Discussion Summary: Delivering Exercises to Learners

On Wednesday 7th November, members of the community joined a themed instructor discussion session to share experience and ideas around how we deliver exercises to our learners during a lesson/workshop. Inspired by this excellent blogpost by Sarah Brown, the Instructor Development Committee wanted to leverage the experience of other instructors on this important topic. Sarah, who also lead the discussion in this session, also wanted to collect feedback and ideas to bring back to the Lesson Infrastructure Committee to inform their design choices when updating our lesson template.

After taking some time for instructors to introduce themselves and answer questions from the checking out trainees, Sarah gave an overview of her approach using IPython %load magic with exercise code in a separate set of files to allow the instructor and learners to pull up individual exercises on-demand in the Jupyter Notebook (see the blogpost linked above for more details). Sarah has found this approach works well, particularly for ‘fill in the blanks’ and Parson’s Problem exercises, where it helps learners to avoid additional difficulty that might be introduced into an exercise by typo or indentation errors introduced while transcribing an exercise from elsewhere.

There was general agreement within the group of instructors attending, that it is best to avoid pointing learners directly to the full material online while teaching a lesson - this can distract learners away from the instructor and keep them from engaging with the code-along that’s so essential for learning.

Several of the attendees vouched for the effectiveness of Socrative as a platform for providing exercises and pointed out that batches of exercises can be uploaded to Socrative if they’re compiled into e.g. an Excel file. Other instructors provide exercises by copy-pasting into the workshop etherpad or some other shared note-taking document (though some have experienced problems with losing indentation when doing this), while still others have had a good experience displaying exercises on slides (see this thread on TopicBox for more on this).

All of these approaches would be aided by an easy way to pull out exercises in bulk from a given lesson. This might be achieved by storing exercises in a separate directory in the lesson repository, which would then be embedded into the HTML of the lesson when it is built. Alternatively, exercises could be kept in the main body of the lesson markdown file but marked in a way that allows them to be parsed for extraction, which might be easier to edit and maintain. Both options are being assessed by the Lesson Infrastructure Committee (see this GitHub Issue).

The discussion finished with us listing other ideas for how exercises could be provided, outside of the Jupyter environment that might not be suitable for all the tools that we teach. Inspired by Hypothes.is, Katrin Leinweber suggested that it could be useful to be able to select different ‘views’ of a lesson, to switch between the full lesson, only the code snippets, exercises, and so on. Lex Nederbragt expressed a wish for a quiz format to be introduced to Markdown, David Yakobovich listed several existing (some paid) platforms that instructors might want to investigate, including Spectacle, remoteinterview.io, and coderbyte.

If you have more ideas, or would like to continue contributing to this discussion, join in the conversation on the discuss thread and/or check out the Lesson Infrastructure Committee’s Issue on the subject on GitHub. Lastly, if you have requests or suggestions for a topic to be covered in a future themed discussion session, please contact Toby Hodges. Keep an eye out for more themed discussion sessions in the coming months!

Dialogue & Discussion