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Computer Workshops - syllabuses, planning, practicalities and experience[]


Dr. Martin Grayson, UK based scientific consultant, MartinY 14:03, 7 September 2006 (UTC)


This article is submitted to the wikification process because it deals with a real issue but with largely anecdotal evidence and some pure prejudice on part of the principal author. Even so there are still a good number of literature references and proof for some of the conjectures.

It is hoped that being subject to critical scrutiny and augmentation will make this a rather useful paper.


Advice on how to run a computer based workshop is presented and supported by a description of both successful experience and mistakes from both sides of the lectern, as teacher and student. There is an emphasis on how to impart practical skills and to permanently embed them into the student's portfolio of competences. Methodologies of practice and retention of skills are discussed. At a practical level how to conduct the workshop allowing for the different expectations and pre-existing skills of the participants is discussed. A solution to some difficulties which are unique to computer usage, such as how to describe an awkward sequence of keystrokes, is suggested.

Preparing a Syllabus[]

A syllabus or synopsis for a workshop is very different to a usual lecture course. There is a greater focus on practical skills and competences. A workshop formerly run as part of the graduate training program at a British university was on the use of crystal databases in research. The students should know the theory from their bachelor's degree training but are introduced to the computer-based practicalities of research use of the data. Preparing the syllabus is essentially assembling a series of prescriptive problems for all to do which when completed will give a good overview and also provide a jumping off point for learning any more obscure parts of the software. The software used was the Cambridge Crystallographic programs Quest and Conquest (Allen and Kennard,1993), (Allen and Hoy,1998). This workshop was taken by the whole postgraduate intake.

In research oriented courses it is a good idea to ensure that once the core competences are imparted each individual student has different exercises related to their other major project work.

Another workshop was run to support research oriented tuition on molecular modelling. The theory had been outlined in earlier lectures, but it was not at such a level that the students could be effective theoretical practitioners because the course prerequisites did not include the advanced mathematical linear algebra skills which would be required. It was however to enable the students to steer the molecular modelling computational systems towards the solution of practical problems: how to drive the car rather than how to design an engine.

Competence Based Training[]

The basic Competence Based Training (CBT) (Flethcher,1997) theory gives us three stages of learning:

  • Ignorance

  • Conscious competence

  • Unconscious competence

It is desirable with reference to scientific problems and solutions like to expand it to 5 stages.

  • Ignorance

  • Incomprehension

  • Understanding with concentration

  • Conscious competence

  • Unconscious competence

So CBT requires a breakdown of the training into a core set of competences in which the student much progress from deliberate to automatic i.e. unconscious practice. This requires concentration and attention to detail but followed up by enough practice to begin the way towards unconscious competence. Little progress can be made towards this goal during a workshop. Sufficient guidance to future practice must be given, perhaps in the form of training material to take away. It is highly likely that follow up practice should begin if possible after a rather short interval after the workshop and that practicing little and often is better than a great deal in a short time and then nothing for weeks. Experiments by Nader, Schafe and le Doux (Nader et al.,2000), the article by McGaugh (McGaugh,2000) and the book by Rose (Rose,2003) demonstrate that the first practice after the workshop is important and should be of the highest quality possible. This is because the first repetition makes the memory labile and can result in errors or poor practice being stored in the long term memory. If this is true, it could explain why sometimes, knowledge fails to transferred to apparently quite diligent students, and the phenomenon could be pedagogically very important.

Pilling (Pilling,1996) was not satisfied with the usefulness of CBT in a teacher training context because of the difficulties of defining and measuring the competences. In many computing situations this would not be too difficult to define and examine. Other problems raised by Pilling (Pilling,2006) relate to the paper chase of the skills portfolio building and proving exercise often used in CBT. This was felt by many students to be tedious, jargon ridden and generally a waste of time. This was particularly the case in presenting the evidence for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) which was perceived to be a classic example of academic stamp collecting. Also it was quite apparent that students could be creative and innovative in the production of evidence, a situation not entirely unknown in the writing of CVs. However in a context of the personal work consolidating upon a workshop, none of these problems would apply. Ideas deriving from CBT

training and practice can be successfully applied in training computer usage.

Preparing Knowledge Transfer as a Student[]

There are several ways in which one can enhance the chances of a skill progressing from requiring concentration and consciousness to becoming automatic. The most important is repeated practice. A good example is learning to drive a car where even when having successfully passed the test, driving requires concentration and deliberation. After a few months of driving regularly everything becomes unconsciously automatic. The key is regular repetition and little and often is better than several hours at a single session in a week according to Jack Dacre, a much admired music teacher who developed a pedagogy resulting in students who were very accurate performers. He wrote a very interesting book on his pedagogy which seems to be now not known to either the internet or the British Library.

It is worth repeating here the story of how the composer Vaughan Williams wrote his harmonica concerto, helped by fastening the note chart for the instrument onto his shaving mirror, so he began each day looking at it during the unconscious act of shaving until a knowledge of the chart also became unconscious.

It helps to reinforce mental skills by using as much of the brain and nervous system as possible almost in the way deliberate memory techniques are developed, (see (Buzan,1989) and (Cottrell,1999)). (In mathematics teaching one way of trying to do this is to make a jigsaw of integration by parts examples so that sorting out the pieces of card involves a bit of physical as well as mental activity. Integration by parts however will still remain difficult. A better example is the way Japanese Railways require their staff to salute signals. Not only drivers but also lineside track workers who see a red signal change to green have to salute the change so that more of the brain is involved in the recognition of the potentially dangerous event of a passing train.)

Whenever possible one should never demonstrate to a small group by typing or mouse moving oneself. Always find a way for the student to do the physical activity, even if this takes longer.

Preparing a Workshop Based Course[]

The preparation for a postgraduate course is not always straightforward because of the bureaucracy of computer registration, software licenses and the arcane networking procedures which might be involved because of security and firewalls. Some clearly see this as an unnecessary barrier preventing them getting on with their immediate PhD research. (Students have asked, how many signatures a week DOES the University want?) Of course much of this has now been removed by central single point verification systems like Athens or IP-authentication, but sometimes there must be independent signatures to agree to individual software licenses. Another situation might be where there are robust procedures for licensing postgraduates but undergraduates are a special case. Also it has not been obvious in different institutions what the under-graduate / post-graduate status of taught masters / taught degrees with a M title and masters by research are. It is therefore advisable to try out the administrative procedures a week or so, but not too far in advance, before the course and do not take anything for granted. However struggling with bureaucracy and the legal requirements of computer usage is an important part of research training!

Another potential problem is to check that all the computers being used have the same mark number of the software and the level of the operating systems is compatible!

Where a text and numbers input based program without a Graphical User Interface (GUI) such as a typical quantum chemistry package is being taught there is the problem of the file editor to be used. Unfortunately even if the target group are going to be UNIX users there is no guarantee of all the participants being competent in a UNIX editor such as vi. Do you want to include a session on the editor for everyone? Emphatically no. There are a couple of obvious ways to deal with this: make some level of UNIX competence a mandatory prerequisite, or find out in advance and for the practical sessions put people into editor expert / editor novice pairings. (This basic peer mentoring needs permission in advance from the editor mentors!)

Though rather obvious it is worth mentioning that if participants have travelled a distance it is important to have organized a pre-training coffee and talk as people arrive but not for too long, as the shyer participants may feel a bit left out if everyone else seems to be chatting away. It is important to start on time but if there are significant late arrivals as there often are in these days of traffic jams and overloaded railway junctions reschedule material immediately. Begin with something not vital, such as a web bibliography session which can be replaced by paper handouts or a web site for the latecomers. Such a session would still be able to engage the people who are there on time.

Have a flexible way of progressing through the course. There should be one possible line which is very prescriptive, where the students will be told and assigned everything, so there is no time wasted by it not being clear what to do next. If you do have focus group style session, such as what do you as a group require from the software, all may be well and there may be lots of feedback and discussion. There also may not be much proactive behaviour from the students, so be prepared to tell the group what they require, even though they do not know it, and switch to a more prescriptive style practical session. (In a music teaching context one of the authors was expounding several options of how to hold and play an early string instrument. This produced the response, I do not want to be given a list of options, I want to be told what to do.) It is useful to be prepared to give both advice, according to need.


It is not always the case one can work in a training room with a data projector. Sometimes one might have a computer room or a research laboratory where one is largely explaining what to type on a one to one basis. In this case it is good to sit on the left, (for a right hander), next to the student, and write on scrap paper exactly what is to be typed, whilst describing what is going on in words. This ensures an accuracy and lack of ambiguity in what is to be typed. It is a good idea to never touch the keys for anyone but if you have to specify computing's arcane formulae like setenv DISPLAY 134.897:0.0 with precision, in some software the capitalization is important, a nightmare when giving verbal instruction. Another verbal problem is telling students to type characters such as !@#~|<>;: and ;. If you cannot show all on a data projector writing leads to much less aggravation and mistyping.

Much of computational practice is learning to organize yourself and dealing with procedures which, rather surprisingly as they are running in a Boolean logical machine, have little logical structure. It is a good idea at the end of a session to encourage students to type into a computer file any important pieces of unstructured knowledge they have picked up or are written on the note papers. The great advantage of computer files is that they are grep or find-able and when you think months later how did I connect the two bits of the molecule together even without indexing your notes you stand a good chance of finding the procedure. (Indexing your research notes is a very good procedure but too time-consuming for most purposes.) Even if there is a good selection of notes on the web available, searchable personal notes have the advantage of being compact and specific.

The requirement for specific expertise introduces the danger of corporate amnesia when the departmental expert moves on to another job. Over the passage of time it is easy to forget which computer program does a certain procedure which might be incredibly useful to research or administration but only on rare occasions. A typical example being if there is infrequent but highly useful statistical analysis of data towards the end of a long project. Good lab-book practice helps but the searchable computer file is a good belt and braces standby. It is a good idea to produce good ancillary documents to the main manuals issued and to have all such material in html so that it can be available via a web portal.

From the Training Room Seat[]

Issues of concentration and attention have already been discussed earlier but clearly it makes a great deal of difference to the learning process if one arrives with the right attitude. Very often one wants to learn something specific and may not be interested in the whole course which may be unnecessary for one's future work. However an attitude which regards the non-useful part of the material as generic learning practice is to be recommended and it is not always obvious in advance what is useful.

However it is problematic from both sides of the lectern when dealing with a course which is compulsory and essentially unwanted by the recipients. (There might be examples of this in areas such as job evaluation preparation or safety training where essentially the recipients believe they know what they need to know already and resent being taken away from what they regard as more important.)

Where a workshop runs all day it is also almost inevitable that there will be an afternoon sag at about half past two and it is advisable to have something both interesting and prescriptive which will be of relevance to most participants to try to counter this psychological effect.

Assessment and Feedback[]

This is becoming mandatory after a workshop at many institutions. One method of assessment used on a post-graduate database course was that the attendees must produce for the tutor and also for their research supervisor a page or so of A4 typescript about small piece of successful original research from the data set being taught. Sometimes this has required a bit of prompting to get a relevant data search as in situations such as the student saying my research involves a monitoring device for only two molecules, how can a search of a molecular data base be relevant?. It is always possible by expanding to larger analogy, to find a sequence of molecules to look for data on, just as the external examiner of the thesis might well look beyond the two molecules under consideration.

Ultimately negative feedback from research students comes if the support does not give them adequate progress towards their PhD goals. This is very individual to both the project and the student problems.

Within institutions there is often a standard form for student feedback which has largely irrelevant questions about visual materials and no questions which are particularly applicable to the practical aspects of a workshop or the software applications. As each piece of software potentially requires a different style of teaching it is desirable to design a feedback form around the competences being initiated by the training. (Examples might be: Did you feel confident and competent in your use of the model building component of the software?, or Do you feel you could formulate a search which would not miss out any relevant molecules using the structure specification rather than words and names?)

Short research workshops have usually been completed with enthusiasm once it is appreciated that the computer can provide excellent support to a practical PhD project. If the supervisor of the PhD has special needs a workshop might expose the possibility of getting access to other software.


Some conclusions might seem obviously good practice but as they are often ignored they are worth repeating here.

From the teaching side:[]

  • Use the information you have on the student's pre-workshop skills and try to rectify beforehand anything lacking such as UNIX skills which may impede the progress of the practical work of the whole group.

  • Be prepared to be either prescriptive or responsive according to the needs of the group on the day.

  • However do not lose sight of the core competences which must be imparted to all present.

  • Give guidance to future practice as what is imparted on the day might be totally forgotten. Give teaching material to take away.

  • Try not to demonstrate too much and find ways for the group to do their own typing or mouse moving.

  • Consider whether some peer mentoring is appropriate during the workshop.

From the learning side:[]

  • Come to the workshop with a positive attitude, even if you are hoping never to use the computer program again.

  • Write a practice schedule for afterwards in your diary.

  • Do not be afraid to make notes on seemingly trivial problems when using software.


  • F. H.Allen and O. Kennard, Chemical Design Automation News, 1993.
  • F. H. Allen and V. J. Hoy, The Cambridge Crystallographic Database, in P. von Ragué Schleyer, (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Computational Chemistry. Wiley, Chichester, 1998, 1, pp155-167.
  • T. Buzan, Use Your Memory. BBC Worldwide, 1989.
  • S. Cottrell, The study skills handbook. Palgrave study guides, 1999.
  • S. Fletcher, Designing competence-based training. Kogan Page, 1997.
  • K. Nader, G. E. Schafe and J. E. le Doux, Nature, 2000, 406, 722-726.
  • J. L. McGaugh, Science, 2000, 287, 248-251.
  • E. M. Pilling, Conceptualising the professional role of further education teachers: an exploration of the adequacy of competence based teacher training, Thesis (M.A.) - University of Sheffield, Division of Education, 1996.
  • S. Rose, The Making of Memory. Vintage 2003.