I need a training progression for academia and programming

As some of you might know, I am currently a fellow, aka at my personal writing retreat at Wolfenbüttel. And I decided to combine this with some sort of a training camp for my bouldering progress because you do need to have some breaks from writing during the day anyway and I can’t always watch Bones or create CV templates. You might have been following some of my bouldering on epigrammetry, the blog, or epigrammetry, the Twitter.

 

Training progressions in sports

Also very few of you might know as well, I used to train a lot for long-distance running (10k) during my teens. So I know what training progressions are. I used to have detailled training plans, eating regimes, supplements to take and all that jazz. I stopped at some point because my immune system kept bullshitting me and as an ambitious person, I couldn’t take the idea of having to start from scratch after a half-year of being very sick and weak. I’d had it with having to arrange my whole life around my training. Yet the principles I’d learned over the course of the years, plus the high level of discipline required in those persuits, have helped me a lot during my early university studies.

 

Systematic progress needs training goals

Looking back now, I used to approach studying and my ‘university progress’ just like I would have had planned my training progression. And it worked. I was really productive, things were going well. For me, at the time, this consisted mostly of getting all the translation homework done, reading a lot of Latin and Greek (at least an hour every early morning before starting my day) and getting through all the classics. Because I was fucking motivated.

This might have been due to there being actual goals to be achieved daily which I could measure my progress on. Like the speed, and thus number of pages, I would get through during my early morning reading practice. Back then, by the way, I also used to combine physical exercise with mental workouts like I have taken up again for this summer’s ‘training camp’. It works quite well. I should probably continue with it back home.

 

How do you create a training progression for programming?

My problem is now: Over the years, I seem to have gotten out of the habit of approaching progress systematically. Or, well not exactly, but – let’s say – I follow academic learning goals with a lot less zeal ever since I got my degree. Which probably is the case for mostly everyone else. Because it’s quite a bit harder to find time and motivation for non-goal oriented learning after a hard day at work than when you had all the time in the world to study. I really envy my youger self for having all this time for learning. I love learning. But life-long learning isn’t exactly the same and doesn’t end after your degree, espeically not if you’re an early career scholar. Now I have a vague idea of some skills I want to improve in. But I am very good with training progressions and thus I know that the common advice ‘just program a lot’ or ‘do a private programming project’ just really is crap advice. Of course, it’s true. You just need a lot of practice. But there still are ways of approaching this effectively or ineffectively.

There are some good books out there which actually provide some learning progression. There is John Sonmez’s Software Dev Career Guide which is the single only thing close to a book providing a progression to systematically get better at programming. And, who would have thought, he is an athlete too. I always thought I was the only one who wanted a systematic training plan. But apparently, he felt that need, too. And for good reason. I have already complained many times about why people don’t approach learning like training and still expect to get reliable, constant results. With learning, this systematic training approach is called ‘curriculum’. In the post linked above, I mentioned that I thought online programming platforms were the answer.

 

Which tools or medium can actually provide curriculum?

At the moment, I am at the point where I have let those online trainings slip again, a long while ago already. As it has happened to me multiple times over the years. If I can deduce from experience, I am likely or restart eventually and go crazy at online programming workouts for a while, then drop it completely again. But what you really need is consistency and daily workout. Plus, I can’t just do the apps. I always have a lot of books to read as well, which is quite important to me so they can’t be neglected either. But then I often end up only spending half of the time I would want to spend, read the book or, if you want to call it that, finish my ‘reading time’ and get tired after that. Also, I should already be at work, so I skip the programing workout.

While something surely is better than nothing, I should probably focus more on the practial work if I want to make faster progress. But in programming, that’s different from bouldering. In bouldering, it’s easy to see which routes I am capable of doing or whether I nailed a particular route. Or count how many pushups and pullups I can do (not enough, I have to admit). So I can measure progress easily. But with programming, this just isn’t the case. And in addition to that, for bouldering, there are tons of youtube gurus with mulitple videos each on how to get over plateaus and make progress, what you can work on, etc.

 

Willpower alone isn’t enough

For programming, most of the advice isn’t too good in my opinion because it’s often too generic (“get a project”). Bouldering tips are concrete like “Perfect your flagging technique”. It’s easy to look up how you do that. It’s easy to notice when you’ve got it, physical feedback makes sure of that. So I decided I’ll have to look at my programming workouts the way I approach my pushups for now (they need to get done no matter what and no whining around). But it’s not really a solution to the problem to rely on willpower alone. Willpower alone will ultimately fail once you get stressed or anything comes up. And when that happens, I have a really hard time getting back into the routine. Which I hate. And then I hate myself for not managing to and then the vicious circle goes on. It’s really annoying.

 

We need curriculum for systematic and swift progress

Of course, even with a good curriculum or a training plan, there will still be plateaus. You will still get stuck. But a good curriculum can help you over that last edge of the boulder. It can help you re-gather yourself after a failure or after you’ve let it all slack for a few weeks.

So this subject also makes me think with regard to this blog, it’s all the more important that curriculum gets developped for learning advanced LaTeX, so a willing user can make rapid progress. Rapid progress is good. It keeps you motivated. Plateaus are really dangerous because the can make you lose motivation and give on up the goal alltogether. So let’s find ways of measuring progress and collecting tips of what you can do to actively and systematically improve if you’re willing to.

Step one probably is to get the people to shut up who sneer at systematic approaches like this one. “Learning to program just doesn’t work this way”, they repeat time and time again. Yet I think this is not true. Getting better at programming is like learning any other skill. There is a systematic approach to it and when we have a systematic progression and training goals, we can figure out the steps we need to take.

That was it for now,

best,

the Ninja

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The Simple Academic Resumé. A play in 3 acts

Dear all,

you might already know the Simple Academic Resumé/CV from Twitter or GitHub. It is available as a template on Overleaf now, so I wanted to take this occasion to formally introduce it to you again. It also has a new third style which you might not be familiar with yet.

simple-acad-cv
This new version is quite colourful with the rules. Or at least it can be. You can just choose black or grey as a colour. With all of this colour, it probably doesn’t really qualify as ‘academic’ anymore. 😉 Try it out here on Overleaf.

I don’t know if if love the name. Thinking back now, I might have called it something else but since has already been out there on Github quite a while, I didn’t want to change it anymore. My second thoughts now stem from the fact that I would like to make a template which really deserves the title ‘academic’. This one was named academic only because I published it the day after the Hipster CV and  somebody on Twitter noted that they would think it very bad style to use such a template in a academic context. That’s why I got inspired to make a more simple template and called this one ‘academic’. But there’s nothing especially academic about it really. 😉

Simple_Academic_Resume
The Simple Academic without picture. Try the template on Overleaf!

Aaaand the last available option:

Simple_Academic_Resume__with_picture
The Simple Academic with image. Try it out directly here on Overleaf.

Well, I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Best,

the Ninja

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Don’t call it a database!

When I started this blog, one of my promises and goals, apart from LaTeX-Ninja’ing, was to demystify the Digital Humanities for non-DH people. For a long time I have watched and I think one of the big mysteries of the DH still persists in Normal Humanists’ heads and thus, really needs demystifying. You might have guessed it, I want to explain why DH people will cringe if you call digital resources ‘databases’ which are not, technically speaking, databases.

Is it ok to call any digital resource / corpus a ‘database’?

We know, that’s what you tend to call a digital corpus. But in most cases it’s not correct, it’s a pars pro toto. A database is just one possible technical implementation, but the term is used more broadly for any ‘digital base of data’. By laypeople, at least. A pars pro toto stylistic device is a Humanities’ thing, right? You do get stilistic devices. So you can also understand why you shouldn’t use imprecise terminology. You don’t like it when people misuse your fields’ terminology either and probably make quite a religion about it.

If you want to work with the DH, you need to understand their terminology and respect it by using it correctly. Even though it might initially feel unintuitive to you. Believe me, you will adapt quickly if you give it a try.

I’ve caught myself so many times now, educating my Normal Humanist friends about digital resources and why my (DH) colleagues won’t take you, as a Humanist, very seriously if the word “database” slips out your mouth at inappropriate moments. It’s kind of like the Tourette’s of NH-moving-in-a-DH-world. Which probably is not a politically correct analogy. No offense to people who actually have Tourette’s, I don’t want to devalue or disrespect your struggle in any way! It’s just analogical in the way of spluttering out inappropriate words at inappropriate moments.

Everybody has their cringe-prone terminology item, right?

To be honest, I am not sure how strict the English speaking DH world is in this, but I can guarantee you that this distinction is very valid concerning the German language use of “Datenbank”. When a quick web search yielded this result, I wasn’t sure anymore if it’s actually a thing in English too. Digital Humanities at King’s College define a database as follows:

Database is the term we use for any large collection of online material.

( https://libguides.kcl.ac.uk/dighum/dighumdbase )

This, however, is exactly the way I don’t suggest you use this term. I am aware that this is the association linked with it in many people’s minds. But hey, you are Humanists. You do have a sense for the intricacies of terminologies, right? I, for one, really hate it when people use the wrong gender on the term corpus (in German: neutral (!) for a collection of documents, so always neutral, unless you mean an actual body like that of a musical instrument). You probably have a thing like that, too, where you get furious at laypeople saying it wrong, don’t you? Well, the DH equivalent of this thing is the misuse of the term database.

Using terminology correctly is a sign of respect towards the DH community. It shows you respect us as researchers and don’t think of us as the ‘idiot who does the tech stuff’

Well, to be exact, it’s not even a misuse. You sure can use the term database in this way and it’s not, strictly speaking, completely incorrect. It’s just misleading, and – most importantly as the subject of this post – it is a strong pointer to the fact that you are not very tech-savvy and either unaware or else disrespectful of digital terminology. It will be seen as either a lack of respect and esteem towards the digital field or, I don’t know which is worse, a lack of competence in general. You would deem it impolite, too, and probably take it as a sign of general incompetence or lack of intellecutal ability/openness  if a DH person came along and persistently misused your terminology, right?

Edit/addition 2019/06/04: I think this issue is less about whether it is technically or theoretically correct to use a term like this or like that. It’s a question of being ‘politically correct’ and of not hurting people’s feelings. To show the point on an extreme example (which is maybe exaggerated applied to databases but illustrates the point): you could theoretically argue that the term ‘nigger’ has been used historically to mean ‘person of color’, ergo it would – terminologically speaking – not be incorrect to use it, right? Wrong. In this case, it’s obvious (to everyone, hopefully) that it would be extremely rude and not ok to call a person of color a ‘nigger’ nowadays. Nobody would be confused if people’s reaction to this was to feel insulted because the above explanation does not take connotations into account.

Like you could say that before the advent of the DH, it maybe wasn’t a big deal to throw around the term ‘database’ to mean any digital ‘base of data’, but since the DH is starting to be established as a discipline and not only as a tool like it might have been in the beginning, things have changed. DH people sometimes feel like their competencies are not taken seriously because their part of the job is seen as the ‘handiwork’ whereas the non-DH input data is the actual research. I think that this latent inferiority complex, or maybe rather some sort of struggle for recognition, is the reason non-precise use of DH-related terminology is sometimes taken bitterly.

So ultimately, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about being respectful and not hurting other people’s feelings. Also, non-DH people insisting on using the term in a non-DH way while simultaneously wanting to participate in a DH project will cause a clash of terminology. It might be ok for a non-DH person to use the term like this, but DH people are kind of bound to use the term in a strictly technical way or else they might be seen as incompetent of their own field. In this case, I think the non-DH person should give in because even when they will not be judged by their use of DH-specific terminology, a DH person will. You don’t want your imprecise language to reflect negatively on your cooperation partners.

Since the initial publication of the post, I received the feedback that some people with technical backgrounds are quite open to non-technical uses of the term ‘database’. But from my own experience of the DH overall, I feel this is not necessarily representative. And only because people will accept that it is theoretically valid to use the term to one’s own judgement, that doesn’t mean people will condone it in practice.

If you want collaboration, start actually collaborating by learning about DH terminology

Especially if you are trying to get a collaboration DH or label DH project, I suggest you prune your language a little bit here. After all, DH people usually have lots of people queueing to get a project with them. They will tend to take the ones interesting for them (in terms of subject) and/or those where the applicants seem nice. And it is deemed base politness to research your collaboration partners’ field so you don’t draw a complete blank. You want your partners to be understanding and reasonably well-educated on the baseline of your field too, right? And you probably catch yourself sometimes, secretly saying to yourself in indignation or disbelief ‘How can any academic not know that?! This is completely basic!’

Well, it happens to DH people, too. Often concerning so-called ‘databases’ which are not, in fact, databases. If you persistently use the term wrong, it’s seen as lack for trying or plain incompetence. Don’t be rude. Now you are aware of the problem, you have no excuse to continue saying it wrong.

How to know if it’s ok to call it a database?

Two questions to ask to get a feel for whether what you mean might actually be a database:

  1. Would it make sense to represent this data in an (Excel) spreadsheet? Then it is likely someone chose a database format to represent it digitally.
  2. Are there any other fitting means to represent it? Only because it outwardly looks like it stores spreadsheet-formatted data, this doesn’t mean it’s they way data is stored “behind the scenes”.
  3. In case of any doubt whatsoever, just refrain from calling it database. Just say ‘digital resource’, ‘digital corpus’ or basically anything else which seems half appropriate. Anything else is way less stigmatized and cringe-worthy than the misuse of ‘database’.
  4. So to be on the safe side: Just don’t call it a database unless you’re sure it is one (technically speaking). When not 100% sure, just term it a digital resource or digital data collection. I know you just mean a ‘digital base of data’. But please respect that the wide category ‘digital base of data’ doesn’t mean the same thing as the narrow term of ‘database’ in a technical field.

Just a little thought – hope this helps!

Best,

the Ninja

PS: Can someone tell me whether you think it is valid to inform people they should not use the term database or would it be ok with you when they use the term in a non-technical way? I only know that people around me react quite aggressively when you do and will think you’re a technical layperson, thus not trust you much once you did. You’d basically be ‘disqualified’ after that unless you really have some very interesting other assets or extremely good grant acquisition records or splendid networking connection value.

 

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Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part II

Today, I am yet again happy to present the second part of the latest LaTeX Noob guest post:

 

Last time, I told you about four important steps to organizing your life. They were:

  1. Know your priorities.
  2. Learn to say “no”.
  3. Leave your comfort zone.
  4. Never back down.

If you want to re-read the last post, you can find it here!

So, time management.

You will need a calendar, let’s start with that. Take your phone, open your Google calendar. Start. It is actually that easy. You have to know the most important basics. When do I work, what are my main working hours? Do I like a silent or slightly more lively environment for my work? Am I a morning person or a night owl? When will I need a break, when do I want to go to sleep?

When am I meeting my friends, when do I spend time with my partner or my family? What do I do for relaxing? How often? Exercise? Any activities? When and where?

What is there to do on household chores (you know, cooking, cleaning, gardening etc.) and when are they due?

Just write those things down. Think about it. It is creepy at first sight, I know, but hey…

Labyrinth-Girl

I am a morning person, I like to start early with my work.

I love good instrumental or orchestral music during work. I like other people around me while I work, because of the swift “office-noise”.

For relaxing, I like reading, listening to music, going climbing, watching TV, taking long walks, photography, writing, people-stuff (friends and family).

Basic week:

  • 4 work days, Monday to Thursday = 30 hours of work
  • 1 “thesis day” (also called somehow home-office)
  • 1 university course to teach and prepare
  • 4 university courses to attend and prepare
  • one evening to go climbing
  • (at least) one evening to have dinner with my partner

An example week

I will give you my five days of my working week in my calendar now, just as an example and to show you how I work on my organization and how I try to plan my days. You may have got it until now – it is all about your own rhythm: find it, then stick to it.

Monday

7:00 start work

15:00 short coffee break with friends

17:00 back home, dinner

18:15 climbing (1.5 to 2 h)

  • hair day, bathroom cleaning

  • prepare courses

22:00 bedtime

Tuesday

7:00 start work

10:00 Coffee break with colleagues

18:00 back home, dinner

  • washing clothes

  • prepare courses

  • TV/Dinnertime with my partner

22:00 bedtime

Wednesday

7:00 start work

10:00 teach my university class

12:00 lunch with friends

15:15 university course 1

18:45 university course 2

20:30 dinner with colleagues

22:00 back home

23:00 bedtime

Thursday

7:00 start work

13:00 end work

13:30 university course 3

15:00 prepare next course (learning a new language for work)

17:00 university course 4

19:00 back home

22:00 bedtime

Friday

7:00 morning routine

  • Thesis Day

  • kitchen cleaning

  • washing clothes

  • shopping supplies

14:00 lunch with my partner

15:00 beginning of my pre-weekend

Weekend

Normally spend with family and/or friends and /or partner – and sometimes spent with reading texts or papers connected to my research field

Conclusion

So I actually do have some kind of private life, but I have to organize it in a very strict way and I have to be very strict with myself sometimes. I am a morning person and I am in the possession of a “daylight alarm clock” – you know, it starts with deep red light approximately one hour before your actual alarm time and continues getting brighter like the sun rising, so your body can wake up before you actively open your eyes and wake up in your head. It works! At least, for me.

I need my bedtime set earlier now, so around 10 pm I am really grateful for a warm and cozy bed and sleep. I enjoy resting in my bed on the weekend, this is a fact, but it is like a reward I promise to myself.

I am still meeting my friends and I have still a lot of other things to do in my life, things which I enjoy and which are keeping me relaxed and sane.

It’s worth the hard work. You just have to start.

Riding higher waves

At the risk of boring you all with my frequent thoughts on better teaching, I wanted to give you another metaphor on good teaching, inspired by a surfing class I took. To sum it all up, surfing was great fun. But this year, I was a bit unfortunate to get teachers who were a lot worse than the ones I’d had previously. The high waves and the shallow water make for good metaphors for the basics and the advanced topcis I frequently drone on about in my philosophy of teaching well. So, there you go.

The shallows and the high waves

The teachers were over-protective of us in the shallow waters. They helped more than we would have needed help and thereby, didn’t teach us to act independently. I wanted to do so, but it was not encouraged and we weren’t given any instructions on how to catch a wave on our own. They wouldn’t even let us paddle onto the wave ourselves, but rather pushed the board for us. This might seem very nice and thoughtful. At least, that’s how I felt at first.

But then, once we got to the higher waves – waves high enough for me to find them somewhat scary and thus, distract me quite a bit – they hardly helped at all! But since they had been so overprotective with the basics, doing everything for us, I didn’t have a feeling for how to catch a wave on my own. And this doesn’t exactly get any easier when you are panicked by the high waves. The more difficult situation we got thrown into all of a sudden made it difficult to think clearly, let alone grasp a skill on my own which no one had explained to me beforehand. The deep water is not a place to learn the basics. They should have told us those in shallow water. I think this is a very good analogy for teaching since this is exactly what happens in many classes as well. And then the teachers act like you’re an idiot for not being able to figure out the difficult stuff on your own. Because “that’s just what you do and we all had to learn it the hard way”. But really, this means that the teachers are not doing their jobs and there’s no excuse for that. Don’t blame your failings as a teacher on your students! Don’t turn your lack of teaching competence into a ‘character building’ opportunity for your students. This will not make them better people. It makes you a worse person. And a teacher I would fire on the spot if I were in the position to do so.

Don’t excuse your bad teaching as being a ‘character building’ opportunity

This is very apparent in technology classes at technical universities. In the class, you get this ridiculously simple mini example which is so easy that everybody understands it rightaway. Subsequently, teachers go on to over-explain this for 10 minutes. All students, by now, are lured into a false sense of security because the example was easy. Then they set the task for the assigment and it’s 500% more difficult than the example. This, they pretend, is a learning progression. Hint from someone who actually is a qualified teacher and has experience with training with a systematic progression in sports: No, don’t be ridiculous. This is not a progression. A progression challenges you but doesn’t set tasks which are practically impossible to achieve with the basics training provided beforehand. A progressions means setting a challenging, but doable task – not a sink or swim experience. In these programming classes, usually only those survive who had more knowledge beforehand, came from schools where they’d had years of programming practice, or else, they had more advanced friends or relatives who agreed to help them.

This creates the illusion for teachers that the class is actually doable if you’re willing to put in the work. This is a joke. If you pretend to be a teacher whatsoever, your class should be understandable without help from relatives who are experienced programmers! In some of the classes, I even read all the suggested introductory books and 2-3 more but the class was still difficult because you had to look up hundreds of programming libraries and so on. I managed because I worked hard and had some emergency help from more experienced friends. Having to look up stuff is normal in programming, of course. But as a seasoned programmer, you already know what to search for and know where the new information fits into your previous knowledge. A newbie can’t – I repeat – can’t know that. Don’t blame them for your lack of understanding of how learning works!

Maybe it’s a mistake so many people teach at universities who have never gone through teacher’s training. That is not to say that teacher’s training only produces great teachers. We all know that, sadly, it doesn’t. But at least people necessarily have heard about how learning is supposed to work in theory. Having teachers who do not know nor care how learning and teaching is supposed to work should not be allowed. Yet this is the norm at universities. Students are lucky to come across a natural every once in a while. But it is no coincidence self-help gurus stress the importance of mentors: Not to say that you couldn’t learn it on your own. But your results are just going to be a million times better and faster if you happen to come across a good teacher.

Clear instructions for the ‘danger zones’

Danger zones provide excellent opportunities for accelerated learning progress. But especially before being thrown into ‘dangerous situations’ the students are barely qualified to handle at their stage, giving out clear instructions is crucial. With the guidance of a good teacher and very, very clear instructions of what they should or shouldn’t do, treating students to  a difficult challenge will greatly speed up the learning process. If not done well, however, it will be a nightmarish experience which might even end up deterring students from going on with their studies!

Having something like a life line or a safeboat might be enough to circumvent this. Or having more time or trainers to guide students as much as needed. Don’t rush into these situations without carefully planning them. Students need thoughtful teachers who are there to help students when they need it. Maybe even teachers who anticipate pitfalls students are running into because they can’t know themselves due to lack of experience. If you don’t have a lot of means to make this experience as good as possible, use the one most important element: very clear instructions and some abundant background information before you start. It is also important that students understand why certain rules or behaviours are imposed on them or why certain actions might be dangerous. You can always limit the scariness scope of an overly taxing situations by limiting choices and options through clear instructions and rules. Reduce the scope of a problem and you’ll make success much more achieveable.

Another experience from surfing was on this utmost importance of clear instructions, especially with difficult tasks. On a side note, to avoid any confusion: Surfing was a lot of fun overall, not to give a misleading impression, I just wanted to use the opportunity to point out some interesting observations on teaching. Anyway. In the high waves, the teachers hardly took any notice of me at all. As a novice, I had a hard time paddling against the force of the high waves and was constantly being carried away by the current. I was busy remembering where I was and keeping a vague orientation by looking for where the teachers were. Now was the time when I would have needed their help they had so over-abundantly and unnecessarily given to me in the shallows. I didn’t know whether I should just take the next wave I deemed ok (how the hell should I know which wave is ok? But anyway…) or if I should wait for the teacher to make that choice for me, which they had previously done most of the time.

In this difficult situation, however, they made no clear announcement of what I should do and when they took notice of me after I had spent almost 10 minutes paddling against the waves and waiting around for directions from them, both teachers gave me conflicting instructions. They told me to come over to them but my arms were so weak from paddling and the waves had gotten pretty violent, so it wasn’t easy for me to get to them. Then they decided I had drifted off too much and should just carefully get out of the water. I was shocked. Had I just wasted so much of my energy and didn’t even get one wave to ride? The situation had not only drained the physical energy of my arms and the heat out of my body, it had also drained me emotionally since there was no reward for putting in the effort. Afterwards, I sat on the beach resting a little bit and felt that I didn’t really want to get back in at all. I had lost my trust in the teachers. What if they’d let me rot out there in the waves again? I already didn’t have much energy left. Also I didn’t want the emotional blow of having to get back out again without getting one single wave. Maybe I was just tired, cold and stressing about the situation too much. But then again, I think this is exactly how most students feel when taught difficult subjects. They are left alone at sea in conditions nobody prepared them for. 

Just a thought for now 😉

Best,
the Ninja

PS: Oh, and my experience would probably be a starting point of discussion on multiple teachers who are teaching overlapping topics in parallel but contradict themselves. But that’s a topic for another time…

 

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Improve Your Teaching – 10 Simple Tricks

As you might know, good teaching is important to me, so I wanted to share ten simple tricks which I think can improve your teaching. Most of them are about making sure people get the basics which, in my opinion, is one of the biggest mistakes people make in teaching. Let’s get straight at it.

1) Make sure the preliminaries are clear before starting an explanation.

If they are not, don’t even bother starting on the explanation, it will be a complete waste of time. Even if this means that you will spend the whole lesson bringing them up-to-date with the preliminaries and you won’t be able to start on the actual topic at all. Make time for this prep work or risk that all of your subsequent explanations will not get through. To find out if the preliminaries and basics are not clear, you might have to plan testing your students regularly (at the start of each block), like with the basics (see nr. 3).

2) Don’t just “get through with the material”.

Teaching is not about you doing what you had planned, but about students learning something. If you misjudged their previous knowledge, change your plan. Bring them up-to-date. That way, they will have learned something (and thus you have reached to goal of teaching), even if you end up not even being able to start on your actual topic at all. Would you rather be “done” with everything you had planned but nobody understood anything or rather do 1/3 of what you had planned to do but be sure that students really master it? I would much rather go with the latter. Or the result will be that your class will not have made any lasting impression on the students at all. Don’t let them leave the way they came!

3) Nothing is more important than absolute mastery of the basics.

Nothing. I repeat: Nothing.

I often find teachers go over the basics way too fast without ever checking if the students got it, because they think it obvious. Students also often don’t even realize their lacking understanding of the basics because they seem so simple. But really, what is the difference between an amateur and a professional musician? It’s not that the professional plays more advanced pieces, since the amateur can do that too after some time. But they are still no a professional, right? – That’s because mastery lies in perfecting the basics and total immerson, not skimming as much advanced stuff as possible without ever mastering anything. A professional musician spends more time doing drills on the basics – and you hear the difference immediately. Once you’re good, you can always learn more complicated advanced stuff and go on studying independently. But you will have a hard time improving on your own if you’ve never even mastered the basics. 

No matter how friendly you are, they are unlikely to tell you what they don’t understand, especially admit to not having understood the material you have spent the last three weeks talking about. You can, of course, scream at them for being lazy or stupid. But no matter how you react, this will not change the fact that they did not get the basics, so any further teaching of more difficult matters or, in fact, anything which forms a progression building on these basics, is going to be time lost and nothing else. Yes, the good ones will make it. But please, don’t just settle for that.

Put a crazy dedication to everyone getting the basics, so at least you can tell yourself “at least they all have the basics now” after the class. You don’t want to overhear your colleagues going on about what horrible teacher your students had last year and have to admit it was you who couldn’t even teach them the basics. Apart from that, test because it has been proven to be the most effective method for learning and also, your students might not even realize they don’t master the basics and therefore, can’t give you a truthful answer when you ask whether they already have the basics. Ultimately, only testing can tell. Hand them a worksheet for “repetition” of the basics with multiple tasks of progressing difficulty to work on on their own. Then walk around and help everyone. Most effective method to check up on your teaching success by far, in my experience.

(When doing this, act like a coach. Don’t give the impression of testing anyone and don’t grade this or they probably can’t enjoy it in the future. I don’t want that sort of pressure in my classes. Grading is for the final portfolio they hand in, not the learning process where we want them to make as many mistakes as possible! I sometimes use anonymous Google Forms so I can see whether the class overall has a good grasp on concepts but they are sure not to be graded since it’s anonymous. Also a great method of getting feedback throughout the semester, not just at the end.)

Also, I suggest you encourage students to go over the basics again every once in a while and with every stage of their progress. You see them differently each time and taking the time to repeat them is always worth it, especially if you want to really master something.

4) Test. Don’t assume learners learned anything before you’ve ascertained it through multiple tests.

This is not meant in a condescending way. Testing is proven to be the most effective learning technique (“learning types” are not scientifically valid – see the audiobook The Great Courses / The Learning Brain for details). Only once you’ve tested you really know what students already know. Often you realize that you already lost them before your first word because you stepped in too late. They might not even have reached the starting point of your explanation. These problems, however, are difficult to spot since usually in these cases, students don’t even know what they didn’t understand and cannot verbalize it when you ask.

5) Avoid confusing naming in programming.

This is not as trivial as it sounds. It might even be pretty difficult to put yourself in a learner’s position and choose a name which is not confusing or misleading. But all the more crucial to take the time to think about it.

For a student who doesn’t fully grasp the concept of how variables  work, what types and instances are, or classes and objects, this can be very detrimental and make learning so much more difficult. In failed teaching attempts in programming, bad naming is mostly the major culprit. Right after that comes the failure to reduce complexity and purge unnecessary detail. Choose names wisely. They make or break you explanation.

6)  Make sure you always only teach one new concept at once.

It happens far too easily that you explain three things at once without realizing. This also happens when you include unnessary detail which might contain concepts students are unfamilar with and end up confusing them, even though this wasn’t even what you were trying to explain.

7) When explaining something, remove the unnecessary.

Putting didactical reduction into practice means get rid of every detail which is not absolutely crucial to understanding the point or students will get confused by the multiple concepts and not see the point at all.

Also, try to eliminate all sorts of examples which might build on extra knowledge your students might not have (like in 6, be sure you really only teach one new concept). So, you might want to use an example of a historical situation which is completely familiar to you (in your crazy scientific surroundings). But are you sure your students are familiar with it? When explaining something new, not only reduce what’s new but also make sure to keep other potentially confusing artefacts out of the explanation. Maybe it wasn’t even that they didn’t understand the new concept – they already got hung up on the ingenious illustrative example you assumed would be totally logical to them. Don’t assume previous knowledge. At least reduce to a bare minimum. Just in case.

8) Always repeat what is important.

While this might be clear to you, for a student “everything” seems important. And all is new. They cannot tell what is important yet. It is your job to triage here! That’s why I really miss handout culture. There, you had the summary of the gist of a lesson. Now it’s just slides, but the slides usually don’t give you much of a clue about what is essential and what can be discarded. If students have to do the guesswork on their own here, they will waste a lot of time and maybe fail altogether. It’s definitely part of your job to help them out here. Take the time to make a summary for them for later reference. Don’t assume they can do that themselves or else they are lazy. Appreciate that you already know what’s important and therefore, have it easy to sum it all up. After all, you planned this lesson and you know what’s most important to you that they should take away from it, right? Just write it down and they can use the additional time to memorize. (Yeah, of course, they might also just not pay attention to anything else anymore. Find a way of doing this without self-sabotaging your classes.

9) Help them help themselves.

Often teachers get annoyed that students are very dependant and don’t know how to find out something by themselves. But ask yourself, did you ever explain them how to do it? Ironically, students depend on you to teach them how to be independent.

10) Nothing is obvious.

Rule of thumb: It’s highly likely you lost your students about 3 steps earlier than you think where you lost them.

That’s it. Hope it helps!

Have a great Sunday!

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