motivation, as the pace, smell, noise of the Faculty has embraced us into a period of intense focus. Now we are confronted with what truly motivates us, and the answers are not always pleasant. So, like a good designer, reframe what motivates you and remember you can learn to become a designer anywhere and anytime.

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