Design Thinking in Higher Education: Preparing the Next Generation of Graduates

Higher education institutions are often accused of not preparing students well to enter the job market. With advances in artificial intelligence, for example, soft skills such as problem solving, creativity and empathy will grow in importance as collaboration will be in high demand. Tony Morgan and Lena Jaspersen suggest that centering training around interdisciplinary team projects is the best approach for universities to face this challenge.


Professional bodies and industry leaders often suggest that there is a mismatch between the theoretical knowledge students acquire in college and the skills they need to succeed in a job after graduation. diploma.

For example, Denise Jackson has describe how higher education institutions have been consistently blamed for deficiencies in soft skills, while Fatima Suleman work highlights the growing body of literature that illustrates the pressures on higher education institutions to better prepare their graduates for the world of work. Indeed, while it is important to acquire in-depth knowledge of a core discipline and demonstrate the ability to learn, more fundamental “employability” skills are essential for graduates to succeed as they enter. in the labor market.

Many uncertainties hang over the future of work. What will a graduate role even look like in 2030 or 2040? One thing seems certain: there will be more money for things people can do that machines and artificial intelligence can’t (or at least can’t do as well). Creativity, problem solving and empathy, for example. With the world facing enormous challenges, the ability to collaborate across disciplines and cultures will be in high demand.

A 2020 survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) highlights a range of skill areas that are becoming increasingly important, including ‘critical thinking and analysis’, ‘problem solving’, ‘self-management’ and ‘ work with people. An analysis of graduate recruitment vacancies in the UK agrees. The most frequently requested skill areas in recent job vacancies include ‘communication’, ‘organization’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘teamwork’.

So how can universities (and employers who hire graduates) enable their students (or early-career professionals) to develop such skills?

We believe that one of the most effective ways is to design and deliver training courses centered on interdisciplinary team projects, where diverse team members work together to solve real-world problems. Additionally, the set of techniques known collectively as Design Thinking offers an incredibly versatile approach to supporting this. Used by companies like Google, Apple, IBM and many others, Design Thinking is a user-centric and iterative approach to defining and solving problems.

For five years we have been leading the ‘Innovation thinking and practice‘ at the University of Leeds. The module was developed in direct collaboration with industry to better understand the skills that graduate recruiters were looking for but felt were often lacking in their hires.

In the module, students from across the university are assigned to various teams. Each team is given a real-world challenge to solve. Challenges are developed in partnership with industry experts from local, national and international organizations in the private, public or third sector. Increasingly, the challenges include a sustainability aspect.

During the module, teams of students work through a series of facilitated activities following the process of design thinking: they seek out the challenge, develop empathy with those who face it, generate and evaluate ideas, develop prototypes and articulate value.

Every team encounters problems along the way. Some of these problems can occur naturally. Others have been designed into the module for students to solve, so they can learn about the importance of iterative approaches in innovation and problem solving. It also helps them build resilience, which is one of the key skills for 2025 highlighted by the WEF.

Students complete the module by presenting their projects to a panel of industry and academic experts and writing an individual report, reflecting on what they have learned and how they can apply this learning in the future. Each year, we document some of the achievements of the students (see 2020, 2021, 2022). We hear from alumni who have put their learning to good use in graduate roles as well as building their own businesses; and the module has been pre-selected at British Times Higher Education Awards 2021.

Anxious to do something concrete to make others benefit from our experience, we have written a book which guides students and practitioners through all the steps necessary to complete a project as a team to tackle a real-life innovation challenge and, most importantly, to develop key employability skills, along the way.

One of the many inputs we considered is that students want first-hand insight from a range of experts from industry and academia. Therefore, each chapter includes expert interviews on specific topics. Interview expert practitioners like Doug Dietz (whose groundbreaking design thinking work in healthcare has transformed the experiences of child patients), Jeanne Liedtke (who has written and taught extensively on the subject), and others.

Finally, we are not advocating for non-subject-specific degrees. However, universities can do more to complement and enhance them by giving their students access to interdisciplinary team-based modules. The opportunity to be immersed in a work environment, to solve problems creatively and to develop the skills necessary to impress during recruitment and at the start of their career can only benefit students and their future employers.

Having secured funds to pursue educational research, we are currently working with our colleague Louisa Hill on evidence-based guidelines for developing or improving interdisciplinary team-based modules with a focus on developing employability skills. So watch this space as we will soon be able to tell you even more about the benefits of team-based and challenge-based interdisciplinary learning! In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact us if you are interested in learning more or collaborating on this initiative or a related initiative.

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