Session 3

Compelling Instruction

In this session, we'll explore the effect of morale, motivation and psychology on student achievement, and offer strategies on how an instructor can build a compelling classroom experience for a diverse audience.

Made by the Mozilla Science Lab


In previous sessions, we explored ideas around structuring knowledge, and building and measuring understanding. What we haven't addressed yet, are the confounding variables and psychological effects that can either promote or hinder learning. We'll examine two main influences on this matter: morale, which we use to collectively mean self-perception and motivation, and community, which we examine through a lens of perceived belonging. These concerns are of particular importance in an open, community driven workshop or educational environment; by understanding what motivates non-mandatory participation and by understanding how to remove barriers to participation, we can potentially dramatically extend and diversify the audience we are able to reach.

Student Morale

How and if a student chooses to engage with a topic is powerfully impacted by a collection of factors we'll summarize as 'morale'. While the difference in performance of a student who is enthusiastic and motivated from one who is disengaged and alienated is anecdotally familiar, breaking morale down into a few parts can help us make contact with solid research on the matter, and inform our teaching practice around those studies.

Student Self-Perception

Skaalvik & Skaalvik (2009) and references therein studied the impact that self-perception had on student academic achievement in mathematics. They define 'self-perception' as an umbrella term covering two more exact features:

  • Self-Concept - a general and subject wide belief in one's own ability to perform in that subject. Bong and Skaalvik (2003) frame this as largely stemming from past experiences; Skaalvik & Skaalvik qualitatively explain self-concept as the attitude influencing the answers to questions like "Am I good at it?"
  • Self-Efficacy - specific expectations surrounding success on particular tasks. Bong and Skaalvik frame this as a more future-oriented expectation of task success; Skaalvik & Skaalvik qualitatively explain self-efficacy as the attitude influencing the answers to questions like "Can I do it?"

Skaalvik & Skaalvik concluded that taken together, the factors of self-perception were stronger predictors of future academic success than past performance; Ferla, Valcke and Cai (2009) further parse self-concept as being more strongly tied to motivation, and self-efficacy to performance. While none of these studies assert a direct causal relationship between self-perception and performance, they do present compelling arguments for a reciprocal relationship between the two - as achievement is realized, self-perception is strengthened and thus undergirds the sustained effort needed for continued success. The conclusion that past performance is a weaker predictor of future success lends weight to to the teaching strategy of building a student's sense of self-efficacy in particular, since it is of narrower, task-oriented and future-facing scope, and thus more in the instructor's power to mold than a student's perceptions of her past. Ultimately, skill is built by effort, and effort is a costly bad investment for a student who anticipates failure. How then to begin this virtuous circle of self-efficacy and performance?

Early Wins & Foundational Skills

Wherever possible, set your students up to start with some successes. What is the most conceptually simple and least error prone topic you want to cover in your workshop? By opening with something everyone can get some early wins at, you set a precedent for success; the more wins you can give your students at the start, the more confidence they will have to roll up their sleeves for the hard bits later. Also, if possible, wrap up your workshop in the same way - by sending them home with a fresh memory of success, your students will come away with a more positive experience overall.

In a similar vein, regularly emphasize the foundational skills in the topic at hand. It can be tempting, especially for an expert instructor, to delve into esoteric details or forget to repeat the basic patterns and themes, as discussed in knowledge and expertise - resist this temptation. Give your students regular exercises that reinforce the basics, and not only will they begin to feel comfortable with the patterns that emerge and confident in their ability to execute on them, they will have a solid technical bedrock for more substantial problems.

When it comes time to do some harder problems, scaffold them accordingly. 'Scaffolding' in this sense means rather than setting a long, open-ended problem with no guidance, break it up into smaller steps, or ask your students to solve a simpler problem first - particularly for beginner classes, and particularly for exercises meant to be done while the workshop is still in session.

Finally, give them time. Don't rush your students through an exercise to get onto the next piece of lecture; cutting off a student who is still working can change a win in progress to an instant failure. If you need to speed things along, give a hint, remind students to work together, or direct assistant help effectively - but don't just shut your students down. Particularly on harder and more substantial problems and projects, budget time accordingly.

Death By Jargon

Terms your students don't understand communicate nothing; furthermore, even when we explain new terms, that new knowledge is subject to the same constraints of short term memory and cognitive load as the rest of the subject matter we present. Best to introduce new terms extremely sparingly (one or two in a half-day's workshop is plenty), and strictly avoid their use otherwise.

There's an oft-overlooked second and perhaps even more serious pitfall to the abuse of jargon. As an instructor, every single word you say to your students shapes their expectations of whether or not they are going to be able to understand the lecture. Using un- or ill-defined jargon is therefore guaranteed to undermine students' self-efficacy, by building the expectation that they can't understand the lesson.

Just Don't Say 'Just'

A common mistake in instruction is to belittle the topic at hand. This isn't usually intentional - it can come out when instructors are at a loss for how to explain a step they think is trivial ('just LU-decompose the operator'), or in noble but misguided efforts to frame a topic as simple or non-threatening. When we use language that belittles the complexity of the task at hand, we also indirectly belittle any student that doesn't understand; failing at tasks that are framed as 'easy' is toxic to a student's self-concept. Only successfully overcoming challenges can help a student feel a sense of confidence on a topic - simply stating that a student 'should' feel confident has exactly the opposite effect. Avoid subjective judgements of difficulty, never tell a student they 'should' already know or understand something, and don't say 'just'.

Student self-perception impacts success, and can be influenced, positively or negatively, in some subtle ways. Keep these points in mind when teaching:
  • Start with simpler material, so your students get some early wins (and end on some wins, too, if possible).
  • Emphasize foundational skills over esoteric details, particularly for beginners.
  • Scaffold larger problems by breaking them up into steps, or offering some other form of guidance.
  • Avoid cutting students off when working on problems; give as much time as possible.
  • Aggressively avoid jargon.
  • Don't use language that belittles or trivializes a topic.


Technical skills require time and a large investment of practice to become fluent in - usually far more than what can fit into a brief workshop or even a semester-long class. It's crucial for students to remain motivated to put in the sustained effort skill-building requires. In How Learning Works (S. Ambrose et. al., JW&S 2010), motivation is broken down into three key components:

  • Value. Students must place some form of value on a goal, in order to be motivated to pursue it.
  • Expectations of success. Essentially the self-perception described in the last section, students must genuinely believe that their efforts will be duly rewarded with success.
  • A supportive environment. Motivation is undermined by hostile, alienating, unfair or otherwise biased classroom environments; avoiding such biases is necessary for sustained motivation.

Communicating Value

When teaching coding or other technical skills to scientists, the goal of everyone involved is empowerment - students want to be able to effectively use the tools and techniques we present - the minutiae of what's under the hood, much less so. The faster we can demonstrate the power of a lesson, the more compelling that lesson will be; frame the topic at hand as a useful prize, and students will eagerly pursue it. Identify and emphasize things that are relatively simple to master, but lead to practical value quickly.

Empowerment to achieve more and better in the lab is a powerful motivator for scientists, because it piggybacks on what is usually an already strong intrinsic motivation - their interest in their research. But, creating this association requires the instructor to relate the material back to the practices and customs of the audience. When teaching version control in the social sciences, point out git's potency at curating text - something the audience already understands the value in. When teaching code review to a large lab, point out how it can smooth collaboration and cut down on conflict, and you will immediately have their attention.

Building Expectations of Success

Building the self-efficacy of believing in one's own ability to meet challenges was discussed in greater depth above. But now in light of understanding the importance of communicating value to students, we can think of at least two kinds of student expectations of success - expecting to succeed with the material itself, and expecting to succeed at employing the material in their field of research. In practice, it almost always requires some knowledge of the field in question to create challenges and examples relevant to it - but if you can do this for your students, you can doubly reinforce their positive expectations as they successfully complete challenges, and see how those challenges will empower them in their every-day work.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Classroom attitude and environment can be dramatically impactful on learners - particularly those learners most at risk of being subjected to biases and exclusion. We can clarify the concept of a 'supportive environment' by breaking it down into two components: students must feel like they belong in the classroom; and students must believe that they are being treated fairly. We'll explore some things that affect a sense of belonging in the next section; first, we can further decompose fairness into clarity of expectations, and equal access to resources.

  • Make sure your expectations are both clear and reasonable. Never present homework or challenge problems exclusively verbally; always have a written version students can access and re-read at will. Make sure students either have all the resources they need to solve a problem, or a clear idea of where to go to find those resources. If you're marking student performance, make clear statements of how they will be graded, and never deviate from that statement for any reason (until the next cohort of students).
  • Make sure your students have equal access to all resources and forms of support. In practice in a workshop environment, this usually means making sure everyone is getting attention from teaching assistants while they are working on problems, and opportunities to answer questions in lecture. Keep careful track of who has participated and who hasn't, and approach everyone regularly to make sure they're making progress; do this proactively, or the most aggressive and confident students will monopolize your attention.

Classroom Community

Your classroom is a community - it has its customs, it enables communication and collaboration between its members, and it presents barriers to entry for new participants. In order for a student to benefit from the classroom community, they must have a sense of belonging there; in this section, we list a few simple strategies for leveraging this community and creating that sense of belonging for as diverse an audience as possible.

Do I Belong Here?

Even when we throw an event with no explicit barriers to entry, implicit ones still exist. People will instinctively look for subtle cues to try and predict whether they are going to get along and feel comfortable with the group. This is a form of emotional self defence we all practice; concluding that the group is a safe place and a good fit is what we mean by finding a sense of belonging. Some common cues & things to be aware of:

  • Accommodation. When someone has an additional barrier to participating in a workshop, showing that you've thought of their situation and taken steps to accommodate them signals to them that they are welcome - and they'll probably appreciate not having to ask. Ensuring that the classroom is wheelchair accessible or arranging to provide child care during the workshop are two examples of accommodations that widen the sense of belonging.
  • Stereotype Threat is the observed phenomenon of worsened individual performance at a task, when the individual is first reminded of a negative stereotype about their race, gender, class or other demographic. Simply avoiding overtly racist or sexist comments is not enough to avoid potentially triggering stereotype threat; be cognizant at all times of how you are casting characters in stories, anecdotes, examples and problems, and consider if those comments could be unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes.
  • Avoid cultural assumptions and gender bias in your comments. This includes assumptions about religious or political values, sexuality, and material designed to appeal to a particular perspective or experience. Not only are such comments invariably inappropriate and out of place in a technical workshop, they create divisions in your audience along subject / object lines that subtly signal the exclusion of some groups - regardless of the speaker's intent. Don't assume people share a cultural perspective with you - keep your comments as neutral as possible.
  • Respect your learners' previous practice. In technical workshops, we are often presenting what we believe to be a better way of doing things. Regardless, never denigrate alternative tools or methods. Remember - your students may have been using those tools for decades, and by insulting those tools, you have insulted your student's practice and profession. Let the value of your lessons shine through on their own - and if they truly are so superior, they'll win out in the end without the mud slinging. It can be helpful to take some time before a workshop to create a learner profile of your students, as discussed in design and adaptation - this can help you empathize with what your learners' perspectives might be, and help you avoid putting your foot in your mouth in this way.
  • Create and advertise a Code of Conduct for your workshop, that demands everyone treat everyone else with respect, and explains what that looks like (and does not look like). Advertise this code to attendees beforehand and at the beginning of your workshop, and of course, enforce it seriously. Not only does this give you clear grounds to discourage and remove disruptive influences, simply having and advertising a code of conduct signals to people who have been treated poorly in the past that their safety and comfort is actively on the mind of the instructor, which in itself can go a long way to making participants feel welcome and included.
  • When interacting with the class, talk to everyone. It can be an easy trap to fall into, to only call on the same three really eager people in the front row; don't. Try and keep a running tally of who has gotten to speak in front of the class, and spread it around. This way, people who are a bit less agressive about speaking up will get a chance to engage and participate, and will appreciate that you noticed and made space for them.
  • Introductions. Much is conveyed to students in how we introduce ourselves to them, and an introduction can set the tone for how relatable you as an instructor will be to your students. When introducing both yourself and your topics, find opportunities to call out shared experiences and things your students will have in common with you - this signals to a student that the instructor really is speaking to them.
  • Work in pairs. One of the worst things that can happen to a student in a classroom setting is for them to feel isolated; when this happens, feelings of insecurity and frustration can become overwhelming, and it's easy to believe that you're the only one who is struggling. Working with someone else helps to maintain perspective, which in turn grounds students with a sense of belonging. Pairs are best for programming practice - more than that, and one person usually ends up left out.
  • Sign up in groups. When advertising your workshop, suggest that people bring their friends and colleagues. This way, they will feel confident going in that there will be some friendly people in the group who are on about the same page they are. Also, after the workshop, they will have a clear support network of people trying to learn similar skills.
  • Ask for feedback. Millions of person-years of classes have transpired without the instructor checking in once with how the students were doing. Regularly ask your students if they understand, if they would like to review a topic, and if they have any feedback for you, and you signal that you genuinely want them to interact with you and that this class is for them. For many, it will be the first time this has ever happened.

A Note on Authority

Some of the best learning happens among a classroom of peers, and that includes the instructor - when people feel secure in asking questions and struggling through problems without a risky power differential, there are less obstacles to learning. But, many people, particularly academics, are strongly conditioned to sit quietly and pay attention when an instructor is at the front of the room; education culture invests instructors with an authority that can sometimes be a hinderance to a collaborative, interactive classroom. Keep these things in mind when minding your classroom:

  • Leave the stage when you want your students to work together on a problem. As long as you are standing up there, the authority figure is watching. Move to the sidelines, or even leave the room for a minute or two, and all your students will be able to relax a bit.
  • Chat with your co-instructor while students are supposed to be speaking amongst themselves. It doesn't matter what you talk about with your team - none of your students want to be the first to break the classroom silence, so break it for them.
  • Let the call for questions hang for five to ten seconds of dead air before assuming there aren't any; this gives students a chance to compose their thoughts, and overcome any inhibitions they may have about questioning you.
  • Don't offer fake options. When a power differential exists, the person on the less-powerful end feels a strong pressure to agree with the authority figure. Asking a student one-on-one if they would be willing to do something (present to the class, for example), is not a real choice; the pressure to consent is too great. Inform your students beforehand that they will be asked to participate as part of the workshop, and if there's any reason a student may not want to do something, don't ask in the first place.


  1. Reflecting on Communication