Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Teaching Bimodal Workshops with a Large Range

Teaching a technical class always has its challenges. Teaching a technical workshop covering 3 or more topics over the span of 2 days is what makes us Software Carpentry instructors.

A common observation instructors have is the class demographics are bimodal/multimodal. There are students who attend the workshop with little to no experience, some have been using the tools we teach but want a more formal course, and finally, a student may know some of the tools, but use the workshop to learn Git or Python, for example. How do we as instructors deal with workshops where the range of student skills is extremely high?

This post is a case study of my most recent workshop and a call for help and discussion about we should do to make our workshops enjoyable for everyone. In many ways it is a complement to Peter and Cam's post Pulling In Those Left Behind.

A few weeks ago I taught with Zhou Fu at Virginia Tech. We used the usual SWC low-tech-but-highly-effective dual-color sticky-note system, and at the end of each day or session we asked students to provide feedback: something good, something bad.

My co-instructor, Zhuo, taught Bash and Git while I lead a Git capstone project and the Python sessions. It's great that our lessons are modular and self-contained: if a student gets lost in either of the Bash, Git, or Python lessons, it does not hinder their ability to learn the other topic (although being able to cd to a directory and knowing what a working directory does help).

This workshop was different for me in that I've never had to teach a group with this wide of a skill gap. On one end, we had novices completely new to everything we had to offer in the workshop. On the other, we had a sys admin looking to port Perl scripts into Python. From the workshop-pre questionaire, everyone reported some language to the question, "With which programming languages, if any, could you write a program from scratch which imports some data and calculates mean and standard deviation of that data?" The least frequent coding frequency was "once a month".

I went into the workshop almost afraid that I'll run out of things to talk about because many of the basic programming concepts in our material would be easy to pick up for individuals who have programming experience. My plan going into the workshop was to run though the inflammation material for Python, cover through loops and functions, and show them a little about using asserts to unit test functions and ask them for topics they wanted to cover for day 2. I had a few topics already planned out for Day 2: reading in files, string parsing, and an intro to the os and sys modules, and hoped to have a smorgasburg of topics that I got from the students the previous day when I asked them for feedback. In hindsight (and from feedback), this is when range of skills became an issue.

Up until the end of the workshop, I imagined the pace I was moving was realatively okay. It could be a little fast at times but I figured the skills reported in the pre-workshop questionaire, and the feedback at the end of the first day suggested that more advanced topics can be covered. It wasn't until the end of the day when I collected feedback, that I realized that I had lost a few people from the class. Attrition from the second day was relatively the same as I expected (not many people will be able to completely block off 2 full days from his/her schedule), any by the end of the day I only got 3 bits of feedback on sticky notes, two of which commented that the Python session was too fast and was a "waste of time", and how the student was disappointed because they were looking forward to the section.

During my reflection of the workshop the past few weeks, I've realized my failure as an instructor to promote an environment where more novice students could feel they can ask questions and slow down the class on questions they had. My call to the rest of the community is how do we as instructors deal with extreme ranges in the classroom. Many of the solutions may be similar to a recent post by Peter Steinbach and Cam Macdonnell. Over the past few weeks I've contemplated what we should do if this happens to us and we are caught off guard.

I've only been able to come up with the following suggestions:

  • If the other instructor can teach Python, suggest to break the class up for the second day.
  • If the other instructor cannot teach Python, have them go through the Python lesson so they can help with individual questions
  • Start the second day with some kind of capstone project
  • Explicitly show the lesson page and objective when going to the next lesson module

From Peter and Cam's blog post, they mentioned:

  • communicate the level of the course as precisely as possible
  • a pre-asseessment form
  • piece of source code that illustrates teh expected proficiency
  • coordinate the above with the organizing host
  • portion the material in slots of 30 mins and have reassurance questions and exercises
  • stream the terminal history
  • record the terminal
  • commit and push to Github iPython notebooks (automatically)
  • invite more advanced learners to step up if TAs are not available
  • informal proffiency poll
  • motivate learners to use their more advanced peers as a resource
  • pair programming
  • handing out materials up front
  • reiteration and rephrase taught concepts for those did not get the material the first time aroung

After reading Peter's and Cam's blog post, I will begin explicitely show the course website and lesson when moving between modules. This will not only re-prompt the students that the matrial is availiable online (a common question asked is where the material is and if there is a reference guide), but also pause the lession momentarily, and be able to see the overall purpose of the next part of the lesson. I do a lot of (almost exclusively) live-coding when I teach. I want to believe that I convey the goal of the lesson module as I go though the lessons, but it doesn't hurt to project it to the screen. When I teach Git, I always have the students go though a capstone example. What I should have done for the second day of Python was begin with a group project that covered all the topics of the previous day. I imagined that since I was teaching a more advanced group, I did not have to do this, I was wrong. I was more concerned if I could cover the additional topics from the feedback the previous day. In doing so, I went way to fast, and probably lost a chunk of the class, and may have even completely dissuaded some from programming again.

We give out pre-workshop surveys to assess the students before the workshop so we as instructors can prepare the type of instruction that fits the skill level. However, this system relies heavily on individuals responding to the survey. Since many workshops use Eventbrite as a means to register students for the workshop, perhaps students can pick a "beginner", "intermediate", or "advanced" ticket. We can give operational definitions for each ticket type, and link to the pre-survey questionaire. This way, we can at least get a count of self-profficiecny from every student attending.

The next few weeks the assessment committee is planning to revamp the pre/post questionaires for the students and instructors. Any additional comments and suggestions would be most appreciated.

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