This material is in early beta: over 300 suggestions and corrections are waiting to be folded in, some quite significant. Changes should be in place by July 2018, at which times printed copies and downloadable electronic copies will be made available.

In the Classroom

After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  • Describe how to handle a Code of Conduct violation.
  • Explain the benefits and drawbacks of co-teaching.
  • Explain why teachers should not introduce new pedagogical practices in a short workshop.
  • Name, describe, and enact four teaching practices that are appropriate to use in programming workshops for adults, and give a pedagogical justification for each.

The previous chapter described how to practice in-class teaching and described one method—live coding—that allows teachers to adapt to their learners’ pace and interests. This chapter describes other practices that have proven helpful in programming classes.

Before describing these practices, it’s worth pausing for a moment to set expectations. The best teaching method we know is individual tutoring: [Bloo1984] found that students taught one-to-one using mastery learning techniques performed two standard deviations better than those who learned through conventional lecture, i.e., that individually-tutored students did better than 98% of students who were lectured to. However, hiring one teacher for every student is impossibly expensive (and despite the hypte, artificial intelligence isn’t going to take the place of human instructors any time soon). Every method is essentially an attempt to get as much of the value of individual attention as possible, but at scale.

Enforce the Code of Conduct

Chapter 1 said that every workshop should have and enforce a Code of Conduct like the one in Appendix B. If you are a teacher, and believe that someone has violated it, you may warn them, ask them to apologize, and/or expel them, depending on the severity of the violation and whether or not you believe it was intentional. Whatever you do:

Do it in front of witnesses.

Most people will tone down their language and hostility in front of an audience, and having someone else present ensures that later discussion doesn’t degenerate into conflicting claims about who said what.

If you expel someone, say so to the rest of the class and explain why.

This helps prevent exaggerated rumors from taking hold, and also signals very clearly to everyone that you’re serious about making your class safe and respectful for them.

Contact the organizer of your class

as soon as you can and describe what happened. Remember, a Code of Conduct is meaningless without a procedure for enforcing it.

Peer Instruction

No matter how good a teacher is, she can only say one thing at a time. How then can she clear up many different misconceptions in a reasonable time? The best solution developed so far is a technique called peer instruction. Originally created by Eric Mazur at Harvard [Mazu1996], it has been studied extensively in a wide variety of contexts, including programming [Crou2001,Port2013].

Peer instruction interleaves formative assessment with student discussion as follows:

  1. Give a brief introduction to the topic.
  2. Give students a multiple choice question that probes for misconceptions (rather than simple factual knowledge).
  3. Have all the students vote on their answers to the MCQ.
    • If the students all have the right answer, move on.
    • If they all have the same wrong answer, address that specific misconception.
    • If they have a mix of right and wrong answers, give them several minutes to discuss those answers with one another in small groups (typically 2–4 students) and then reconvene and vote again.

As this video from Avanti’s learning center in Kanpur shows, group discussion significantly improves students’ understanding because it forces them to clarify their thinking, which can be enough to call out gaps in reasoning. Re-polling the class then lets the teacher know if they can move on, or if further explanation is necessary. A final round of additional explanation and discussion after the correct answer is presented gives students one more chance to solidify their understanding.

But could this be a false positive? Are results improving because of increased understanding during discussion, or simply from a follow-the-leader effect (“vote like Jane, she’s always right”)? [Smit2009] tested this by following the first question with a second one that students answer individually. Sure enough, peer discussion actually does enhance understanding, even when none of the students in a discussion group originally knew the correct answer.

Peer instruction is essentially a way to provide one-to-one mentorship in a scalable way. Despite this, we usually do not use it in either programming workshops or teacher training workshops because it is new to most learners (Section 9.11). If you are working with the same group for an extended period, however, [Port2016] showed that students value peer instruction.

Taking a Stand

It is important to have learners vote publicly so that they can’t change their minds afterward and rationalize it by making excuses to themselves like “I just misread the question”. Much of the value of peer instruction comes from the hypercorrection of having their answer be wrong and having to think through the reasons why (Section 5.1).

Teach Together

Co-teaching describes any situation in which two teachers work together in the same classroom. [Frie2016] describes several ways to do this:

Team teaching:

Both teachers deliver a single stream of content in tandem, taking turns the way that musicians taking solos would.

Teach and assist:

Teacher A teaches while Teacher B moves around the classroom to help struggling students.

Alternative teaching:

Teacher A provides a small set of students with more intensive or specialized instruction while Teacher B delivers a general lesson to the main group.

Teach and observe:

Teacher A teaches while Teacher B observes the students, collecting data on their understanding to help plan future lessons.

Parallel teaching:

The class is divided into two equal groups and the teachers present the same material simultaneously to each.

Station teaching:

The students are divided into several small groups that rotate from one station or activity to the next while both teachers supervise where needed.

All of these models are better than teaching alone because they create opportunities for lateral knowledge transfer; we use team teaching, teach and assist, and alternative teaching most often in programming workshops. Team teaching is particularly beneficial in day-long workshops: not only does it give each teacher’s voice a chance to rest, it reduces the risk that they will be so tired by the end of the day that they will start snapping at their students or fumbling at their keyboard.

Helping

Many people who aren’t comfortable teaching are still willing and able to provide in-class technical support. They can help learners with setup and installation, answer technical questions during exercises, monitor the room to spot people who may need help, or keep an eye on the shared notes (Section 9.6) and either answer questions there or remind the instructor to do so during breaks.

Helpers are sometimes people training to become teachers (i.e., they’re Teacher B in the teach and assist model), but they can also be members of the host institution’s technical support staff, alumni, or advanced learners who already know the material well. Using the latter as helpers is doubly effective: not only are they more likely to understand the problems their peers are having, it also stops them from getting bored.

If you and a partner are co-teaching, try to follow these rules:

  • Take 2–3 minutes before the start of each class to confirm who’s teaching what with your partner. (If you have time to do some advance preparation, try drawing a concept map together.)
  • Use that time to work out a couple of hand signals as well. “You’re going too fast”, “speak up”, “that learner needs help”, and, “It’s time for a bathroom break” are all useful.
  • Each person should teach for at least 10–15 minutes at a stretch, since students may be distracted by more frequent interleaving.
  • The person who isn’t teaching shouldn’t interrupt, offer corrections, elaborations, or amusing personal anecdotes, or do anything else to distract from what the person teaching at the time is doing or saying. The one exception is that it’s sometimes helpful to ask leading questions, particularly if the learners seem unsure of themselves.
  • Each person should take a couple of minutes before they start teaching to see what their partner is going to teach after they’re done, and then not present any of that material.
  • The person who isn’t teaching should stay engaged with the class, not catch up on their email. Monitor the shared notes (Section 9.6), keep an eye on the students to see who’s struggling, jot down some feedback to give your teaching partner at the next break—anything that contributes to the lesson is better than anything that doesn’t.

Most importantly, take a few minutes when the class is over to either congratulate or commiserate with each other. In teaching as in life, shared misery is lessened and shared joy increased; in that moment, no one will understand how pleased you are at helping someone understand how loops work, or how disappointed you are that you just couldn’t get software to install on that one learner’s laptop, than the person you just taught with.

Assess Prior Knowledge

The more you know about your learners before you start teaching, the more you will be able to help them. If you’re working inside a formal school system, you can probably infer their incoming knowledge by looking at what’s (actually) covered in the prerequisites to your course. If you’re in a free-range setting, though, your learners may be much more diverse, so you may want to give them a short survey or questionnaire in advance of your class to find out what they do and don’t already know.

But doing this is risky. School trains people to treat all assessment as summative, i.e., to believe that anything that looks like an exam is something they have to pass, rather than a chance to shape instruction. If they answer “I don’t know” to even a handful of questions on your pre-assessment, they might conclude that your class is too advanced for them. In short, you might scare off many of the people you most want to help.

And self-assessment is unreliable because of the Dunning-Kruger effect [Krug1999]: the less people know about a subject, the less accurate their estimate of their knowledge is. Rather than asking people to rate their knowledge from 1 to 5, you can try to ask them how easily they could complete some specific tasks, but that still runs the risk of scaring them away. Appendix K presents a short pre-assessment questionnaire that most potential learners are unlikely to find intimidating; if you use it or anything like it, please be sure to follow up with people who don’t respond to find out why not.

Plan for Mixed Abilities

If your learners have widely varying levels of prior knowledge, then you can easily wind up in a situation where a third of your class is lost and a third is bored. That’s unsatisfying for everyone, but there are some strategies you can use to manage the situation:

  • Before running a workshop, communicate its level clearly to everyone who’s thinking of signing up by listing the topics that will be covered and showing a few examples of exercises that they will be asked to complete.
  • Provide extra self-paced exercises so that more advanced learners don’t finish early and get bored.
  • Ask more advanced learners to help people next to them. They’ll learn from answering their peers’ questions (since it will force them to think about things in new ways).
  • Keep an eye out for learners who are falling behind and intervene early so that they don’t become frustrated and give up.

The most important thing is to accept that no class can possibly meet everyone’s individual needs. If you slow down to accommodate two people who are struggling, the other 38 are not being well served. Equally, if you spend a few minutes talking about an advanced topic to a learner who is bored, the rest of the class will feel left out.

False Beginners

A false beginner is someone who has studied a language before but is learning it again. False beginners may be indistinguishable from absolute beginners on pre-assessment tests, but are able to move much more quickly through the material once they start—in mathematical terms, their intercept is the same, but their slope is very different. False beginners are common in free-range programming classes: for example, a child may have taken a Scratch class a couple of years ago and built a mental model of loops and conditionals, but do poorly on a pre-test because the material isn’t fresh in their mind. All of the strategies described above can be used in classes with false beginners.

Pair Programming

Pair programming is a software development practice in which two programmers share one computer. One person (the driver) does the typing, while the other (the navigator) offers comments and suggestions. The two switch roles several times per hour.

Pair programming is an effective practice in professional work [Hann2009], and is also a good way to teach: benefits include increased success rate in introductory courses, better software, and higher student confidence in their solutions; there is also evidence that students from underrepresented groups benefit even more than others [McDo2006,Hank2011,Port2013,Cele2018]. Partners can not only help each other out during the practical, but can also clarify each other’s misconceptions when the solution is presented, and discuss common research interests during breaks. I have found it particularly helpful with mixed-ability classes, since pairs are likely to be more homogeneous than individuals.

When you use pairing, put everyone in pairs, not just learners who are struggling, so that no one feels singled out. It’s also useful to have people sit in new places (and hence pair with different partners) on a regular basis, and to have people switch roles within each pair three or four times per hour, so that the stronger personality in each pair doesn’t dominate the session.

To facilitate pairing, use a flat (dinner-style) seating rather than banked (theater-style) seating; this also makes it easier for helpers to reach learners who need assistance. And take a few minutes to demonstrate what it actually looks like so that they understand the person who doesn’t have their hands on the keyboard isn’t supposed to just sit and watch. Finally, tell them about [Lewi2015], who studied pair programming in a Grade 6 classroom, and found that pairs that focused on trying to complete the task as quickly as possible were less fair in their sharing.

Switching Partners

Teachers have mixed opinions on whether people should be required to change partners at regular intervals. On the one hand, it gives everyone a chance to gain new insights and make new friends. On the other, moving computers and power adapters to new desks several times a day is disruptive, and pairing can be uncomfortable for introverts. That said, [Hann2010] found weak correlation between the “Big Five” personality traits and performance in pair programming, although an earlier study [Wall2009] found that pairs whose members had differing levels of personality traits communicated more often.

Take Notes Together

Many studies have shown that taking notes while learning improves retention [Aike1975,Boha2011], because taking notes forces you to organize and reflect on material as it’s coming in, which in turn increases the likelihood that you will transfer it to long-term memory in a usable way (Chapter 3).

Our experience, and some recent research findings, lead us to believe that taking notes collaboratively helps learning even more [Ornd2015,Yang2015], even though taking notes on a computer is generally less effective than taking notes using pen and paper [Muel2014]. Some of the arguments in favor of shared note-taking are:

  • It allows people to compare what they think they’re hearing with what other people are hearing, which helps them fill in gaps and correct misconceptions right away.
  • It gives the more advanced learners in the class something useful to do. Rather than getting bored and checking Twitter during class, they can take the lead in recording what’s being said, which keeps them engaged, and allows less advanced learners to focus more of their attention on new material. Keeping the more advanced learners busy also helps the whole class stay engaged because boredom is infectious: if a handful of people start updating their Facebook profiles, the people around them will start checking out too.
  • The notes the learners take are usually more helpful to them than those the teacher would prepare in advance, since the learners are more likely to write down what they actually found new, rather than what the teacher predicted would be new.
  • Glancing at the notes as they’re being taken helps the teacher discover that the class didn’t hear something important, or misunderstood it.

Shared note-taking is usually mentioned positively in after-class feedback from workshops I have taught. However, it’s also common for participants to report that they find it distracting, as it’s one more thing they have to keep an eye on. I think the positives outweigh the negatives, but if you are only working with a particular group once, heed the advice in Section 9.11 and let them do whatever they’re used to.

We usually use Etherpad or Google Docs for collaborative note-taking. The former makes it easy to see who’s written what, while the latter scales better and allows people to add images to the notes. Whichever is chosen, classes also use it to share snippets of code and small datasets, and as a way for learners to show teachers their work (by copying and pasting it in).

If you are going to have a group take notes together, make a list of everyone’s name and paste it into the document each time you want every person to respond individually (e.g., to answer a question or contribute an exercise solution). This prevents the situation in which everyone is trying to edit the same couple of lines at the same time.

Sticky Notes

Sticky notes are one of my favorite teaching tools, and judging from [Ward2015], I’m not alone in loving their versatility, portability, stickability, foldability, and subtle yet alluring aroma.

As Status Flags

Give each learner two sticky notes of different colors, e.g., orange and green. These can be held up for voting, but their real use is as status flags. If someone has completed an exercise and wants it checked, they put the green sticky note on their laptop; if they run into a problem and need help, they put up the orange one. This is better than having people raise their hands because it’s more discreet (which means they’re more likely to actually do it), they can keep working while their flag is raised, and the teacher can quickly see from the front of the room what state the class is in.

To Distribute Attention

Sticky notes can also be used to ensure the teacher’s attention is fairly distributed. Have each learner write their name on a sticky note and put it on their laptop. Each time the teacher calls on them or answers one of their questions, their sticky note comes down. Once all the sticky notes are down, everyone puts theirs up again.

This technique makes it easy for the teacher to see who they haven’t spoken with recently, which in turn helps them avoid the unconscious trap of only interacting with the most extroverted of their learners. It also shows learners that attention is being distributed fairly, so that when they are called on, they won’t feel like they’re being picked on.

As Minute Cards

We frequently use sticky notes as : before each break, learners take a minute to write one positive thing on the green sticky note (e.g., one thing they’ve learned that they think will be useful), and one thing they found too fast, too slow, confusing, or irrelevant on the red one. They can use the red sticky note for questions that haven’t yet been answered. While they are enjoying their coffee or lunch, the teachers review and cluster these to find patterns. It only takes a few minutes to see what learners are enjoying, what they still find confusing, what problems they’re having, and what questions are still unanswered.

Never a Blank Page

Programming workshops (and other kinds of classes) can be built around a set of independent exercises, develop a single extended example in stages, or use a mixed strategy. The main advantages of independent exercises are that people who fall behind can easily re-synchronize, and that lesson developers can add, remove, and rearrange material at will. A single extended example, on the other hand, will show learners how the bits and pieces they’re learning fit together: in educational parlance, it provides more opportunity for them to integrate their knowledge.

Whichever approach you take, learners should never start with a blank page (or screen), since they often find this intimidating or bewildering. Modifying existing code instead of writing new code from scratch doesn’t just give them structure: it is also more realistic. Keep in mind, however, that starter code may increase cognitive load, since learners can be distracted by trying to understand it all before they start their own work. Java’s public static void main() or a handful of import statements at the top of a Python program may make sense to you, but is a form of mental debt to them.

Setting Up Your Learners

Adult learners tell us that it is important to them to leave programming classes with their own computers set up to do real work. We therefore strongly recommend that teachers be prepared to teach on all three major platforms (Linux, Mac OS, and Windows), even though it would be simpler to require learners to use just one.

To do this, put detailed setup instructions for all three platforms on your class website, and email learners a couple of days before the workshop starts to remind them to do the setup. Even with this, a few people will always show up without the right software, either because their other commitments didn’t allow them to go through the setup or because they ran into problems. To detect this, have everyone run some simple command as soon as they arrive and show the teachers the result, and then have helpers and other learners assist people who have run into trouble.

Common Denominators

If you have participants using several different operating systems, avoid using features which are OS-specific, and point out any that you do use. For example, some shell commands take different options on Mac OS than on Linux, while the “minimize window” controls and behavior on Windows are different from those on other platforms.

We have experimented with virtual machines on learners’ computers to reduce installation problems, but those introduce problems of their own: older or smaller machines simply aren’t fast enough, and learners often struggle to switch back and forth between two different sets of keyboard shortcuts for things like copying and pasting.

All of this is so complicated that many teachers now use browser-based tools instead. This solves the installation issues, but makes the class dependent on institutional WiFi (which can be of highly variable quality). It also doesn’t satisfy adult learners’ desire to leave with their own machines ready for real-world use, but as cloud-native development tools like Glitch enter widespread use, that is less and less important.

Other Teaching Practices

None of the smaller practices described below are essential, but all will improve lesson delivery. As with chess and marriage, success in teaching is often a matter of slow, steady progress.

Start With Introductions

To begin your class, the teachers should give a brief introduction that will convey their capacity to teach the material, accessibility and approachability, desire for student success, and enthusiasm. Tailor your introduction to the students’ skill level so that you convey competence (without seeming too advanced) and demonstrate that you can relate to the students. Throughout the workshop, continually demonstrate that you are interested in student progress and that you are enthusiastic about the topics.

Students should also introduce themselves (preferably verbally). At the very least, everyone should add their name to the Etherpad, but its also good for everyone at a given site to know who all is in the group. (This can be done while setting up before the start of the class.)

Avoid Homework in All-Day Formats

Learners who have spent an entire day programming will be tired. If you give them homework to do after hours, they’ll start the next day tired as well, so don’t do this.

Set Up Your Own Environment

Setting up your environment is just as important as setting up your learners’, but more involved. As well as having all the software that they need, and network access to the tool they’re using to take notes, you should also have a glass of water, or a cup of tea or coffee. This helps keep your throat lubricated, but its real purpose is to give you an excuse to pause for a couple of seconds and think when someone asks a hard question or you lose track of what you were going to say next. You will probably also want some whiteboard pens and a few of the other things described in the travel kit checklist in Appendix H.

Don’t Touch the Learner’s Keyboard

It’s often tempting to fix things for learners, but when you do, it can easily seem like magic (even if you narrate every step). Instead, talk your learners through whatever they need to do. It will take longer, but it’s more likely to stick.

Repeat the Question

Whenever someone asks a question in class, repeat it back to them before answering it to check that you’ve understood it, and to give people who might not have heard it a chance to do so. This is particularly important when presentations are being recorded or broadcast, since your microphone will usually not pick up what other people are saying. Repeating questions back also gives you a chance to redirect the question to something you’re more comfortable answering if need be

One Up, One Down

We frequently ask for summary feedback at the end of each day. The teachers ask the learners to alternately give one positive and one negative point about the day, without repeating anything that has already been said. This requirement forces people to say things they otherwise might not: once all the “safe” feedback has been given, participants will start saying what they really think.

Minute cards are anonymous; the alternating up-and-down feedback is not. Each mode has its strengths and weaknesses, and by providing both, we hope to get the best of both worlds.

Have Learners Make Predictions

Research has shown that people learn more from demonstrations if they are asked to predict what’s going to happen [Mill2013]. Doing this fits naturally into live coding: after adding or changing a few lines of a program, ask someone what is going to happen when it’s run.

Setting Up Tables

You may not have any control over the layout of the desks or tables in the room in which your programming workshop takes place, but if you do, we find it’s best to have flat (dinner-style) seating rather than banked (theater-style) seating, so that you can reach learners who need help more easily, and so that learners can pair with one another (Section 9.5). In-floor power outlets so that you don’t have to run power cords across the floor make life easier as well as safer, but are still the exception.

Whatever layout you have, try to make sure the seats have good back support, since people are going to be in them for an extended period, and check that every seat has an unobstructed view of the screen.

Cough Drops

If you talk all day to a room full of people, your throat gets raw because you are irritating the epithelial cells in your larynx and pharynx. This doesn’t just make you hoarse—it also makes you more vulnerable to infection (which is part of the reason people often come down with colds after teaching).

The best way to protect yourself against this is to keep your throat lined, and the best way to do that is to use cough drops early and often. Good ones will also mask the onset of coffee breath, for which your learners will probably be grateful.

Think-Pair-Share

Think-pair-share is a lightweight technique that helps refine their ideas and compare them with others’. Each person starts by thinking individually about a question or problem and jotting down a few notes. Participants are then paired to explain their ideas to each another, and possibly to merge them or select the more interesting ones. Finally, a few pairs present their ideas to the whole group.

Think-pair-share works because, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere, people often can’t know what they’re thinking until they’ve heard themselves say it. Pairing gives people new insight into their own thinking, and forces them to think through and resolve any gaps or contradictions before exposing their ideas to a larger group.

Humor

Humor should be used sparingly when teaching: most jokes are less funny when written down, and become even less funny with each re-reading. Being spontaneously funny while teaching usually works better, but can easily go wrong: what’s a joke to your circle of friends may turn out to be a serious political issue to your audience. If you do make jokes when teaching, don’t make them at the expense of any group, or of anyone except possibly yourself.

Limit Innovation

Each of the techniques presented in this chapter will make your classes better, but you shouldn’t try to adopt them all at once. In fact, it may be best for your students if you don’t use any of them, particularly in situations where you and the students are only together for brief periods. The reason is that every new practice increases the student’s cognitive load: as well as absorbing what you’re trying to teach them about programming, they’re also having to learn a new way to learn. If you are working with them repeatedly, you can introduce one new technique every few lessons; if you only have them for a one-day workshop, it’s probably best to be conservative in your approach.

Feedback

You can’t improve your lessons or your teaching if you don’t know how well you’re doing, but finding out turns out to be surprisingly difficult:

Ask learners if the class was useful.

Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between how highly learners rate a course and how much they actually learn [Uttl2017], and most people working in education are now aware of that.

Give them an exam at the end.

How much learners know at the end of the day is a poor predictor of how much they will remember two or three months later. In addition, any kind of final exam dramatically changes the feel of the class, because school has conditioned learners to believe that exams are always high-stakes affairs.

Give them an exam two or three months later.

That’s difficult to do in school, and practically impossible with free-range learners. In addition, the people who didn’t get anything out of the workshop are probably less likely to take part in follow-up, so feedback gathered this way will be subject to self-selection bias.

See if they keep using what they learned.

This is probably the most meaningful way to gauge the value of what you have taught; the problem again is how to do it. (Installing spyware on their computers is generally frowned upon.)

See if they recommend the class to friends.

This method often strikes the best balance between informative and doable: if people are recommending your workshop to other people, that’s a pretty good sign.

Before embarking on any major assessment, find out what your learners, colleagues, and sponsors will accept as evidence. It’s not enough to be right—you also have to be believed.

Challenges

Create a Questionnaire (individual/20 minutes)

Using the questionnaire shown earlier as a template, create a short questionnaire you could give learners before teaching a class of your own. What do you most want to know about their background?

One of Your Own (whole class/15 minutes)

Think of one teaching practice that hasn’t been described so far. Present your idea to a partner, listen to theirs, and select one to present to the group as a whole. (This exercise is an example of think-pair-share.)

May I Drive? (pairs/10 minutes)

Swap computers with a partner (preferably one who uses a different operating system than you) and work through a simple programming exercise. How frustrating is it? How much insight does it give you into what novices have to go through all the time?

Pairing (pairs/15 minutes)

Watch this video of pair programming, then practice doing it with a partner. Remember to switch roles between driver and navigator every few minutes. How long does it take you to fall into a working rhythm?