Software Carpentry Instructor Training

21-22 October 2014 at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), Norwich Research Park

by Leanne Wake, SSI Fellow and Anniversary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, Northumbria University


  • Formal introduction to Greg Wilson of Software Carpentry
  • Content of the workshop was multi disciplinary. Many take-home messages and instructor techniques applicable to other areas of teaching which is useful as a supplement to my current application to be a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
  • Networking with Instructors from North America and awareness of the fantastic opportunities available to Software Carpentry Instructors.
  • The best instructors are not necessarily expert coders. Those who are self-aware and reflective when teaching are.
  • Free TGAC T-Shirt.

Event report

The fact that this workshop took place at TGAC did not mean that the event was tailored to biologists wishing to become leaders in Software Carpentry. Pedagogic techniques both general and specific to coding were introduced.

At the start, Dr. Greg Wilson placed an emphasis on making any workshop a comfortable environment to learn. One of the specific techniques (new to me) to create a comfortable environment was the use of Post-It notes to indicate whether the individual was following the material presented. The instructor can then scan the class and quickly visually assess the current understanding of the class without singling out individuals.

I was also able to access a well-designed questionnaire investigating the prior knowledge of Python and Git of participants that was circulated before the Software Carpentry Event in Cape Town in November. This provided a useful template that I will adapt to assess current level of understanding before I plan my lectures in Geodesy next semester.

Self-awareness and reflection were huge themes running throughout the workshop. It was embedded in two major activities the participants took part in. Firstly, the course was made very personal with submission of a demotivation story’ to Greg’s website. Participants were asked to write about a time in their academic or educational career when an individual shattered their confidence to learn. As an example, Greg pointed out that the use of the word ‘just’ has the power to demotivate learners as it gives the impression to the learner that the task/concept is instinctive and easy.

This is an attitude I myself have been guilty of. Next semester I plan to introduce a swear-box type arrangement where I place money into a tin each time I use the word ‘just’ when addressing learners. It could get expensive, but it’s the only way I’ll learn!

Secondly, the participants produced three iterations of a 5-minute talk that was videoed and replayed in front of peers for feedback and as an enhancement initiative. You were opening yourself up to criticism, which was the whole point of the exercise. The content was unimportant - the focus was on the improvement of your delivery. During these exercises myself and other learners learned about tics and habits when speaking in public which we were previously oblivious to.

Dangly objects are my particular vice - so I will refrain from wearing chains in future when presenting. Greg even suggested that participants consider doing some stand-up to practise their audience engagement - a very timely suggestion given I have just enrolled in a workshop looking to turn scientists into amateur comedians as a form of public outreach!

The course began with an introduction into the three stages of cognitive development highlighting the ‘7±2’ concept (Miller's Law): Approximately 7 new concepts are able to be held in short term memory before fading – a learning technique both preached AND practised at the workshop. Information was delivered in bite-size format, with instructors checking that we were all at the same place in the course material via the Post-It note technique. If not, the speed and direction of the lesson was modified according to the feedback resulting in dynamic (real-time evolving) versus static (e.g. fixed lecture material) teaching sessions.

The advisory of a maximum lesson time of 45 minutes is a mantra that could be well heeded at institutions looking to simply top-up teaching hours so that a £9000 a-year tuition fees are viewed as value-for-money.

One of the more surprising teaching methods of the workshop that is contrary to the expectations that students become independent learners at University is the technique of pair programming. Accelerated learning generally occurs when two students are sat at a computer screen and attempt to write a piece of code with one learner the ‘driver’ (Writer) and another the ‘navigator’ (decides what commands to write). This also means fewer resources are required when teaching coding. More learning tools such as lesson concept maps and strategic questioning (e.g. multiple choice questions with plausible distractors) are other important teaching methods that will cross from the pedagogy of software instruction to my everyday lesson preparation and lecture delivery.