Developing a new course in the Design Lab

This article will show an example of the development of a new course in the Design Lab.

Design Agroforestry

Course: FEM32306 Agroforestry

Period: Period 4

Short Introduction and background

Introduction and story behind the emergence of this learning activity. What was the need, what issue/problem was the teacher facing and wanted to resolve? 

There has been a course on Agroforestry for about two decades. This was a restricted optional for students of the MSc programme in Forest and Nature conservation. Over the years the course attracted more and more students from other programmes such as the MSc Organic Agriculture, which made us realize we had to change the course drastically.

Read more

We needed a flexible design that could cope with increasing student numbers and do more justice to the variety of backgrounds and disciplines represented in our classroom. Next to that we wanted to move beyond theory and let students actively experiment with agroforestry systems or even design their own. The interest of the students in our course and developments in the field of agroforestry also justified an expansion from 3 to 6 credits.

The first actual steps to designing the new 6 credit course were taken by Madelon Lohbeck and Danae Rozendaal during several UTQ courses. But as the field of agroforestry is interdisciplinary in its nature, so is our teaching team. To make sure we would have all perspectives represented in the new design and all teachers on board we turned to the Design Lab. It took some effort to clear the agenda’s but we managed to sit down a whole day with the teaching team, including some of our students and we made the blue print for what it now a great new course.

Relevant tools / apps (software) or hardware used

Learning outcome(s)

What has been learned after this lesson/activity has been executed ?

During the first part of the Design Lab workshop we wrote a vision for the course, which was then translated into SMART learning outcomes. One of the main objectives for changing our design was to make it more challenging, which is represented in the new learning outcomes at high cognitive levels.

Read more

1. Explain the concept of agroforestry, describe the diversity of agroforestry systems across the globe

2. Analyse the ecological interactions among trees, crops and livestock and how farmers manage these for desired outcomes

3. Evaluate the synergies and trade-offs between multiple products and services of agroforestry systems (across time and space)

4. Evaluate how formal and informal socio-cultural institutions (including markets) affect agroforestry systems

5. Critically evaluate basic hypotheses in agroforestry

6. Design an agroforestry system including management planning tailored to specific contexts and desired outcomes

The concept of ‘learning arches’ from the Design Lab turned out to be very useful for structuring our course. These arches represent a process of learning with a clear start and ending. In the picture below you see the arches for each learning outcome. Since we teach in Period 4 the course has to fit a 4-week time frame, which we decided to roughly cut in two parts. The first part has predominantly lower cognitive learning outcomes where we lay the foundation for more higher cognitive and applied activities in the second part. Having an exam halfway the course stimulates students to be active right from the start. Because the exam focuses on lower cognitive learning outcomes we can organize it efficiently in ANS. Within the first part of the course we also use a thematic build-up starting with smaller scales such as plots and farm and then zooming out to landscapes and regions.

Figure 1: Course structure

Figure 1: Course structure

Lesson idea / Learning activity

Specific description and demonstration of the lesson idea/learning activity.

During the Design Lab workshop we did not only define the basic structure for our course, but we also brainstormed about the teaching and learning activities. There are a lot of fun and instructive activities we are proud of in this course, so we have picked a few to share in more detail.

Read more


We wanted students with all kind of backgrounds to be able to relate to the content of the course and make them aware that agroforestry is basically everywhere, not only in the tropics. That’s why we put three excursions right at the start of the course. These excursions provide students with different examples of agroforestry and stimulate them to observe, ask questions and think about what agroforestry actually is.

  • Day 1: Do you have agroforestry in your surroundings?
    Students have to go outside, take pictures of what they consider agroforestry and think of arguments to defend that claim. They upload their pictures on MS teams and discuss the pictures with their peers in the MS teams channel.
  • Day 2: Explore temperate agroforestry in the Wageningen surroundings.
  • Students can track locations in the Peek app where they got access to podcasts in which they received information by the land owner or manager, and had to answer some questions pertaining to that location.
  • Day 3: Explore tropical agroforestry systems in Africa, Asia and Latin America

Students join a video session with experts located at three different continents. They have to prepare questions.

Modelling Assignment

To help students bridge the gap between understanding agroforestry at a conceptual level and evaluating or designing real systems we designed a modelling assignment. In this assignments students have to fathom the interactions between shade trees and crops in agroforestry systems in relation to environmental conditions (climate, soil), system design and management. They also learn to evaluate the suitability and limitations of the model in contrasting environments. The assignment is a web-based practical that students do individually, but they are all part of a peer learning group of 6 students. We chose to develop and interface for the students, so that they wouldn’t be distracted by the ‘back end’ of the model, since understanding the programming is not a goal as such.

Figure 2: Modelling Assignment - Cacao Simulation Engine

Figure 2: Modelling Assignment - Cacao Simulation Engine

(example:) Student reactions in the course evaluation

What did you like about the course (remarks selected are restricted to the vlogging in practical 1):  

  • "We could experience Practical 1 learning despite being fully online It was really sad that we could not do the practical in real life, however, the alternative with the vlogging was very nice."
  • "I really like that we could still manage the fish. It really helped to engage with the content by just doing it although it was online."
  • "It was really nice to be able to still do a practicum, online."

Position Paper

In the same peer learning groups, students critically evaluate important hypotheses in agroforestry. For this assignment we use a flipped classroom approach. Students individually write a position paper about one hypothesis that we assign to them. Students are allowed to swap their hypothesis within the peer learning group, which immediately fosters discussion. The first drafts of the position paper are discussed in a peer feedback session, after which students get the chance to adapt and improve their papers. The final activity is an interactive debate facilitated by two teachers.

Design Assessment

The grand finale of our course is the design of an agroforestry system including management planning tailored to specific contexts and desired outcomes. Students have to build on everything they have learned in the course and really bring knowledge into practice. We want them to take home from the course that agroforestry designs need to be tailored to specific contexts and that it is no silver bullet. In groups of three they have present a:

  • Design
  • Factsheet to support their arguments
  • SWOT analysis of the design

The presentations take place with an expert panel, who also provide the grade.

Lessons learned / Tips

Mentions tips lecturer has for colleagues based on their experience.

Flexible Design

From the start we aimed at having a more or less flexible course design, to be able to cope with growing students numbers in the future. Forced by the circumstances we also had to make the design adaptable to changing COVID-19 pandamic regulation. Our secret?

  • Using a hybrid setting for our lectures which could easily be swopped to an completely online setting
  • Introducing a nested group structure for enhanced social cohesion in the online environment. Our group of approximately 100 students were divided into 4 ‘lecture group’, which in turn were divided into 4 ‘peer learning groups’, which in turn were divided into 2 groups for the design assignment.
  • With the help of the PEEK app, podcasts, video meetings and simple tools such as the camera’s on students phones we managed to organize excursions without bringing people physically together.
  • Our two fantastic teaching assistants made it possible to facilitate peer learning, without leaving students to their own devices.

Design Lab

In the design lab the people from the Teaching & Learning Centre take a facilitating role. This empowered us, the teachers, to work together in a very open, creative and constructive way. In the workshop we defined the basic design of the course together, which provided the coordinators with the support and trust of the rest of the team to fill in the details later on.


Teacher(s): Madelon Lohbeck
TLC contact (on MS Teams): 
Annemarie Zijlmans
Author (interviewer): Sanne Mirck



Interested in learning more about Showcases of learning activities?

Please visit:


Add your comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.