Our Teaching & Learning experiments


Sumedha Vemuri



One of the main focal points of our work at Thinkering Labs is constantly improving the classroom learning experience of teaching and learning. The culture of experimentation and testing of those ideas in a real-life scenario is what guides us to improve on our work incrementally. 

As we worked to conceptualize the courses students avail today, we began with a simple question first. Does the traditional model of teaching and learning work?

The Traditional model – Teaching

In the traditional model, we have one sided transmission of knowledge. A teacher spends a good percentage of the allocated class hour feeding information and knowledge to students at the opposite side of the room. 

Students are eventually given homework and assignments where they need to apply classroom knowledge to get results. Their knowledge is tested once in a while through a series of tests, and their scores and ranks are supposedly a demonstration of their understanding. 

The pro-s of this system

– Learning and knowledge imparting is closely done by the teacher

– The teacher can address an active student in person. 

– beneficial for theoretical topics, but not art, skill or action oriented subjects. 

The Cons

– the onus of understanding and applying is fully on the student

– homework is not a proper of an indicator of their understanding as students are known to share notes in order to complete submissions. 

– Exams are not sufficient to test their learning, as exams test them only on their sharp memory and ability to recall concepts and answer questions under stress. 

– the chosen method of study for most becomes rote memorization and test taking practice, which defeats the learning purpose. 

– Most concepts are forgotten by students once the exams are over and do not stay with the student or see application in their day to day lives. 

– students gain a skewed understanding of intelligence. That Memory + speed = intelligence, instead of recallling and applying concepts in various real-life situations constantly. 

When the cons outweigh the pros, naturally we knew that learning systems had to change. 

Backward Design

The principles of backward design change and challenge how curriculum is framed at the outset. By setting clear cut goals on what students need to “learn” instead of what needs to be “taught” the focus shifts to outcomes and application of learning. 

Eventually classroom exercises and experiences can be tailormade to improve student understanding and application as opposed to test scores. 

The courses we run are all practical in nature. When we applied this approach to our curriculum framing, we realised that outcome centric learning saves tinme, focuses on practicality and gives students a more realistic picture of how their learning will get implemented in real life. 

Formulating the curriculum was the first step. The next was, running a series of experiments to improve the actual classroom experience. 

1. The regular instructional class

Before classes, students were given session agendas that would help them be ready for sessions the next day. We began teaching with a regular classroom model – a period of time given for lecture, followed by classroom activity students would do on the spot. Lectures followed immediately by significant activity helped keep them engaged and recall their learning on the spot. However, as the learning progressed further and further into skill application, the lecture model did not hold up. Students did not finish assigned work in time, which led to a drop in expected skill level.

2. The Video input

The challenge we had was to increase time spent on student activity without compromising on input (lecture). The student activity in class was important, as the instructor had to identify and correct them in order for them to learn properly. Most students aren’t aware of how they may be going wrong when learning a new topic. hence, we introduced lectures in the form of short 10 minute videos that explained concepts and demonstrated activity. The bulk of classroom time would be dedicated to students doing their work in the presence of the teacher. This approach saw more students picking up and completing work under proper guidance. The odds of them learning the right lesson were greater

3. The Flipped Classroom

The relative success of the video input and increasing classroom activity and engagement led us to take things a step further – ask students to watch their video lectures at home the previous day, and prepare to only focus on doing their activity in the presence of the instructor. While this principle is meant to work in theory, in practical terms, we noticed a general trend of students not utilizing pre-class lecture input, which meant they were unprepared for the session the next day. As we had no way to hold students accountable for pre-class work, not having gotten input wasted their session as well.

4. The Online learn and Do

We also attempted to take the entire learning module online. through guided theory mixded practical learning video modules, students would watch videos, work on the software at the same time, simultaneously to practice and apply in short assignments. 

The students no longer had to attend a session, but through a series of tracked to-do lists and regular time documentation of the amount of time spent learning, they were able to learn and produce a lot of work. 

What made this work was a tightly tailored curriculum, consistent tracking of time and effort. The level of micromanagement in the online learn&do model meant even reticent and slow learners could pick up pace and manage to stay more on track than when the onus of learning was left entirely to them.

6. The Do and learn. 

In this model we tried a completely new approach – rather than impart theory at all, students would learn through a series of daily design sprints. Students would be given a design brief every single day. Using their resourcefulness, they would find resources, create original work from scratch, and as and when needed, watch and learn quick tutorials and mix tools to produce results effectively. 

They would be encouraged to consider their work concluded upon sharing it online. 

This method encouraged the maximum creativity and productivity. Working on realistic projects taught them time management and clever use of skills. It also encouraged initiative. The presence of instructor helped them pick up and customize simple hacks on their own, speeding up their process and understanding. Having their work online, seen publicly and validated by everyone also boosted their confidence. 

However, this method worked for students with a personal sense of drive, and not necessary average and slow learners. Average students consist of the bulk of the student body – so we needed to have a system that would get the best from slow learners as well. The presece

7. The Bootcamp

As evidenced from the previous experiments, students who showed a degree of consistency in learning, practice and doing. 

And the Do and learn model demonstrated that students who applied and did work consistently in order to meet a brief and uploaded it online on completion reinforced their learning and reward mechanism. 

So we conceptualised a Bootcamp – an intense 4 – 6 week learning period where students would watch training videos, practice simultaneously for an hour, tracking the time they take for it. Immediately in the session, they take up a brief and work to create something in response to it. their work would be considered complete with an upload online and a steady tracking of their activities. 

A few changes we implemented was reduced student groups to improve instructor attention while they learnt and did their work. We also incorporated a 24 hour objective feedback loop that would be used by students to improve their submitted work promptly.

The bootcamp relied on discipline and consistency over hard work. Students who maintained a consistent level of engagement witnessed better learning curves for themselves.

8. The Gamification

IN addition to the Bootcamp model, we incorporated Gamification – rewarding student and group performance with daily rewards, group rewards and leaderboards. 

This meant that students in a group had to help each other produce high quality work. The increased peer-to-peer learning was seen to be beneficial, especially in tackling reticent students. We gamified it further by creating a buddy system – pairing students with performance on the opposite ends of the spectrum and rewarding them for learning collaboratively. 

When students noticed their good effort, discipline, consistency and commitment being rewarded, their involvement increased, even in the face of other academic restrictions. In short – Gamification improved their learning experience.

The Takeaways

When the focus of the courses shifted from “teaching” to “learning” such that students become capable of very specific outcomes, teaching methods change as well. Eventually we realise that the definition of teacher, teaching, classroom and learning evolve into something new. 

In this digital age, learning methodologies have to evolve to keep up with times. When great strides are being made in psychology, understanding development and learning behaviour, why not implement these to find what works for a student group?

After all, this is not a static scenario. learning methods have to evolve with time, as well as evolve to meet the challenges of the student groups and the challenges they bring. This remains a core concern of our work at Thinkering Labs

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