Work Informed Learning - the design student perspective

Jean Whitehead, University College Falmouth

With the current upheaval in the Higher Education sector through a loss of government funding and increased fees, graduate destinations, and particularly employability are high on the agenda. Prospective students are rightly asking questions about their future employability, as well as the career history of the course they are considering joining. As a response to these concerns a pilot sc...


Section of screen shot from University College Falmouth Student work. Image supplied by Jean Whitehead

employability, industry mentor, work ready


With the current upheaval in the Higher Education sector through a loss of government funding and increased fees, graduate destinations, and particularly employability are high on the agenda. Prospective students are rightly asking questions about their future employability, as well as the career history of the course they are considering joining.

As a response to these concerns a pilot scheme was initiated for interior design students that explored ‘work informed learning’ through the introduction of an ‘industry mentor.’ This trial aimed to bridge the gap between the world of work and the world of the university, through a student-led initiative whereby participating students built a relationship with a professional designer and in the process gained important skills that would enhance their readiness for work.

The study revealed what students valued when considering employability and work informed learning, and provided an opportunity to gather feedback on the industry mentor scheme. This study provides an overview of this teaching and learning experience for other institutions who may be considering piloting a similar scheme.


This action-research was originally initiated to gather student centred feedback from full-time undergraduates studying a range of design awards (Contemporary Craft, Interior Design, Three Dimensional Design, Textile Design) at University College Falmouth. The study invited Level Two students to join and contribute to an award specific focus group as a platform for discussing employability. Typical comments are included below.

It is about transferable skills, skills that you learn as a student that you can take into the workplace such as how to present yourself and your work, how to problem solve, how to manage your time.

Hearing ex-graduates stories makes you realise that everyone was in the same situation as you. We want to hear the nitty gritty as well as the success stories…we want to hear about the process of getting a job.

Upon analysis this qualitative data highlighted student concerns about future employability. This created a springboard and the impetus for a project to be trialled that concentrated upon enhancing employability through ‘work informed learning’ that is the focus of this study.

Description of project initiatives

Mantz Yorke’s definition of employability is helpful in deconstructing the term, he views it as:

A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy (Yorke, 2004. p. 6).

For Yorke, if employability is to be enhanced, the curriculum has to be viewed as a blend of subject knowledge complemented by practical skills (often referred to as ‘core’, ‘soft’ or ‘transferable’), a view endorsed by our own students!

A pilot project was developed, led by thirty full-time Level Two Interior Design students that explored the benefits of an industry ‘mentor.’ The mentor scheme aimed to increase a student’s potential professionalism and employability through the acquisition of ‘transferable’ skills that bridged the gap between the world of university and the world of work. Each student was asked to locate a mentor (e.g. a professional working within the creative sector, external to the life of the university) who would be prepared to mentor them for twelve months. This is viewed by industry as less onerous on their time than a formal work experience because of its inherent flexibility. The mentor typically meets with their mentee four times a year to offer another view on their work and reveal the world of a professional designer to them.

A student ‘tool kit’ of new skills (presented as a series of seminar and workshop sessions) supported by the university in-house career and academic services was implemented alongside the pilot mentor scheme. Introductory sessions were presented as a series of ‘F.A.Q.’ or ‘frequently asked questions,’ such as ‘what is a design mentor’, ‘what will happen when I meet my mentor’, ‘how do I select a mentor’, ‘how do I get a mentor?’ As the mentor scheme was introduced as a student-led initiative, unsurprisingly the discussion centred on the latter.

Through these initial discussions it emerged that for any guidelines on mentor selection to be useful they required a degree of introspection from the participating students. Typically the Interior Design students were asked to consider their future aspirations - from making choices about the type of work they would like to undertake, to where they would like to work, and who they would aspire to work with. Existing contacts (from family or friends), and taking advantage of opportunities as they arose (at design events) were discussed as valuable ‘networking’ chances. This culminated with an introduction to the Flip camera and the creation of short videos using ‘role play’ to explain the process and role of the mentor to their peer group. This proved a useful exercise for de-mystifying the mentor process through humour.

The students were further supported through a developed ‘skill set’ concerned with that all important, and often daunting, point of ‘first contact.’ This included support and advice on how to present yourself professionally, how to network and how to enhance your interview technique. The creation of an e-portfolio to ensure each student had an online presence was seen as an integral part of this process. How to use writing as a means of introduction, useful for composing emails and letters and ensuring students have the correct tone, concluded these skill sessions.

In addition the students were prepped on the office environment, typically how an office is run, staff structures and business languages. These sessions concluded with progress reviews that allowed staff to keep abreast of any problems whilst celebrating any successes. This also allowed staff to capture the progress of each student in their quest for a mentor.

This was linked to a ten-credit module concerned with ‘Professional Identity’ that explored the student’s personal areas of interest, and ultimately the kind of job and career path they were interested in pursuing.

Evaluation – The student experience of the Industry Mentor scheme - Interim feedback

All of the participating students were asked to record a short video (a talking head) using a Flip camera four months after the mentoring scheme had been introduced. This method was chosen as it allowed the students to talk freely, encouraged them to be reflective, whilst quickly capturing a snapshot of the progress of the initiative. The response to the mentor scheme was generally very positive, although this interim analysis of these videos highlighted a number of themes explored below.

1. A reflective learning tool – The design mentor process makes you think about what you want to do with your future

Choosing a mentor for the majority of students became an intensely personal exercise that relied upon reflection and a degree of introspection. Typical questions when working through this process were - what are you interested in, what kind of designer do you want to be, where do you want to work, and what aspirations do you have for the future? This process enabled the participating students to align their personal practice with the world of work thoughtfully.

My mentor is ------ from Geneva, she owns her own business and has a business partner. I chose her because she does a lot of retail design and commercial design which is what I am interested in. I have seen a few of her projects which were really amazing.

I contacted ------- from -------- who is an architect from Kenya and he is in eco-tourism, (something I am interested in) and he replied back saying that he would be my mentor.

I’ve had a bit of a problem with deciding what I wanted to do in the future and I think that the design mentor scheme has helped me kind of think of what I want to do. It has made me question the things I was interested in before, if they are the ones I am interested in now, and so it makes you get your thinking process in order.

Hi my mentor is _____ , _____ Consultants in Ibiza. I chose them because that is where I want to work ultimately when I am older.

2. Its puts into practice networking and transferable skills by increasing your understanding of how to ‘put yourself out there’

As expected, for some of the participating students this process exposed worries and insecurities about their future or the reality of ‘life after uni’. This was offset by a perceived increase in skills that related to employability and being work ready. A greater confidence was evident in networking and an understanding of how you succesfully ‘put yourself out there.’ Having an online presence and knowing how to approach somebody through letter, email or phone was valued in the student feedback. This has to be an essential transferable skill linked to future employability.

She looked at my web site which she said was great.

I sent him a link to my portfolio which he has had a look at and said he would be happy to help me through this process.

The first place I thought of was Holland and Amsterdam as it is quite big for design. It took me quite a while to find someone and it was hard to write my initial letter and think about what I wanted to say to them, but so far it has worked out pretty well and I am excited to see them.

3. The mentor provided another view on my college work

Because of the timescale the mentor and mentee are able to build a relationship over twelve months. After the initial meeting many stayed in touch by email, this allowed for an exchange of ideas and an ongoing conversation. In the majority of cases the students found their mentors to be very supportive and interested in their college work.

He is also going to help me choose a site for the next project.

I think it will be a good opportunity to get more understanding of what a professional environment will be like and have a different opinion and a critical view of what your work is like.

I really need to get back to him about the next project brief and everything and see where it goes.

4. The mentor process makes you more aware of the industry and how it works beyond university

The participating students were very postive about how their mentor cracked opened a door for them and allowed them to view into the world of work – a world they would all hopefully be entering. Many commented on how this process gave them a safe vantage point to view this world. Others typically talked about the value of aligning their college work more closely with the needs of industry, and how they valued the contacts this potentially gave them, useful when first entering the job market.

I think it is quite interesting to have a mentor because its kind of the safe way to put yourself out there, without needing to look for a placement or whatever, and its nice to see what’s out there, and what’s waiting for you, without just being thrown into the world. So I think it prepares us for what’s to come.

I think once you have your mentor the schemes a really good idea and will be really helpful in learing how the industry works and getting your connections for when you leave university and need to get a job.

I think the mentor scheme is definitely a good idea cos it kind of gets you out there and shows us what it is like in the real world.

I think it’s a really good opportunity to see what the industry is like and to ask him questions and get in the office and see what its like to be on the frontline.

The positives of the design mentor scheme are I think it breaks the ice with you getting into industry and is better than work placement and work experience as you generally get under people’s feet and may not learn a lot.

5. It can be hard to gain a design mentor - nobody has time for us

The dilemma from a teaching and learning perspective is how the mentor process can become a postive experience for all. Some students experienced a higher level of rejection or disinterest when approaching possible mentors. This would knock the confidence of any student but for a student with a lack of confidence this is a double blow.

For the mentor scheme I have emailed a local company at home, an architectural firm, but just got a standard we don’t do work experience, didn’t really get any other sort of reply. I will email other companies soon. Negatives, not many companies seem interested or don’t really want the time and effort of a student.

Okay, I haven’t managed to find a mentor yet; I have emailed and wrote to a few people. Either haven’t got a reply or got a reply with too busy. Negatives would be that a lot of companies are not taking an interest, are too busy to help you.

I think the mentor scheme is a really good idea but at first it is quite difficult to get someone to say yes as lots of the companies I emailed said they were too busy.

6. Not an equitable experience or success rate?

It has to be acknowledged that if the mentoring scheme becomes an assessable component of the curriculum some students enter this arena at a disadvantage. These students are usually the most vulnerable within your cohort. To address this imbalance they have to be given an extra level of support, usually through studio staff as well as any in-house academic services. Another solution is to ensure that it is the process that is assessed - how you put yourself out there, your improved skill set, rather than the outcome – the successful gaining of a mentor.

I am an international student; I do not have a mentor yet, contacted a couple of companies but so far no luck. Maybe it’s because I am an international student, maybe they do not want an international alongside them.

7. Building time within the curriculum to allow this to happen if it is to be student-led

If this process is to be student led the trial made it patently obvious that time and patience are needed in abundance. It takes a degree of perseverance to successfully gain a mentor and build a relationship with them.  Participating students need to be encouraged beyond the timescale of any assessment to continue this process. While some students found a mentor within the first month of the project, some are still looking and awaiting responses. For the trail not to go cold incentives that are not assessable but monitor progress are fundamental. In reality these can be anything from discussion groups to catch up sessions that are forums for sharing information about the mentor experience. For students driven by assessment this prioritises the whole process.

Okay mentor, haven’t got one yet, been too busy trying to do all the assessment stuff, so going to try to do it during the assessment fortnight.

I am quite busy at the moment with the portfolio and stuff but we’ve got a nice two weeks off ahead and I am going to have a look through magazines and sort some stuff out.

The interim feedback from the project trial has been encouraging. The re-evaluation of ‘work experience’ as ‘work informed learning’ is perceived by the students as having value in terms of their future employability and work readiness. This has to be viewed as an ongoing project with more data needing to be gathered and analysed at the end of the twelve month period. Of especial interest will be the monitoring of this current cohort of Level Two students as they enter the work place to assess the impact, if any, of the design mentor scheme upon their designated career path.

Contact information


Jean Whitehead is a Senior Lecturer in Interior Design at University College Falmouth, a specialist art, design, media, performance and writing institution. Over the last few years she has completed two in-house Learning and Teaching fellowships and presented a conference paper exploring pedagogy related to the creative environment and trans-disciplinary working.


All of these proved to be useful references when considering and implementing this kind of project.

Ball, L. Pollard, E. Stanley, N. Oakley, J. (2010) Creative Graduates, Creative Futures - Creative Career Stories, Institute for Employment Studies, Council for Higher Education in Art and Design, University of the Arts London.

Bennett, N. Dunne, E. Carre, C. (2000) Skills development in higher education and employment, Buckingham, SHRE and Open University Press.

Yorke, M. Knight, P.T. (January 2004) Learning & Employability, Embedding Employability into the Curriculum, Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Yorke, M. (January 2004) Learning & Employability, Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not, Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Design Buddy Video, uploaded by proctorandstevenson on Sep 27, 2011. No description available. Category: Film & Animation Tags: Design Buddy Scheme Matt Desmier Darren Hunt,


Images supplied by Jean Whitehead
Header and listing images: sections of screenshots from University College Falmouth students' work 



Jean Whitehead, University College Falmouth


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