Over the last couple of years, I’ve given a number of (somewhat) technical workshops for grad students and faculty here at Emory. I love doing it. It’s really gratifying to impart skills, and preparing for workshops gives me a chance to think through and develop my own knowledge in a systematic way.
It’s not that easy, though. Teaching a workshop requires no less skill than teaching any other kind of class, and just as much preparation. It’s also slightly different from, say, leading a discussion section; it requires a different method of instruction and different kinds of preparation.
This semester, one of DiSC’s grad fellows, Franky Abbott, has been helping us perform a comprehensive assessment of our activities, including workshops. With Franky’s help, we’ve been collecting and analyzing survey results, and I now feel I have a much better sense of what works and doesn’t work for students.
Be clear about content and prerequisites
If the workshop’s for absolute beginners, say so. If it requires some knowledge, say that, too. If it’s more appropriate for humanists or social scientists, let the students know in advance.
Hands-on is better
If there’s a way you can get students working along with you, the experience is much more meaningful for them.
Have a helper
You need at least one person to roam the room while you’re demonstrating. This person should watch for students who are having trouble, tell you when you’re going too fast, and ask questions when you say something confusing.
Have a handout
Students love handouts. It alleviates a lot of their anxiety about keeping up with notetaking or trying to remember all the information.
Offer an agenda
This doesn’t have to be formal — you can just write it on the board — but students really like to know what comes when, even more than they do in conventional academic settings. I think this is because they get nervous about whether they’ve missed something or whether it’s coming later in the workshop.
Have students work in pairs
During one workshop, we ran out of laptops, so we had to pair students up. I was amazed at how well that worked. They could help each other without feeling they had to stop the workshop to get my attention.
Many students won’t tell you when they need help
I was surprised to discover that many people are extremely reluctant to hold up a workshop, even when they’re totally lost. That’s why you need to stop frequently, walk around the room, and make sure everyone’s keeping up. I like to learn students’ names and then ask them individually, “Still with me?”
You basically can’t go slowly enough. Speak slowly. Repeat yourself. Narrate every action you perform, even if you’re just double-clicking on an icon. People often get lost because of little things like that.
Zoom in on your code
This is a trick I learned from Jeremy Boggs. On a Mac, just pinch outward with two fingers to zoom in. It helps enormously. And be sure to stay zoomed-in on code for longer than you think is necessary.
Many students won’t prepare
No matter how much you plea, many students won’t install software in advance. If you can, have backup laptops available with the software already installed.
Ask students to be patient with each other
I like to ask students to remember that we all have trouble with different things. Often what’s obvious to one person is baffling to another, and vice versa. I tell students that there will very likely be moments when they have to wait for someone else to catch up, and that’s OK.
Give yourself enough time
Workshops become very stressful when you’re trying to both keep everyone on top of the material and make sure you end on time. Give yourself more time than you need.