Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Learning Goals

A few weeks ago, Greg Wilson asked me how to better express the learning objectives listed in the Software Carpentry lessons. My main concerns with the existing goals are that they focus too much on specific skills, rather than attitude changes, and is that they are generally stated as lesson descriptions (more like instructor goals or a lesson outline) rather than as learning goals for participants.

One improvement would be to frame things in terms of what will help someone change their practice soon, with less focus on skill mastery. If nobody can write a nested loop or use Git by the end of the workshop, but everybody adopts a sensible research workflow within a few months, the workshop ought to be considered a huge success. If everyone learned all of Python in two days and never used it in their research work, it would be a failure. These goals are hinted at in some of the topic-level pages for lessons and appear in the Instructor Guide, but aren't clearly set out in the lessons themselves.

For example, the lesson on conditionals in Python says:

The final example asks them to build a command-line tool that works with the Unix pipe-and-filter model. We do this because it is a useful skill and because it helps learners see that the software they use isn't magical. Tools like grep might be more sophisticated than the programs our learners can write at this point in their careers, but it's crucial they realize this is a difference of scale rather than kind.

That's great, but it isn't clear to instructors how the activities support these goals or how they'll know if this is being achieved. Here's a clumsily-worded alternative:

With reference to the Software Carpentry online resources, official documentation (man pages for Unix stuff, docs.python.org for Python, etc.) and appropriate internet searching (e.g., Stack Overflow), the participant will be able to choose a data structure for collecting information when looping over a file (e.g., a list or dictionary) that works and yields readable code.

In addition, the lesson should articulate some very specific skill goals where all (or at least most) participants will enjoy some success during the workshop. This is very important for motivation to continue with learning rather than shut down. For example:

By the end of this lesson, participants will be able to use Python to pattern-match lines in a simple CSV file containing headers and print results as output.

Goals like these give something meaningful to assess during the lesson to see if the immediate skill lesson has been successful (where I'm using the word "assess" in the broad sense: it's nice for later reporting if there are recorded observations or test/quiz data from students, but at a minimum the helpers will see if everyone has processed the file as described). Meanwhile, including the attitude/approach goals will emphasize that the real value of the workshop is an overall change in research practice.

The smaller goals also give a bit more of a sense of lesson size, which is very helpful if one wants to start chaining together or remixing lessons. Some course design strategies suggest a hierarchy of goals, such as:

  • course goals: a few broad statements relating to the purpose and philosophy of the course (for Software Carpentry, goals related to more productive research and programming in general);
  • topic goals: more detailed than course goals, these are basically a way of grouping the more specific goals (e.g., learners will be able to automate tasks associate with plain text files); and
  • learning goals (or lesson goals): splitting the topic goals into 10-15 minute chunks to help get a better sense of how much time it might take to cover everything.

Some ideas for doing this are on pages 8-12 of A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning (a resource used in UBC's local course design workshop).

A lot of these changes are moving away from "I want them to know this thing once I explain it" to "I want them to be able to do this measurable thing". There are more examples, including some from introductory programming courses, in these two documents (which are taken from this page). I would also recommend some of these ideas for learning goals for the instructor training. It gives the various lesson blocks clearer purpose, which can help with passing materials on to new instructors.

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