Ten Ways to Turn Off Learners

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

PLOS has published a very useful set of articles called Ten Simple Rules that covers everything from effective statistical practice to winning a Nobel Prize. I’m just as interested in what not to do and what mistakes to avoid, so as part of our instructor training course, I’d like to put together a list of ten simple ways you can turn off your learners. My first five are listed below; if you’d like to add your own, comments would be very welcome.

  1. Sneer at what they’re doing right now by saying things like, “OMG, you’re using a spreadsheet!?” or, “If it isn’t open, it isn’t real science.” Most scientists have been doing first-rate work for decades with their existing tools and practices; we may think we now have better ones, but telling them they’ve been wrong all these years isn’t likely to make them listen.

  2. Trivialize their difficulties by saying things like, “Oh, it’s easy, you just fire up a VM on Amazon, install this variant of Debian, and rewrite your application in a pure functional language.” This stuff is genuinely hard; talking as if it’s not (and implying along the way that they must be stupid if they don’t get it right away) isn’t going to motivate them.

  3. Choose exciting technology. “There’s this cool new language I’ve been meaning to try…” should send the listener running: “new” usually means “rapidly changing” and “poorly documented”, and while that may be fun for the 5-15% who like computing for its own sake, it’s just an extra load for the majority. (See also Dan McKinley’s talk Choose Boring Technology.)

  4. Insist on doing everything the right way. You don’t draw architectural blueprints before you paint a wall. Similarly, you don’t need a cross-referenced design document (with appendices) for a twenty-line script that merges two bibliographies.

  5. Insist that people use a different operating system or package because it’s more convenient for you. They have to deal with the intrinsic cognitive load of the actual lesson material; don’t also impose the extraneous load of new keyboard shortcuts and unfamiliar menus.

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