Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

2015 Post-Workshop Instructor Debriefing, Round 12

The mentoring subcommmittee hosted instructor debriefings on 23 June 2015 to discuss recently completed workshops. We are delighted that so many new instructors are joining us at these sessions as a way to prepare for upcoming workshops, and welcome anyone else interested to attend as well. Below we highlight a few discussion points from our sessions, including issues with lesson pacing and Python installation, as well as tips on using the etherpad and GitHub organizations. A more in-depth synopsis of a recent workshop can be found in this fantastic post on Raniere Silva's blog.

What was difficult

A few instructors again noted issues with students at different skill levels being dissatisfied with lesson pacing. Some students who struggle to keep up with the instructor are working with software installations that may not allow shortcuts (like the arrow up to recall previous commands). Saying the command as you type it, then taking a few moments to break down the syntax or output can help keep everyone on track. We also talked about strategies for keeping more advanced students engaged, such as providing the complete lesson material to them so they can read ahead, or asking them to answer questions for their neighbors (in person or through the etherpad). I personally advocate talking with students transparently about what the pre-class survey results indicated, and reminding them that while some folks may be a little bored, others may feel very challenged.

While instructors can almost always expect a few installation problems at a given workshop, some instructors noted particular problems with Python. In particular, students with a previous installation of Python may not have installed Anaconda, either because they did not know it was necessary, or did not want to "lose" their previous installation. Instructors can help by informing students of the necessity of particular installations, and how to switch between versions. University of Basque Country actually hosted a short installations session the day before the workshop to help students with such issues.

What worked well

Jennifer Shelton shared a great method to regulate the use of the etherpad. She enters an outline of her lesson on the etherpad ahead of time, and encourages students to "fill in the blanks" as they proceeded through the lesson. This highlights the important points for students who may get overwhelmed with details, and also provides tasks for students who may be uncomfortable taking unstructured notes that everyone can see.

University of Cambridge instructors set up a GitHub organization for their workshop materials. This worked well for their learners, many of whom already had some experience programming and were pleased to have lesson materials organized this way for future reference.

A few workshops added branching to the Git lesson, and report that it helped students understand the overall framework of the Git workflow better. At University of Cambridge, the skill level of students allowed quick coverage of the novice material, leaving time for more intermediate lessons. Take home message: instructors should pay attention to student learning and interests so they can adjust material accordingly.

DEBRIEFING

Dialogue & Discussion

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