Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Teaching Tips

Last week's post on what's in your bag generated so many useful comments that we'd like to follow it up with another: what tips do you have for new instructors? The ones we've collected so far are listed below; please tell us what else we should tell people who are about to teach for the first time (and what else we should remind experienced instructors about).

Code of Conduct

Make sure everyone knows that there's a code of conduct. If someone (including a fellow instructor) speaks down to someone or otherwise makes them feel unwelcome, speak to them about it. Make sure you know about unconscious bias and stereotype threat, how to counter them, and how to be a good ally.

Avoid Using the 'J' Word

Don't say "just", as in, "Oh, it's easy, you just..." The things we teach are intrinsically hard, and far too much software makes doing them even harder. Talking down to users—in particular, implying that it's their fault for not already understanding this—isn't just rude. It also undercuts their confidence and motivation, which in turn impedes learning.

Similarly, don't get caught up in pointless argument or technical one-upmanship. The point of teaching is not to show the learners that you know more than them, or more than your fellow instructor. In particular, never hesitate to sacrifice completeness for clarity.

Talk Before and After

Software Carpentry runs biweekly debriefing meetings online for people who have recently taught workshops. Instructors who are about to teach workshops (particularly newcomers) are strongly encouraged to attend those as well to ask questions and hear what's working and what isn't.

Separately from that, the instructors for every workshop should get together online at least a couple of weeks before the workshop to talk about who's teaching what, who's handling which bits of prep, etc.

Online Lessons

Point learners at our lessons page, which is the permanent home of the current learning materials. They should also be directed to Software Carpentry's FAQ.

Re-Use

Explain that the lesson materials can all be freely re-mixed and re-used under the Creative Commons - Attribution (CC-BY) license, provided people cite us as the original source (e.g., provide a link back to our site). However, Software Carpentry's name and logo are trademarked, and cannot be used without our permission. We normally grant this to any class that (a) covers our core topics and (b) has at least one badged instructor on the teaching roster, but are happy to discuss specifics.

Instructor's Notes

Keep the lesson script or instructor's notes on a separate screen, such as a tablet. This way learners aren't distracted by seeing the instructor's notes, and the instructor doesn't have to switch between screens to see what comes next. Some people like to use an iPad or tablet for this purpose, so that the projected screen that the learners can see only contains the live code or instructions for challenges.

Double Screens

If there is the capability for two projected screens, use one for the live code and another that shows the example scripts (for reference) or instructions for challenges.

Installation and Setup

Plan for the first 30-60 minutes of the workshop to be spent on installation and setup, because it's going to happen anyway. Running a pre-workshop "help desk" doesn't really affect this: the people who are most likely to have installation problems probably won't show up. (We fantasize occasionally about turning people away if they haven't installed software, or at least downloaded the installers, but in practice it's hard to do.)

The Goal

Emphasize that we're not trying to turn scientists into professional programmers. Instead, we're trying to teach good software development skills to enable productive, reproducible, reusable research.

Sticky Notes

Have learners post a red sticky note on their laptop whenever they have a question or need help. Have them take down their sticky notes at the start of each practical exercise, and then post a green one when they're done (and a red one when they need help).

As a variation on the red/green sticky notes, make little name tents out of red and green paper, held together with name tag labels. The learners write their names on the name tags, and prop the tents either green side up or red side up depending on the feedback they want to give about the lesson being too fast or too slow.

Feedback

At lunch and again at the end of the day, ask learners to write one good point (i.e., something they learned or enjoyed) on their green sticky note and one bad point (i.e., something that didn't work, that they didn't understand, or that they already knew) on their red one. It only takes a couple of minutes to sort through these, and it's a quick way to find out how things are actually going.

Up and Down

At the very end of the workshop, ask learners to alternately give one good point or one bad one about the entire workshop. Write these down on the whiteboard as they come in, and do not allow repeats (i.e., every point has to be new). The first few negative points will usually be pretty innocuous; after those have been exhausted, you will start to get the real feedback.

Personalize the Lessons

Back up the material with your own anecdotes, experiences and evidence: it makes you more credible, helps learners understand how to apply what you're teaching to their own problems, and prevents the lectures from becoming too dry.

Showing What's Been Covered

Keep a running list of the commands encountered so far in the lesson in the Etherpad or on a whiteboard adjacent to the projection screen. Encourage learners (particularly ones who already know the material and might otherwise get bored) to take notes in the Etherpad as well. This reduces the effort per learner, gives you a chance to see what they think you're saying, and provides a record after the workshop of what was actually taught.

Summarizing What's Been Covered

For workshops that extend over more than two days (e.g. four afternoons spread over two weeks), it's a good idea to email the learners at the end of each day with a summary of what was taught (with links to the relevant online notes). Not only does this allow absent learners to catch up before the next session, it's also a great opportunity to present the lessons of the day in the context of the entire workshop.

Pilots and Navigators

The instructor who's at the front of the room talking is sometimes called the "pilot"; the other instructor is the "navigator", and she should be just as involved in the teaching as the pilot. She can answer questions on the Etherpad and update it with the key points made by the instructor (along with commands and any related points the instructor may not have mentioned). It's less disruptive to the "live" instructor than interjecting with these points, but allows the attendees to get the shared expertise from both instructors.

The navigator should stay at the back of the room, partly so that she doesn't draw attention away from the pilot, but partly also so that she can look over learners' shoulders and see who's bored (i.e., on Facebook or email) and who's fallen behind. The navigator should also give hand signals to the pilot: speak louder, speak slower, repeat that, time for a break, and so on.

What the Lesson Notes Are For

The long-form notes are intended as a script for instructors and as self-study material for learners. Do not show these notebooks to learners: instead, start with a blank file or notebook when teaching and add code as you go. This helps prevent you from racing ahead of learners and makes it easier for you to improvise in response to their questions.

Point learners at the online versions of the long-form notes after the lesson is done: if you do it before the lesson, they'll try to read the notes while you're trying to talk.

Live Coding, Slides, and Diagrams

Our workshops use live coding (for reasons discussed below): slides should only be used at the very start of a lesson to motivate it. The one exception is diagrams: it's often easier to bring up a prepared diagram than to draw it in real time on a whiteboard.

Why Live Coding?

Our workshops use live coding instead of slides because:

  1. Having to type things in slows the instructor down to something closer to the learners' pace.

  2. It's much easier for instructors to follow their learners (i.e., take an unexpected but useful detour from the planned lesson) if they aren't constrained by a slide deck.

  3. Slides are good for nouns, but not for verbs, i.e., they're good for showing the code we produce, but not for showing how we produce it. Learners often comment that seeing how we use tools, and in what order, is as useful as seeing what we write.

  4. We make mistakes when we're live coding, but that's a good thing. Learners frequently say that watching instructors diagnose and fix their mistakes is the most valuable part of the workshop, since they, as novices, are going to be making a lot of mistakes and need to know what to do when that happens.

Pairing

Pair programming is the practice of having two developers work together on one machine. Each takes turns being the pilot and the navigator, i.e., being the one who types and the one who comments. This effectively results in real-time code review, which research has shown results in higher productivity.

Pairing is also a good practice in workshops: the learners in each pair will probably have different knowledge and/or skill levels, so they can help each other in a scalable way. Pairing can also be used to get around installation problems by having someone who's unable to get software working pair with someone who has succeeded. In order to avoid making the person who couldn't get the software working feel singled out, it's important to put everyone into pairs, and to do this early on (before problems arise).

Starter Files

There are (at least) three ways to get data files to learners at the start of a lesson:

  1. Create a zip file, add it to your workshop's repository, and put a link to it in your workshop's index.html page so that they can click, download, and unzip. This uses something everyone already understands, but does assume they know how to navigate from their download directory to their working (lesson) directory, which is often not the case.

  2. Create a throwaway Git repository on GitHub and tell them to run one command to clone it at the start of class. This lets you identify people who are going to have Git problems early on; the problem is, there will always be a few who do, and hitting this early can derail a workshop completely.

  3. Paste the data into an Etherpad for learners to copy. As a bonus, this lets you identify people who (are going to) have trouble using a text editor early.

Window Size

If you are using multiple windows (e.g., a command window and an editor window) make sure they are both large enough to be visible by all attendees. Remember to pause when switching from one window to the other so that learners don't become confused. If possible, use different background colors for different text windows to make it easier for learners to tell them apart (but keep in mind red-green and blue-yellow color blindness).

Do and Say

As you type at the command line, read out what you're typing. Remember that most learners can only go half as fast as you, because they have to watch you type then type it all in again themselves.

Write the Questions Down

Don't just tell people what the question or exercise is: write it down in the Etherpad so that (a) everyone can refer back to it, and (b) everyone (including the instructor) knows what it actually is.

Pitfalls

Instructing at a workshop isn't trivial. The most important thing is to remember that no lesson plan survives contact with the audience. Whether it's the network going down or the sudden realization that many of your learners don't know how to use SSH, you will frequently need to improvise. And even when there aren't hiccups like those, try your best to adjust your pace and examples based on learners' questions, puzzled looks, and sighs of impatience.

Allow enough time for setup.

In almost all cases, learners want to use their own laptops during workshops so that they leave with a working environment set up. Even if you ask attendees to prepare beforehand, and give them detailed instructions, some will not have time, or will have run into problems that they're not yet able to fix. You should therefore schedule at least 20 minutes for checking the learners' machines at the beginning of the first day. Some workshops start early on the first day to allow time to troubleshoot setup problems.

Don't ignore your learners.

You're not there to reproduce one of our online videos in person: you're there to interact with people so that they get a better learning experience. You shouldn't ever go more than two or three minutes without asking a question (and listening to the answer), and if it has been 15 minutes since any of your learners asked one, odds are you've either lost them or are boring them.

Don't bore your learners.

Your audience will never care more about what you're teaching than you appear to, so if they get the feeling you're not interested in it, they won't be either. This does not mean you have to shout, crack three jokes a minute, or harangue them about how this stuff is really, really important, but you do owe it to your audience to show up mentally as well as physically.

Don't be all talk, no action.

The more time folks spend with their hands on the keyboards doing exercises, the more time they're actually paying attention. The students have their computers in front of them: if you talk for more than five minutes without asking them to use their computers, the greater the odds they'll open up Facebook.

Don't use magic.

Typing too fast, using shortcuts or commands learners haven't seen yet: basically, any time you say, "Don't worry about this just now," or they say, "Wait, how did you do that?" or, "Can you please slow down, I can't keep up," you're no longer actually helping them.

Don't take over the keyboard.

When you go around helping people out as they work on the material, never put your hands on a learner's computer. It's too easy to step in and do a few quick changes that they can't follow and certain groups of learners will never say that this makes them uncomfortable - or ask questions.

Never copy and paste.

It's easy to find code snippets on the web but impress upon learners that part of what they are learning is the muscle memory of doing the text input. To drive this home, you could show them an example of rm -rf / in a sandbox just to make it clear that there are risks to running code you don't understand.

Don't ignore feedback.

The feedback you get from learners on sticky notes or through surveys is pointless if you don't pay attention to it (or worse, if you explain it away). There's no point collecting feedback during and after each workshop if you don't change what and how you teach to reflect it.

Tell learners "why".

Most of our learners are graduate students in science and engineering, so they know what evidence looks like, and why working practices should be evidence-based. That doesn't mean you have to have the whole of empirical software engineering at your fingertips, but please do read Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering and sprinkle a few of the findings it quotes into your lessons.

Don't show them the forest but not the trees.

The things we teach reinforce each other, so tie them together at every opportunity. Point out that connecting things with pipes in the shell is like chaining functions together, or that they can use a shell script to re-run a bunch of different tests before committing to version control, and so on. If possible, take 15 minutes or so each day to show them how you use these tools in your day-to-day work.

Don't underestimate setup requirements.

Do you have enough power outlets? (Are you sure?) Do you have enough bandwidth to handle fifty people hitting your version control repository at the same time? (How do you know?) Can everyone actually log in? Are the washrooms unlocked? Does campus security know you're using the room over the weekend?

Don't let your learners ignore each other.

Software Carpentry workshops are a great networking opportunity for our learners (and for us, too). Get to know your learners by name, have them work in pairs, and get them to mix up the pairs at least a couple of times. Encourage them to chat to one another at coffee breaks and lunch, and to get a pizza or some curry together for dinner on the first day.

Relax.

Something always fails to install for someone (or they fail to install anything at all), or a bunch of learners are accidentally locked out of the building after lunch, or whoever was supposed to drop off power bars didn't. Roll with it, and remember to laugh (even if it's a bit hysterically).

Dialogue & Discussion

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