Class Research: Notes from the Field

What we’ve been up to

Quarter two started up with a new research project for the class. This is a check-in to exhibit what we’ve all been doing for the past five weeks. Our findings will become the foundation of our cohort’s capstone project, which we will develop in quarters three and four through ideation and building a design prototype that will, hopefully, address some aspects of a wicked problem.

The Project

In partnership with PelotonU, AC4D has set out to conduct research into the broad topic of College Persistence and Completion. College completion rates have stagnated or fallen in recent years in the United States. The most at-risk students who start and fail to complete a degree are considered “nontraditional” students. While there is some disagreement in the academic community about the exact definition of a nontraditional student, some major indicators include either they are over 25 years of age, financially responsible for themselves and/or others, or working at least part-time. It is generally recognized however, that most students in the US have  one or more of these characteristics.

After reading secondary literature around how nontraditional students have become the norm while most colleges and universities are not structured to accommodate their needs, our class split off into six groups in order to pursue more refined focus areas.  

Focus areas

  • How college completion advisors and organizations equip themselves to deal with the obstacles non-traditional students face
  • How having to work part or full-time impacts a non-traditional students’ post-secondary educational experience
  • How people who have dropped out of college cope with moments of struggle and who is there to support them as they find their footing
  • How impostor syndrome impacts women’s post-secondary educational trajectory, from cultural background to employment
  • How prospective post-traditional students make educational decisions
  • How first-generation Americans in Austin perceive the role and importance of post-secondary education

Stories from the Field

The most critical part of design research is immersing ourselves in the lives of the people we seek to understand. AC4D uses the methods of contextual inquiry (observing people in their context as they experience something) and participatory design (using an activity to get at deeper feelings and thoughts). Below are a few compelling stories that have informed our themes and represent the array of humans who have opened up to us so far.


Above Photo: Peter explains dropping out of college and beginning his freelancing career
Above Photo: Peter explains dropping out of college and beginning his freelancing career

Peter dropped out of college just last February. Ultimately, he decided to drop out of school and begin freelancing as a developer because he already had the work experience and believed that he could learn more working at jobs than in the classroom.


Ophelia was an intern at her company when, based on the work she’d been doing for the company for two months, she was approached to fill an opening left by a more senior employee. However, Ophelia had little confidence in herself that she could do the job. She said:

“Since the experienced guy had been there for like 10 years, I assumed he wanted multiple people because I’m not to that level, obviously. I can’t take on a role like that.”


Above Photo: Chelsea describes her decision-making process and motivation for applying to colleges
Above Photo: Chelsea describes her decision-making process and motivation for applying to colleges

Chelsea is a video game designer and a recent graduate of St. Edward’s University. Her father immigrated from Mexico as a young man. She says her family was apathetic-to-positive about education, but placed a high premium on being close together. Chelsea felt faced with a choice: Run away, and risk family censure, or get a college education as a painful but “acceptable” reason for leaving home.

“I don’t want to live at home anymore. I hate living at home. And that’s where I started with college. I did research and found a whole list of colleges. And I applied to every single one.”

Initial Findings

While we are still in the thick of our research, including recruitment of participants and externalizing our data, some broad themes and insights are beginning to emerge, connecting many of the stories we’ve gathered.

  • Effective Advising is Intrusive Advising: Advisors don’t wait to be asked for help. They get on planes, take road trips, and knock on dorm rooms. An advisor can be the bridge that helps a student who’s suddenly living amongst a wealthier, more privileged culture, or simply the common situation of not knowing how to ask for help on campus.
  • Emotions and stress levels can be an obstacle or motivation. A common theme we are seeing is a positive support structure can help shape the strong feelings and stresses into a motivation. There is a sense of, “if I go UP (not down), I’m taking everyone I love with me.”
  • People believe that jobs in the technology field prioritize your work experience over a college degree. If students feel that they will not learn anything from their classes, they disengage and don’t see the point in even attending.
  • Feelings of self-doubt and impostor syndrome around higher education and employment influence decision-making and can result in missed opportunities. Feelings of impostor syndrome affect most people at some point, but after speaking to subject matter experts we learned that due to both cultural and systemic reasons, women tend to have fewer tools for overcoming or dealing with these feelings when they occur.
  • Factors that influence decisions about post-secondary education start to cement in high school. We had the assumption from the start of our research that family, culture, and community values would play a large role in shaping a student’s plans for their future. What’s been a surprise to us is that two other factors have come to light as contributing variables – the role of extracurricular activities, and the role of geographic location.

What to look for next

Our plates are full these next few weeks as we finish up with contextual inquiries and continue to synthesize our field research. Mark your calendars to join us at Austin Center for Design on Sunday, December 16 to hear initial findings from our field research synthesis! Click here to learn more.