design thinking

The Benefits of Design Thinking in a Guided Pathways Model


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As we continue our conversations about the Guided Pathways approach for colleges and universities we’ll see three elements surfacing in the conversations:

1. Providing clear road maps to students’ end goals.
2. Creating on and off ramps for their success.
3. Ensuring that advising is embedded and tracked so that we as faculty and staff are “closing the loop” and providing students with information throughout their educational journey.

Creating Intentional Pathways

Part of the work in the Guided Pathways approach involves helping students navigate the multitude of diverse routes in higher education in order to ensure they get to the ‘promised land’ – commencement. In order for us to do this, we need to be intentional about how we create these routes for students. We also need to remember that our end (graduation) is their new beginning into careers or transfer institutions, and pathways must continue to those. Bailey, Smith-Jaggars, and Jenkins (2015) suggest that, “having a map is important for navigating college, but it is important that the paths to students’ end goals are clearly delineated with signposts along the way” (p. 38). This deliberately-created route would be focused on creating a “student pathway ecosystem” that puts students at the center of our redesign work. Major components put forth in the book by Bailey et. al. (2015) provide ideas colleges could consider in order to craft a more seamless and efficient approach for student success.

Providing Clear Road Maps to Students’ End Goals

As we move toward the notion of “designing with the end in mind” we can turn our eyes to exciting work with design thinking. What about design thinking can institutions of higher learning use to help students reach their educational goals? The concept of design thinking has been integrated into the mainstream conversation by design firm IDEO. Its applicability to a wide range of challenges and solutions is presented in IDEO founder Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design (2009). Another example is The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s work in biomedicine, creating innovative programming in competency-based models by employing design thinking.

Bell (2010) argues the value proposition of using such purposeful thinking in higher education.

“Consider higher education’s long reign using the same delivery and organizational structures after hundreds of years. It now is pressured by new competitors, many of them for-profit businesses offering low-cost, convenient options that leverage advanced educational technologies. The new mystery is how to deliver higher education in ways that are both affordable and sustainable, and that meet the needs of a new generation of both traditional and nontraditional learners.”
Looking to Design Thinking

So, we may not be able to change the entire academy and its infrastructure overnight, or in even in a few years. But many agree it would be insightful to employ design thinking in how we deconstruct, and then remake student services and course delivery. For example, areas such as admission, advising, financial aid, and tutoring, just to name a few, could benefit from intentional design thinking to ensure students stay on the pathway to graduation.

What a wonderful way to showcase to students that instead of making small tweaks to our long-held processes, we instead choose to make substantive changes in our services or delivery to prove we truly have them at the center of what we do. And, done well we not only improve their opportunities to learn on a clear pathway, we make great use of our resources and hone our internal processes.

Design Thinking and Higher Education Whiteboard



Bailey, T. R., Smith Jaggers, S., and Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.

Bell, S.J.(2010). “Design Thinking” and Higher Education. Inside Higher Education. Web document:

Brown,T. (2009). Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Harper Business.

Top Banner Photo: Design Thinking by Thinking Public used by permission Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Leon Hill

Leon Hill works with Achieving the Dream and was previously part of the consulting team at Civitas Learning. Prior to that, he was Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Montgomery County Community College. In this capacity he was responsible for overseeing all the research and effectiveness functions of the college, as well as working with faculty on assessment activities in the classroom.

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