jQuery workshop teaching techniques, part 3: ruthless backward design

I’m writing up what I learned from teaching a jQuery workshop this past month. I’ve already posted on my theoretical basis, pacing, and supporting affective goals. Now for the technique I invested the most time in and got the most mileage out of…

Ruthless backward design

Yes, yes, we all know we are supposed to do backward design, and I always have a general sense of it in my head when I design courses. In practice it’s hard, because you can’t always carve out the time to write an entire course in advance of teaching it, but for a two-day bootcamp I’m doing that anyway

Yeah. Super ruthless. I wrote the last lesson, on functions, first. Along the way I took notes of every concept and every function that I relied on in constructing my examples. Then I wrote the second-to-last lesson, using what I could from that list (while keeping the pacing consistent), and taking notes on anything else I needed to have already introduced – again, right down to the granularity of individual jQuery functions. Et cetera. My goal was that, by the time they got to writing their own functions (with the significant leap in conceptual difficulty that entails), they would have already seen every line of code that they’d need to do the core exercises, so they could work on the syntax and concepts specific to functions in isolation from all the other syntax and concepts of the course. (Similarly, I wanted them to be able to write loops in isolation from the material in lessons 1 and 2, and if/then statements in isolation from the material in lesson 1.)

This made it a lot easier for me to see both where the big conceptual leaps were and what I didn’t need. I ended up axing .css() in favor of .addClass(), .removeClass(), and .hasClass() – more functions, but all conceptually simpler ones, and more in line with how I’ve written real-world code anyway. It meant that I axed booleans – which in writing out notes on course coverage I’d assumed I’d cover (such a basic data type, and so approachable for librarians!) – when I discovered I did not need their conceptual apparatus to make the subsequent code make sense. It made it clear that .indexOf() is a pain, and students would need to be familiar with its weirdness so it didn’t present any hurdles when they had to incorporate it into bigger programs.

Funny thing: being this ruthless and this granular meant I actually did get to the point where I could have done real-world-ish exercises with one more session. I ended up providing a few as further practice options for students who chose jQuery practice rather than the other unconference options for Tuesday afternoon. By eliminating absolutely everything unnecessary, right down to individual lines of code, I covered enough ground to get there. Huh!

So yeah. If I had a two-day workshop, I’d set out with that goal. A substantial fraction of the students would feel very shaky by then – it’s still a ton of material to assimilate, and about a third of my survey respondents’ brains were full by the time we got to functions – but including a real-world application would be a huge motivational payoff regardless. And group work plus an army of TAs would let most students get some mileage out of it. Add an option for people to review earlier material in the last half-day, and everyone’s making meaningful progress. Woot!

Also, big thanks to Sumana Harihareswara for giving me detailed feedback on a draft of the lesson, and helping me see the things I didn’t have the perspective to see about sequencing, clarity, etc. You should all be lucky enough to have a proofreader so enthusiastic and detail-oriented.

Later, where I want to go next.

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