In the fall 2008 edition of the AEJMC Communication Technology newsletter, Jacob Groshek, Teaching Chair, wrote a very thought-provoking piece entitled “Hands On, Minds Off: Engaging Defeatist Students in Learning Technology.” In it, he described the challenges of teaching technology skills labs, when one or more students seemed to be paralyzed by the material. He said, “It happens every semester. During a technical skills lab, a student will raise his hand, ask for help on his project and then remark, ‘I can’t do it.'” He asked for feedback on the AEJMC blog site, so I will cross post, both there and here. I can definitely relate. I have taught Web design since 2001 (first at The University of Texas and now at Texas State University), and every semester, there are always a few students for whom I have to engage with some extra effort and encouragement. And, honestly, all students, at many points in the semester, need a little nudge with troubleshooting a particular problem. I spend a good deal of time on this activity. And, over the years, I have developed several strategies to assist students in overcoming their technology paralysis.
1. Groshek mentioned that even after providing step-by-step handouts, some students are hesitant to even try Step 1. I have seen this. I teach, like many others, in a classroom in which students are assembled around a central table with computers around the periphery. My procedure in skills training is to have everyone’s attention while I go over a portion of the exercise. The students are not following along on the computer, they are watching. I find that this provides a better perspective of the entire lesson than having the students follow along step-by-step. This also allows me to cover the section and then let the students tackle the skill at their own speed. I can walk around the room and assist those that need help, while students who catch on quickly can try the skill at different levels. I encourage them try things once, then to continue experimenting, i.e. in working with Flash, upon accomplishing a single tween (moving objects across the screen), trying it again with different effects on multiple objects in different layers. I emphasize experimentation, repeating throughout the semester that they should try new things and not be afraid to break anything.
2. On my course Web sites, in addition to the handouts, I provide video tutorials that go over step-by-step, exactly what the student is expected to cover in the lesson (I use SnapZPro to make the tutorials, very easy). When a student is struggling with a topic, I will often suggest watching the videos, starting, stopping, and replaying as need be, before I will sit down with them for a marathon review. That is always a last resort.
3. I am also very explicit in the project assignments, detailing exactly the things that students must accomplish. The grade sheet for each project reflects these details. This sets proper expectations and rewards for a particular assignment, so there is no confusion or ambiguity.
4. Absences are killers in a technical lab class. Many of my strategies have been developed to provide self-directed resources for students who miss class to be able to catch up on their own. I have specific policies in the syllabus that state that neither I nor any teaching assistants (if I have them) will go over an entire lesson. The student is to download handouts and watch any video tutorials before coming to the next class period. Granted, they almost never do that, but when they do show up after an absence and have that sad, lost look on their faces, the first thing I do is direct them to those resources.
5. I am very explicit about what kinds of questions I will address. “I’m lost” is not a question, and “Did I miss anything yesterday?” is always replied to with a “yes, of course you did,” then they are directed to the class site to catch up with handouts and tutorials. Students are instructed to ask specific questions, and if they cannot, they need to spend some time considering exactly what they are trying to do, so they can articulate a question. I mention this throughout the semester. I will respond to things like, “I tried to insert a link on the page, and I don’t know why it is not working” or “Which tool is the best to use to select the background on this image?” I also have no problem (and enjoy very much) helping a student strategize about design and functionality decisions.
6. Many times a student’s problems are due to a lack of vision for a project. I encourage students (and often provide class time) to sketch their ideas on paper before embarking on the computer. That way, they can visualize what they are trying to accomplish and break things down into the separate elements that they need to do to complete the project: create a logo, design buttons, modify a stylesheet, etc. This also allows me to better help them by understanding exactly where they want to go.
7. Finally, and this is probably the best strategy, I encourage students to help one another. I try to create an open lab environment that makes students comfortable in asking questions and seeking help. Sometimes that help comes best from the person sitting right next to you. Just watching them do a particular skill or asking them a quick question is often more efficient than waiting for the instructor to make her way over. I try to be aware of situations in which a student may be monopolizing too much of a charitable student’s time, as well, to make sure that their projects are not suffering by helping another.
I continue to set higher expectations throughout the course of the semester that students should do their own troubleshooting. I tell them that I will often answer a question with a question. For example, “Can you help me figure out why this link doesn’t work?” would be responded to with, “What happens when you click on the link?” or “Did you check the code and make sure you have all the proper syntax, including lowercase file names and opening and closing quotation marks?” By letting them know that I will be responding to them as such, they are prepared for these responses and know that I am not just trying to be short or smart with them.
Another thing that I reinforce throughout the semester is that these are not easy skills to learn, that they are learning a lot of material, and that they should be proud of all they have accomplished. I repeat that these are critical skills that will be highly valued in the workplace. I try to make the environment as much fun and creative as possible, and I seek, above all, stealing a phrase from the inspiring technologist Kathy Sierra, to create “passionate users.” There is nothing I enjoy more than hearing the squeals of delight from around the room as students get things to work and gain confidence in their usage of technology. This, of course, applies to all students, but is particularly relevant for female students, who often have trouble envisioning themselves being creative with technology or seeking technology careers.
You can visit my course sites to get an idea of the types of resources I provide to students. Visit my Web Design course site at www.cindyroyal.com/webdesign. I’d love to hear others’ ideas on this subject. Granted, these strategies have not completely eliminated my need to assist some students more than others, but they do provide a framework from which students can move from screen paralysis to passionate user. There is nothing more rewarding than to be a part of that process.