Teaching programming to beginners | Latest roundup

An overdue post on the latest course I taught, which ended about 2 weeks ago. I taught a group of 9 people (8 adults, 1 teenager) of various backgrounds the basics of programming, using Python. It went well overall, and the class atmosphere was enjoyable.

For...

Unfortunately I still fail to explain some concepts clearly -- namely the dreaded for loop. I kept telling myself I needed to change the way I introduce it and finally did so, and wow. It went even worse than before. I could see in my student's eyes how they were trying to understand, until eventually shrugging it off when I couldn't find any different way to explain it. It may have come across a bit better eventually when we started working with files and used for loops to go through every line, but introducing the concept went very blergh. Definitely need to do it differently next time. I think I will try to introduce the for loop over 2 sessions: one where we only see and do exercises related to "for i in range(0, x)" and separately introduce "for item in my_list".

I don't know if I just forgot before, but failing to get a concept across is really, really depressing. I was bummed out for a while afterwards, wondering if I'm just making more damage than good and messing up my goal of making programming less intimidating.

...Yet another reason to do better next time!

Exercises

I should make sure to have at least one "Fill in the blanks" and "Change this existing program so that..." type of exercises for every concept. I think they encourage students to read and try to understand existing code -- an important skill to develop, and it also makes the first attempt at using a new structure more manageable.

In general, I'd really like if I could find a neat program that could be cut down into exercises relating to each concept, that'd build up to something cool and awesome as the course goes on. It would help get across that complex programs are really made up of simpler pieces ; if you can't figure out how to do something, break it down further. I haven't really figured out a program that fits the bill yet.

Overall, material-wise I'm getting there (except for For :|), it'd be worthwhile focusing on improving the exercises for the next course.

Homework

OMG some people actually did the exercises as homework this time :O Wow. I tip my hat to them, it's great and it paid dividends for them. Unfortunately it also meant they had nothing to do while the others were catching up, so... I should probably give away only a portion of the exercises as homework, and save a few for the actual session. (The idea with the exercises is that everybody should get at least 1 done before we move on ; having many gives the faster students something to do while others don't feel too rushed.)

Duration

I taught over 5 weeks this time (2h30 in the evening with a 20-30mins break), and I will do 6 weeks next time. For real beginners it's still reasonable and it will let me take more time on concepts like For, and maybe an opportunity to show at the end what else there is to programming, and give ideas on which direction they could go on from here (GUIs, web development, robots...).

Speaking of robots

At the last session I brought a Finch, which I still haven't had much time to play with :') But with the Jython bindings it was possible to show a 5 lines Python program that has an effect in the real world. The Finch was very popular!

I want to play with the robot more, and see if perhaps it would make sense to use it to teach the whole beginner course at some point in the future (which would bring its own set of issues, $$$-wise).

Student feedback

As usual I asked if students could fill in a feedback form.

Everybody agreed they learnt a lot. "Fun" and "interesting" were in about everyone's "3 words to describe the course", with"hard" and "challenging" occasionally thrown in there :) "Useful" came up in half the forms too, which makes me happy.

The projector wasn't great with yellow which unfortunately was the default colour for strings in the IDE. It would have been worthwhile spending the time on fixing that rather than let people squint (sorry :().

A couple of requests to link more clearly exercises with the real world. So very difficult when we're still introducing new concepts! But definitely something to strive for.

Someone suggested writing a sample program where every line is explained (e.g. if x:    <-- this will do...). I think it's a good idea, I will try for next time. It would be useful as a reference.


I should be teaching this course again around March. Any pointers to beginner exercises, general comments, teaching advice, teaching programming tips all very much welcome!


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