2015 Post-Workshop Instructor Debriefing, Round 16 (morning)

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

The mentorship committee held their latest round of debriefing for instructors of recent workshops on Tuesday, August 18. This post highlights the themes discussed in both the morning and evening sessions. Our participants included multiple levels of experience, including new instructors and experienced instructors who were preparing to teach again soon. The most difficult aspects of their experiences are described below, as well as things that work well and may assist in ameliorating problems.


What was difficult

We continued discussions from previous debriefing sessions about pacing lessons and how to trim down material for the time allowed for a module. One possible strategy is to ask students what material they are interested in covering (for example, if time for Unix is running short, ask if students would like to finish up the section on Shell Scripts, or have a brief overview of Finding Things). Making these decisions is even more complicated if students have questions about integration of tools (for example, using shell scripting and R together), which is certainly a concept students will encounter when developing their own research tools. We are also still seeking an effective method for helping students stay on track during the Python lessons, as commands entered move up and off the demo screen with graphical and text output in iPython notebooks.

In addition to these common impediments, we also spent some time discussing more uncommon but disruptive events. For example, severe weather may lead to power outages, which results in greatly diminished time for instruction. In other cases, instructors who are not local may have flight delays or otherwise be unable to attend a workshop, leaving the remaining instructors to cover modules unexpectedly. There are no easy answers for these circumstances, but certainly stress that instructors should at least consider ahead of time how to adjust their practices on-the-fly. As always, instructors are encouraged to contact the mentoring subcommittee for reminders about where resources are located or to talk about preparing for upcoming workshops.

What worked well

A general solution to the afore mentioned problem of running out of time is having a list of links handy to share with students. This may be as simple as pointing them towards the rest of the canonical Software Carpentry lessons, including sections that you may have chosen to leave out of your teaching for the workshop. Instructors at this debriefing reported that more advanced learners appreciated links to the intermediate lessons for a some topics, which helped keep them engaged during the lesson. A recently planned workshop includes a third day for a hackathon, which allows students to start working on code for their own data and projects and may allow more discussion about integration of lessons described above.

As Software Carpentry continues to grow and teach more workshops, we are encountering increasing numbers of instructors teaching remotely. We had a great discussion at this debriefing session about what works best for remote instruction, the main points of which are conveyed in a previous blog post. I personally hope to continue bolstering our expertise in remote instruction, which may help alleviate the problems described above with instructor travel difficulties (if technology allows). Interested in getting some experience with remote instruction? Consider attending our Virtual Instructor Retreat!



I like to congratulate instructors that taught the first time for us since doing it isn't as much easy as we would like to be and we need to work on that. If you have suggestions of what we can do to help instructors when they are preparing for the first workshop contact us.

And we have our first workshop at Indonesia which means less one country for we win the game.

Dataset collection for workshops

One thing that always got learners more engaged is using dataset from their fields of study at the lessons. Last year I had the pleasure to taught with Alex Viana at a workshop that the host provided us with some climate data to use and this contribute a lot for the success of the workshop. Unfortunately do it is always a challenge mostly because in the general

  • instructors aren't from the same background of learners,
  • workshops have learners from two or three different backgrounds, and
  • popular datasets are complex and can distract learners unfamiliar with it.

If you remember one workshop that you or someone used a dataset different from the one in our lessons (inflammation and gapminder) please mention it at the comments of this post.

And if you have suggestions of how we can collect and organize good datasets for our workshops please get in touch with us (comments at this post, post reply, GitHub issue, email, ... will work for us).


We already have a accessibility checklist for workshops but we want to offer more guidelines for our instructors, for example good color scheme for the terminal.

Breaking the ice

One of the biggest challenges for every instructor at each workshop s/he teach is breaking the ice so that students are confortable to ask questions and actively participate at the workshop. One suggestion for help at this talk is that the host organize a dinner for instructors and learners at the night before the workshop which also gives the opportunity for instructors discovery the expectations of the learners for the workshop. When dinner is not possible, have coffee/tea and snacks available at the very begin of the workshop should also help.

Dialogue & Discussion

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