A great, low-tech hack for teaching high-tech skills


After years of technology training seminars in which Miriam Posner ran through a lecture or tutorial and watched as some students got it and others didn't, but were too embarrassed about breaking up the class's flow to raise their hands, she switched tactics, and hit on a great, successful strategy.

Miriam was accustomed to giving her students an interactive tutorial to take home at the end of the class and practice on. But this time, she tried giving that tutorial out at the beginning of the session and asking all the students to work through it, right there, at their own pace, and gave each of them a set of three post-it notes: one red, one green and one white.

A student who's doing well puts the green post-it on their computer. A student who's done switches to the white post-it. A student who needs help puts up a red post-it. Miriam and her TA (and any student who'd finished) circulated and helped those students with red flags understand the problem they were stuck on.

Miriam describes the result as a fundamental shift in the nature of the lesson, one where the goal became "not just to learn a skill but to contribute to an environment where everyone can succeed."

This is simple and head-smackingly obvious, but it has a number of positive effects. First, students can work at their own pace. College students, of course, are perfectly good at entertaining themselves on computers if they finish early, so there’s not as much pressure on the slower people to work quickly. Second, students can ask each other for help as a first line of defense. Duh. Of course they like to do that. It’s so much easier to lean over and ask a tablemate what you missed than to raise your hand in front of the whole class. Third, it’s fun for them. They can laugh and joke with each other, rather than sit in silence as I repeat information that’s right in front of them anyway.

A better way to teach technical skills to a group [Miriam Posner]

(Thanks, Cindy!)

Notable Replies

  1. So, having replaced all the verbs in the English language, "hack" is poised to take on the nouns too?

  2. Hack as a noun isn't new. I've been commenting things as // terrible hack but shut up it works for many years now.

    Using "hack" to describe things that are not related to computer security or programming though, is a kludge.

  3. A woman I know teaches Organic Chemistry at our local college, which has a strong pre-med program. She told me that what has revolutionized the way they teach is these new clickers they give out to students. Throughout lecture they pause to do a little question and answer, with answers coming in via clicker. If a lot of the answers are wrong, she'll take more time with that material. If everyone is getting it, they move on.

  4. I taught at Dev Bootcamp, and we've been using a similar system for while. It works very well.

    (and any student who'd finished)

    This part ^ is the essential part. Peer to peer learning is made a first class citizen, particularly when you have classes at different levels sharing a space. "Older" students have been known to circulate collecting stickys from "younger" students like Chewbacca-style sticky bandoliers. And generally, a struggling student is able to answer many questions from the class behind them. It's a small but powerful affirmation for students doing to long, slow work of learning a difficult trade.

  5. Hack has long been a noun:
    1 A rough cut, blow, or stroke
    1.1 (In sport) a kick or a stroke with a stick inflicted on another player.
    1.2 A notch cut in the ice, or a peg inserted, to steady the foot when delivering a stone in curling.
    1.3 A tool for rough striking or cutting, e.g. a mattock or a miner’s pick.
    1.4 archaic A gash or wound.
    2 informal An act of computer hacking: the challenge of the hack itself
    2.1 A piece of computer code providing a quick or inelegant solution to a particular problem: this hack doesn’t work on machines that have a firewall

    Oh, and consider the reverse process...

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