Resources and principles for teaching

I just got back from rstudio::conf 2019 in Austin, Texas. It was a great set of days with a lot of thoughts and ideas for me to take away. As part of my time there I was fortunate enough to attend the “tidyverse: train the trainer certification” workshop (so I’m now official RStudio certified to teach the tidyverse, which is cool!). As part of the workshop Greg Wilson (founder of Software Carpentry and now a professional educator for RStudio) spoke a lot about some general principles for teaching, and especially for teaching programming.

Luckily for me, enthusiasm is still coursing through my veins and the ink of my notes is still drying. So I thought I’d capture some of the ideas I jotted down over the course of the workshop. It’s not a particularly organised list for now, nor is it in any particular order. But hopefully some of these ideas will serve as good jumping off points for the future.

Some principles

You are not your learners

  • No dead air - try to constantly keep the students engaged, even just with chit-chat during down time.
  • Have a goal for a live class, distinct from what students could accomplish themselves with videos or self study.
  • Focus on active learning - keep the focus on the students, and keep them active.
  • Nothing is as good as 1-1 learning.
  • Set up time for learners to connect and work with one another.
  • The format of your teaching materials should enable collaboration in the same way (or as close to) as we enable collaboration with code/software.
  • Consider the audience, and match the materials and objectives of the lesson to them.
  • Don’t test people before the are in the class, it may intimidate the less skilled/experiences, and they are who most need help. (But level-setting questions/quizzes once students are “captive” is probably ok).
  • The brain cannot form hard/long term memories after 45-90 minutes (and it’s closer to 45), so make students get up and move around/be active to reset the body and the mind.

I don’t know what I don’t know

  • Consider the three stages of learning:
    • Novice: no mental model to rely on
    • Competent: have useful mental models, and can do most things successfully
    • Expert: have elaborate mental models, and can handle anything
  • Mental models for how something works are key
  • Have an idea of what mental model you want your students to develop.
  • The main goal of training is to establish good mental models in your students.
  • Mental models provide meaning to context.

Apathy can be infectious

  • Reinforce (even trivial, e.g. tab-completion) commonalities across commands/methods/tools; this helps build confidence in new tools.
  • Consider the overhead (in time) of moving around a room/setting, and of group work.
  • Call from people around the room at random, to try and keep the whole room alert.
  • Get the audience active as quickly as you possibly can.
  • Consider common misconceptions, and deal with them.

Authenticity is crucial - be yourself, only more so.

  • Ideally, your audience should come from a common team/organisation, so they can help each other to put their learning in to practice.
  • Never go more than a few minutes without checking in with students (e.g. “does this make sense?”)
  • Use sticky notes, coloured to code for:
    • “I’m doing fine, you can move on”
    • “I’m struggling, can you slow down/repeat”
    • “I need a break”
  • Use sticky notes for participation - everyone gets one, when they interact, remove it. Only interact with people who still have one left. Once they’re all gone, everyone’s goes back up.

Start with a bang, especially after a break.

  • Cognitive load theory is important to consider - we need to reduce the extraneous (distracting) and intrinsic (i.e. due to inherent difficulty) load, and find ways to increase/enable germane load in students (the effort/energy that is going in to encoding the material as knowledge/skill)
  • Break down tasks in to chunks to reduce the cognitive load.
  • Reduce the intrinsic load by communicating the relationships between things.

Very few things are as terrifying for a novice as a blank screen/page.

  • Use faded examples during exercises.
  • Remember the limitations of time, and consider just how much you can cover.

Getting feedback

  • Getting feedback is crucial, especially mid-session. Make sure you’re on track.
  • Ask learners what you can focus on (in terms of improvement), both negative and positive, and actively work on what they say.
  • If someone doesn’t understand something, give them a different explanation.
  • Don’t waste student time - use formative assessments to check knowledge, and skip material that they understand/don’t need to have covered.

Ideas on lesson design

  1. Write down 3-4 sentences that describe learner “personas”, so you can tailor material appropriately.
  2. Draw out concept maps to help you plan what to cover, the big ideas, and how they’re linked.
  3. Write the final test/evaluation, the thing that assesses if the learning “worked”.
  4. Create formative assessments (i.e. for in the session).
  5. Write the materials
  6. Save the design somewhere, so others can use it.

The best way to motivate students is to get them doing what they want to do, immediately.

Some resources

Some books/papers/websites that were mentioned in the course (some relate directly to R, but most are quite general):