Theses Doctoral

The Impact of a Brief Design Thinking Intervention on Students’ Design Knowledge, Iterative Dispositions, and Attitudes Towards Failure

Marks, Jenna

This research explores the benefits of teaching design thinking to middle school students. The design thinking process, with its emphasis on iterative rapid prototyping, portrayal of mistakes as learning opportunities, and mantra of “fail early and often” stands in stark contrast with the typical high-stakes, failure-averse culture of the classroom. Educators laud the process as a way to teach integrative STEM curriculum, foster 21st century skills, and engage students in constructivist learning. However, few studies have examined the potential motivational benefits for K-12 students who learn design thinking. Therefore, the present research explored if design thinking instruction could reframe how students perceived failures and teach them to iterate, or “try again,” as they engaged with complex problems.
In two quasi-experimental studies, with 78 and 89 students respectively, I investigated the effectiveness of a brief intervention, intended to teach a critical component of design thinking – the iterative process of design – and its unique philosophy surrounding failure, whereby mistakes are natural and expected learning opportunities as students work towards increasingly better solutions to ill-defined problems. Students in an iterative design mindset condition (Mindset) learned about iterative rapid prototyping, employed the process on two different design challenges with embedded reflections, and developed brochures about design thinking. In a comparison STEM-focused condition (STEM), students participated in an analogous intervention focused on the importance of using science and math in design. Results from both studies indicated that Mindset students learned the philosophy and process of iterative rapid prototyping from the brief intervention and were able to transfer the process to a target design task. Furthermore, results confirmed a performance benefit to iterating early and often. Moreover, Study 2 results suggested that students in the Mindset condition developed more adaptive attitudes to failure, compared to students in the STEM condition. These studies provide compelling evidence that design thinking education has the potential to instill persistence in the face of ill-defined problems, reframe failure, and improve task performance for middle school students. This work also presents a model for evaluating the design thinking process using quasi-experimental studies and quantitative methods.
This dissertation consists of a brief summary of relevant literature and two journal-style articles. First, I define design thinking and explain how iterative rapid prototyping connects to key motivational constructs in the classroom, ultimately resulting in improved engagement and performance. Next, a design case describes the final intervention used in Study 2 and notes the ways in which the learning sciences literature and the iterative development process informed its design. I consider trade-offs in the effort to develop curriculum for a research study and detail lessons learned along the way. Subsequently, an empirical chapter presents two studies of the design thinking intervention. I end by considering the implications of this body of research and suggest future directions for researchers interested in bringing design thinking into the classroom.


  • thumnail for Marks_columbia_0054D_13943.pdf Marks_columbia_0054D_13943.pdf application/pdf 12 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Cognitive Studies in Education
Thesis Advisors
Chase, Catherine Chi
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2017