Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Connecting Research and Design in a Graduate Course—Kapila Silva (2012)

example of an architectural modelOverview

A professor modifies a graduate-level course in research methods, implementing problem-based learning to enhance understanding and encourage students to be active participants

Background

The course Research Methods in Architecture (ARCH 701) is designed to portray architectural research as both a professional and scholarly activity. In my previous course offerings, I found that students had a hard time connecting research methods to architectural design. This was because of the entrenched view that architects do not conduct research, partly due to their lack of critical thinking, and partly due to lack of research experience. Additionally, students used online sources (Wikipedia, newspaper articles, and the like) instead of referring to research journals. Students also had difficulty in critically reading and synthesizing research findings. Finally, students felt that the research studies they conducted had no relation to their core activity of architectural design.

To address these issues, in Spring 2011 I redesigned the course to maximize student learning and establish a link between research and design. Based on my evaluation of student work from Spring 2011, I made additional changes in Spring 2012.

Implementation

I moved away from the traditional lecture mode and used problem-based learning to enhance understanding and encourage students to be active participants in their learning. I also changed the structure of the final research project to help establish a link between a set of research methods and design activities architects typically conduct.

Instead of lecturing and asking students to conduct a "research" project, I asked them to conduct research related to their own studio design project, demonstrating how they employ certain research methods and skills in creating new knowledge to solve the given design problems. To scaffold student learning, I broke this project into small assignments and used a detailed grading rubric for each step.

Student Work

Student performance was generally encouraging. All students performed the different steps involved to a very satisfactory level. Their observations and user interviews of the case project, the design principles generated, and evaluations of their own design hypotheses indicated that students had become more reflective on the ways research could be applicable in architectural design problem solving. I was able to successfully address both issues in Spring 2012 and consequently found a dramatic increase in student performance.

Reflections

I was able to achieve my objectives of helping students see how research is related to design and develop a rigorous understanding of research. Additionally, students improved their critical thinking skills. This approach also enabled students to make the connection between the research process and architectural design. Therefore, I will continue to use this approach.


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example of an architectural modelBackground

The course Research Methods in Architecture (ARCH 701) (pdf) is designed to portray architectural research as both a professional and scholarly activity. It provides an overview of research techniques applicable to architecture. Students are expected to use these techniques in design, programming, fabrication, and evaluation of places in particular, as well as in scholarly investigation of architectural issues in general. 

When I first taught this course, it was required for students who were pursuing the Master of Architecture (M. Arch) degree and typically had over 60 students. In 2005, the Architecture Department replaced its B. Arch degree with the 5½-year M. Arch degree program. This is a professional program after which students can pursue their professional license without completing another graduate program in architecture. The students are technically considered undergraduate students until they enter their fourth year, at which stage they are considered graduate students. Accordingly, students were required to take ARCH 701 in the second semester of their fourth year. This course on research methods was designed to introduce a graduate educational component to the curriculum. In addition, students who are in Track II of the M. Arch program (3½-year professional program offered for graduate students with non-architecture baccalaureate degrees) take this course in the second semester of their second year. This course became an elective in Spring 2012. As a result of this change in requirements, I had a smaller class size with a total of 15 students.

Prior to Spring 2011, I required students to complete a semester-long research project (which served as a final project) based on a research question that they identified. In groups of three, students conducted this project in the stages that a typical research project would follow (literature review, research design, data collection, data analysis, and deriving conclusions and implications of the research) and culminated in a research report and a class presentation. I assessed student performance and gave feedback on each step on this process. I found that students had trouble identifying research questions and subsequently had difficulty designing their studies. This was partly because of the entrenched view that architects do not do research, partly due to students' lack of critical thinking, and partly due to lack of research experience. Additionally, students used online sources (Wikipedia, newspaper articles, and the like) instead of referring to research journals. Students also had difficulty in critically reading and synthesizing research findings. Students felt that the research studies they conducted had no relation to their core activity of architectural design.

The main challenge I faced in the first round of teaching this course was that students did not see a direct relationship between research and what architects do—design. Accordingly, in Spring 2011 I redesigned my course to enable students to meet two major goals:

  1. To engage students, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and develop research skills.
  2. To demonstrate that research is an integral part of the architectural design process.

I moved away from the traditional lecture mode and used problem-based learning to enhance understanding and encourage students to be active participants in their learning. I also changed the structure of the final research project to help establish a link between a set of research methods and design activities architects typically conduct.

Based on student feedback and on my experience teaching this redesigned course, I made some adaptive changes in Spring 2012 (pdf). I changed some of the steps in the final project and also used classroom time to go over my rubrics. This portfolio illustrates the effectiveness of the major redesign process in Spring 2011 and the adaptive changes made in Spring 2012.


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example of an architectural modelImplementation

Spring 2011

To encourage students to be active participants in their education, I used problem-based learning as a pedagogical strategy to promote learning that was student-centered and based on real world situations. Rather than give all the information to the students, I wanted to present a significant challenge and encourage their collaboration in addressing the research questions posed to them.

The main pedagogical model employed in architectural education is the "studio," in which students are presented with design problems (hypothetical architectural projects) to solve/design. The studio thus mimics the real-life architectural design office. In the revised course, I followed this pedagogical model for posing contextualized and real world situations intrinsic to architectural education. Further, I wanted the emphasis to be on active learning in which students were expected to find answers to their questions rather than depend on me for all the information. Subsequently, instead of lecturing and asking students to conduct a final research project, I changed the structure of the project (pdf). I asked them to conduct research related to their own studio design project, demonstrating how they employ certain research methods and skills in creating new knowledge to solve the given design problems.

In the first four weeks of the semester, I introduced students to a range of research techniques through lectures and readings. Since students did not see the relevance of the books on research methods I assigned to them in the previous iterations, I designed one-page summary sheets (pdf) of research techniques discussed in the class. Chapters from research methods books and published research articles were made available on Blackboard. The rest of the semester was dedicated to data collection, analysis, and writing. I introduced two research questions (pdf) at the beginning of the semester. The questions were directly related to the design studios the students were taking during that particular semester and were designed with the help of the specific studio instructors. The studio instructors were particularly interested in investigating best practices of designing public spaces in buildings and building envelope (skin) systems that respond to climate and energy needs.

In architectural design, it is a common practice to study previous architectural work similar to the commission at hand in order to derive some lessons to guide the design process. Adopting this regular practice of precedent analysis into the research methods course, I asked students to form teams of four, select one of the research topics (building envelope system or public space design), and then select a building from Lawrence or the Kansas City metro area to use as a case study for that specific topic. Studio instructors provided me with some best-case projects for this purpose. To facilitate effective inquiry, to scaffold student learning of the research process, and to improve the quality of student work, I broke this project down into several small assignments to be completed throughout the semester, while providing specific guidelines for each step. These steps included the following, with minor variations specific to the research topics students selected (i.e., building skin or public space):

  1. Initial observation, in which students outlined their impressions of the design effectiveness of the building studied, then included their own assumptions/hypotheses on the design intentions of the architect for that design aspect (skin or public space).
  2. Interviews with the users of the building to determine their evaluations of the design aspects and to test some of the students' assumptions about it.
  3. Deriving design principles (for design of skin or public space), based on the interviews, students' observations, and published literature on such design.
  4. Stating design hypotheses about the design aspect (skin or public space) in the students' own design project, based on the design principles.
  5. Evaluation of the design aspect in which students performed computer-based simulation research (for skin designs) or surveys (for public space design) to assess the performance of the design aspect. Based on the findings, students suggested changes to their own designs.

Steps (a) to (c) were conducted in teams, and steps (d) and (e) were conducted individually. At the conclusion of each step, students were required to turn in assignments, which were graded and given feedback. I developed a grading rubric for this semester-long project, to assess and give feedback on each step. Students were given constant reminders via e-mail on how to conduct the research involved in each step, as well as the grading criteria. I also conducted specific workshops for certain steps (computer simulation for evaluating solar performance of building skins and survey design for evaluating public spaces by their users). At the end of the semester, students had the opportunity to fix any issues in the previous assignments and then compile a final report involving all the steps of the investigation.

Spring 2012

In Spring 2011, I found that there was a lack of suitable existing buildings around the Lawrence area for study. Accordingly, in Spring 2012, instead of visiting buildings, students studied and evaluated buildings that were featured in published literature. To incorporate this change, I needed to make a few more changes to the final project (pdf). I have highlighted these changes below.

  1. In Spring 2011, students could choose from two research questions: a building envelope study or a public space study. In Spring 2012, I only used one research question that all students had to address in their final projects. Students were required to study the place type that they were currently focusing on in their studio design project (as part of the studio design class that they were simultaneously taking). In this way, they worked on a project that was related to a task that they were already working on (their design project in their studio class).
  2.  In Spring 2011 I had two simulation studies, one for the selected case study building and the other for students' own design project. In Spring 2012 students performed only one simulation study solely for their own design. This did not impact the course content: students still had the opportunity to study simulation research methods and understand how to use them in their design process to make informed design decisions. However, because those methods now aligned with their design projects, students could successfully provide a detailed, insightful analysis on one simulation, whereas before they had offered somewhat superficial analyses of two simulation studies.
  3. Finally, this change in the research topic question also enabled me to introduce three research needs in the architectural design process and the corresponding research methods. These were: historical research into the emergence of the specific place type and determining socio-political, economic, and technical forces (carried out through historical-interpretive research and documentation analysis); typological research of the place type given (carried out through morphological analysis of building precedents of the place type), and sustainable design principles research (carried out through documentation analysis of published materials of the subject and building precedents). These three methods replaced the observation studies, the natural light simulation study of the selected building, and the design implications of studying a building precedent that were included in Fall 2011.

I retained the problem-based learning approach. As in Fall 2011, I did not use traditional lectures and incorporated a lot of group and individual work.

While I used grading rubrics to evaluate student work during Spring 2011, I found that very few students actually engaged with these rubrics prior to submitting their work. To encourage students to pay more attention to the rubrics, I specifically highlighted the importance of the criteria outlined in the rubric (pdf) for each assignment and demonstrated how the rubric defined the class expectations, thereby setting standards for students' performance. I also attached the rubric to each assignment sheet (as opposed to using two separate documents). The main goal was to make the grading criteria very explicit and encourage students to engage with these rubrics before starting their assignments.


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example of an architectural modelStudent Work

In response to the changes made in Spring 2011, I did see improvements in student learning. Following the Spring 2012 changes, though, I saw a huge improvement in student performance, with a majority of projects exceeding my expectations. Before explaining what these changes were, it is important to know that the student demographics also changed: in Spring 2009 and Spring 2011 students took this course because they were required to do so. However, when the course became an elective in Spring 2012, students took this course because they wanted to. Thus any change in grade distribution between Spring 2012 and Spring 2011/Spring 2009 must be interpreted keeping in mind a possible change in motivation.

There was a slight change in student performance between Spring 2009 and 2011: fewer students got A's in Spring 2011 and more got A-'s. Compared to Spring 2009, there were more people with B-'s in Spring 2011. This could be due to the challenging coursework, particularly the number of assignments and the amount of material covered. It is still encouraging because the percentage of students who got A's and A-'s combined remained roughly the same (about 70%) in Spring 2009 and Spring 2011, but the distribution changed. In fact the number of students in the combined A category increased by 3%. Students lost many points on the assignments not because of inaccuracy of content but because they did not adhere to format requirements stated in the grading rubric. Had they followed the required format many of the A-'s would have been A's, and many B+'s would have become A-'s.

I also assume that had I used a similar grading rubric in Spring 2009 there would have been a more rigorous grading system that would have resulted in many lower grades. In Spring 2009 students conducted the entire research project in teams, pulling together their collective strengths. In Spring 2011 students completed certain assignments as individual projects during the latter half of the semester. Some students faltered in these steps as they could not count on their teammates to pull the assignment together, which resulted in some lower grades for the individual assignments. Compared with the previous class offering, I do not consider this grade distribution change to be a failure; in fact, I believe that students became much more aware of the application of research in design than the previous time.

Most students performed the different steps involved in the final project to an excellent level (pdf) and surpassed my expectations; of course, there were some students who performed to a satisfactory level (pdf) and just below satisfactory (pdf), barely meeting my expectations. However, no student performed below my expectations. Their observations and user interviews of the case project studied, the design principles generated, and evaluations of their own design hypotheses indicated that students had become more reflective on the ways research could be applicable in architectural design problem solving.

The major problem lay in their analysis of data and in synthesizing the findings to derive conclusions or recognize the implications of the findings. Students seemed to think that just reporting the findings or data was a sufficient result of research. Probing, questioning, and triangulating data were unfamiliar practices to them. This, I would think, is an issue related to lack of both experience in critical thinking and an investigative mindset. Similarly, students had problems locating and effectively using published research literature in step (c) above. This could have been due to their lack of exposure to research journals in general, even though I had provided them a list of research journals in architecture and related fields available at KU Libraries, and/or it could be attributed to their minimal experience in reading and using research articles in studio or course exercises.

Two minor problems I encountered across all the steps are students' lack of attention to the criteria and the grading rubric for each assignment, and lack of attention to the legibility and clarity of the assignments, in which students would omit some specific required details or illustrations. This occurred even though I sent repeated e-mail reminders on assignments, which mentioned the steps and criteria to follow for the respective assignment. To my knowledge, the students have not really come across a detailed grading rubric in the other courses or studios they take. In fact this was my first time presenting students with a grading rubric. I assume that students did not pay much attention to the rubric because of their unfamiliarity with them and their importance.

These problems were more or less resolved in Spring 2012. After implementing some of the changes described in the Implementation portion of this portfolio, I saw a huge increase in student performance. A majority of the students exceeded my expectations and were more effective in making connections between design and research. Students also paid more attention to the rubric and submitted assignments that clearly met all the basic criteria. No student performed below my expectations. Links to two project examples are provided below.


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professor silva

Kapila Silva

Reflections

Spring 2011

Prior to Spring 2011, students conducted a research project in which they were asked to follow the conventional research process: research question, literature review, research design, data collection, analysis, and conclusions. In Spring 2011, students conducted research on a specific aspect of building design, in which they followed a different process that is akin to certain steps in the architectural design process – studying precedents, deriving lessons, applying lessons to design, and evaluating those design intentions – and in relation to their own studio design project. Although students are familiar with this design process, they followed it in a more rigorous manner this time. In the process, they were introduced to the same set of research techniques – interview, surveys, observations, simulations, and literature reviews – as in the previous semesters, but in quite a different manner and at different stages of the inquiry, even though I changed the nature, format, and content of the semester project in this iteration. I believe that, therefore, I was able to achieve my objective of revising the course in a manner that follows and facilitates the architectural design process, and consequently, that helps students see how research is related to design and developing rigor in research conduct.

Student feedback indicated that they appreciated the integration of the course content and assignments with their studio projects and the opportunity to investigate whether their own design solutions (design hypotheses) would eventually work. The latter appeared to be a novel experience for them.

Correlating the research course with the studio project certainly had other advantages. Students were also enrolled in the highly demanding Comprehensive Design Studio the same semester. I believe that having the research project closely connected to the studio helped them in managing their time, as the research project was not an unrelated additional course component to fulfill. Nevertheless, I feel that some students underestimated the amount of time it took to conduct certain research steps, such as interviews and surveys. Another advantage was that the final research report could be included as a part of the documentation of students' studio activities, which is a required course component in the Comprehensive Design Studio.

Altogether there were eight assignments to complete over the course of the Spring 2011 semester. Although these assignments helped students to understand the systematic process of conducting research and applying lessons to design, I wonder whether the number of assignments was too large for a three credit hour course. For example, simulation of the precedent case could be removed from the list of tasks, as students conduct a simulation of their own building at a later stage of the process. Reducing the total number of assignments while increasing the number of individual assignments might improve their understanding of the applicability of research in design. This may also help in elevating the overall grades in the class.

Not making the debriefing sessions mandatory was a mistake; they were required in previous course offerings. Debriefing sessions help "coach" students on critically thinking about the research process. This is important, as it is the first step in promoting a high level of performance/understanding. In those sessions, I used to discuss with student groups my feedback on their drafts on different steps of the term project in particular, and a discussion of the progress of the term project in general. I have found these meetings (both during class and out of class) to be quite useful for "coaching" the students through the research project.

There were some logistical issues that I encountered. The lack of availability of precedents in and around Lawrence that have sophisticated envelope systems or excellent public space designs was an issue, as students would have been more enthusiastic to study such buildings. In general, students are more inclined to study aspects on tectonics of buildings rather than human factors, especially in the Comprehensive Design Studio, in which a greater emphasis is placed upon building technology and materials. Students usually conduct online searches and library searches for gathering information on these aspects. True research (generating new knowledge) on building technology and materials requires laboratory settings and equipment that the school does not have, and thus such advanced tectonic explorations cannot be conducted in this course with over 80 students.

Spring 2012

The redesign process in Spring 2012 helped solve several of the problems described above. Particularly, I found that using one simulation study helped achieve the balance between challenging and overwhelming. I did not encounter any logistical issues, as students did not have to visit any particular building. Moreover, students were now required to engage with the rubric and attend discussion sections. The quality of the student performance improved in Spring 2012, and I received excellent evaluations (pdf) from students. Recall that because of the elective nature of the course, I had a smaller class size in Spring 2012. This class size certainly helped facilitate teacher-student interactions. Since this was now an elective, students were more motivated to be in the course. Finally, all the assignments were closely connected to their main academic activity (the design studio), chronologically followed the architectural design process and its stages, and were progressively graded (so, students received feedback over the course of the semester rather than at its end).

A problem I may face when I teach this course again is to have students from the same academic level and semester. So far, all the students who signed up for the course were fourth year/second semester, and they were engaged in similar projects in their design studios. Now that it is an elective, it opens the course up to students from different academic levels. This would make it difficult to maintain a particular intensity and rigor in the class and its assignments, as the assignments are tightly connected to what is going on in students' design studios. To address this, I might add some prerequisites for enrollment. I will continue to retain the final project, as I believe it enables students to make strong connections between the design and research process. Moreover, this project also fosters an active learning environment and facilitates students to be more responsible for their learning.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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