In the School of Architecture, the Design Studio is the foundation of the course – it is the primary mode of engagement and forms the core subject within the degree. In groups of about 20, students attend one or more classes a week, where they learn how to design through the development of a project.

The Architecture Design Studio

In a Design Studio class, an open dialogue between tutors and students is crucial. The Design Studio setting subjects students to constant critique through the feedback process required to develop their design projects. Students need to feel comfortable in the studio environment, confident to take risks and have trust in those instructing them.

For students commencing architecture studies, this can be an intimidating prospect. So how can we better support students to feel safe and confident to engage in class? This is a question I recently considered when undertaking my Scholarly Teaching and Learning Project as part of the UTS Graduate Certificate in Higher Education.

To start, I considered the contributing factors of communication, diversity, tutor and student relationships and the unique studio learning environment. I then tested different techniques in an online classroom setting and assessed my findings. Surprisingly, I found that some of the simpler strategies I implemented had the most significant outcomes and are applicable to any learning environment.

Strategy 1: Introduction survey

For our first class, I prepared an online survey as a way for me to learn about my students and them about me. I answered the survey first, then the students responded during class. Students answered honestly and earnestly. Some example questions are:

  • What is your preferred name?
  • What makes you motivated to work on assessment tasks?
  • What is one thing that you would like me to know about you?

For some things students mentioned, I could easily accommodate their needs, e.g. providing visual aids. It eliminated potential frustrations – knowing that they had a bad internet connection or a noisy household to overcome. Other responses were unexpected and more revealing. This included feeling that they needed a long time to process what people say or that they suffered from social anxiety, noting that if they were quiet in class, they weren’t feeling well.

I felt privileged that students were comfortable to share these details with me and grateful they had a platform to do so. It allowed me to accommodate their needs so that they felt comfortable and welcome in class. Students were able to feel a sense of belonging as also explored by Alisa Percy in her article.

Strategy 2: Class check-in

Each class began with a simple icebreaker activity – asking a question that students answered in front of each other, and I participated too. This allowed us to learn about each other and for me to check in on students’ wellbeing. Questions were framed around informal ways to discuss our social identities and backgrounds amongst other topics. I could show some aspects of myself whilst also learning about my students. For example:

  • Once borders open up – where is the first place you’d like to travel to?
  • What is something new you’ve learnt since our last class?
  • Once lockdown is over, where is the first place you’d like to eat at/visit?
  • Something that made you feel proud in the past week?

I felt there was a positive atmosphere after the activity and students were more receptive to the work that followed. Sometimes it was challenging to fit in and we would skip it – the difference was noticeable. Discussions didn’t quite have the same flow. I implemented quicker ways to check in when we were pressed for time – like running a Zoom poll or asking students to express their feelings through emojis. As one student commented, our conversations made the class more enjoyable.

Strategy 3: Longer silences

Throughout the session, I allowed longer intervals of silence in our discussions and after posing questions. I have always felt uncomfortable with silences, particularly online, and would often be quick to break them. By pausing and counting to 10 I found immediate benefits. A greater diversity of student voices contributed to discussions rather than the same few. Students who needed longer to prepare an answer and those less confident were given greater opportunity to speak.

Another tutor commented that they have equally found positive results from informing students of this strategy at the beginning of the class so students know the intention behind the silences. It is so easy to implement and contributes to accommodating our diverse classrooms, an idea explored by Aurora in her post.


The most significant change after doing this project, perhaps was in me. The act of learning is inherently vulnerable. By being vulnerable through revealing aspects of myself, students could be vulnerable as well. Better understanding students also allowed me to empathise with them and accommodate their needs. Simple frustrations were eliminated by better understanding their situation and I could create a more positive and welcoming learning environment. The challenge now will be how to implement these approaches on campus.

Feature image by Marvin Meyer.

  • LOVE longer silences. Great idea.
    Students are genuinely curious about tutors as practitioners – showing them what I have been working on – sketches, documentation, photos, paintings – helps them understand that tutors are creative people too, and that they struggle, explore, and find work arounds in their practice. Students appreciate tutors showing these things too.

  • I love your three strategies, Jessica! I think that helping students to feel safe and confident is so important as a foundation to learning, and especially so in the Architecture Design Studio context where students need to be very responsive to the on-going feedback they receive. Trust is crucial, as you say. I’m going to use some of your introduction survey questions with my students this Autumn – thanks!

  • Really great insights and suggestions Jessica. I especially liked the one about longer silences and informing students that this is part of your strategy so they can become aware of the signal.

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