R Open Lab Summary Report – Spring 2018

This was the first semester I worked as a teaching intern at the Digital Center, and I was in charge of running the R workshops. As a great semester reaches its end, I would like to summarize this journey and reflect on it.

A Quick Summary

I conducted 5 workshops besides the starter kit. 4 of them are new topics, and the other one is an intermediate version of the starter kit which provides a deeper exploration on the fundamentals in R. For all the labs, I prepared all the scripts ahead without all the input parameters  because I wanted to fill them in as examples during the labs. I always believe that the first step of learning is imitation. You don’t have to understand the content to be able to imitate, and by imitating again and again, you will be able to observe the pattern and comprehend the nature of it. The usual flow of my labs is:

  1. Introduce the function briefly.
  2. Show the help function output of this function so that students can see what the inputs look like and what the results are.
  3. Enter the input arguments and run it.

I believe this way of demonstrating codes is better than having it written in the script file and running it in a blink of an eye; students are actually seeing me coding, and it becomes easier for them to imitate.

I also started a new teaching practice in the middle of this semester: I started to add practice questions at the end of every lab. The purpose of it is to help fix the codes in memory. No matter how well you understand the new contents, they won’t become part of you skills unless you use it again and again; that’s how we learn: imitate and repeat. I figured that by implementing the functions to a real-world problem, it leaves a mark in student’s memory, and they will be more likely to recall it in the future. I even used the same dataset for several workshops. In that way, they are working with something they are already familiar with, and hopefully, it will help them connect everything we learned.

Challenges and Possible Solutions

Of course there were quite a few challenges. I will list them below and provide possible solutions to them from my perspective.

  • The outcome of the attendants’ amount could be better. Due to lower application popularity   and high difficulty at entry level, less  people choose to learn R. However, I still see a big potential group to which R will be helpful from the positive feedbacks from attendants. The Digital Center could market the open labs(both R and Python) to specific communities which would be interested such as Economics programs and SIPA. If you are reading this post and you want to learn coding in R and Python, remember to check out the open labs this fall!
  • Attendants don’t attend labs regularly. This has been troublesome. I didn’t build the labs consecutively because I didn’t want to review earlier material every time; I think that’s inefficient. But I think that didn’t encourage students to come back, and it forms a negative loop. A solution to that is to post the topics ahead of time. I’m still undecided whether I should have a syllabus for the whole semester due to the nature of high dependence on attendants, but I think for Fall 2018, we should post topics at least 2 weeks ahead, and make sure students know there will be continuous contents.
  • Through all labs of this semester, I found that students who were new to R needed longer time than what I expected to fully understand the syntax and logic. As mentioned above, R has a steep learning curve for beginners. The starter kit is not enough. I should conduct richer materials on the fundamentals, and I will bring more examples to demonstrate. I may also conduct one lab focusing on the swirlpackage since some students thought it was a good tutorial.

All in a nut shell, this experience was exciting and informative. Now I have more understanding of how to teach. To be honest, I don’t really consider myself as an instructor or a teacher. I am just a student who tries to help others with what I know. This internship enlightened me of new ways  to pass on the useful knowledge and to exchange information with others. I am looking forward to continuing my internship at Digital Center and serve the Columbia community and fellow students.

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