Software

Intro to Excel: How to get students started

Al Hedstrom has taught enough Excel classes to know how to create a solid foundation for students to build on. Read on for his tips on how to use humor in class and how to work in a few math reminders.


By Al Hedstrom

Classes always go well if you provide a solid explanation of the basics, some humor, and a few rewards for good behavior. The course I’ll discuss here is designed for the new Excel user as a one-day class, about six hours of class time.

I start the class with the usual introduction, and a caveat that my intent is not to make them an Excel expert, but merely to make them comfortable with the primary working tools in Excel. I encourage them to ask questions. (The only dumb question in my classroom is the question that is not asked. The corollary for this is that dumb questions are always easier to handle than dumb mistakes.) I also invite them to scribble in the book as needed.

Rewarding students with humor and sugar
Then I need the joke of the day. If I don’t get one from the students, I provide one of my own from my joke source . Of course, it must be humor that can be used in front of my mother. (That’s my standard—if Mom wouldn’t approve, I can’t use it.)

I use a lot of humor throughout the day, including a joke when we return from each break. As you may guess from my name, I’m a Swede and in my area we have a large population of Norwegian descendents. There’s been an amicable rivalry between Norwegians and Swedes for a long time and I make maximum use of it. Norwegian jokes are interchangeable with Swedish jokes, and we have a great time. If there is a similar friendly rivalry in your geographical area, this can be a good way to introduce humor into your class. I also use computer humor, such as: “’Click and drag’ does not refer to that new club downtown.”

Another technique I use is rewards. Specifically, when I get a correct response to a question, I bring out the Girl Scout cookies (I buy three cases from two different Scouts every year). But I make sure that everyone gets a couple before the day is through. When I run out of cookies late in the year, then I depend on candy. At the end of the day, I pick out the student who was most hesitant at the beginning, the student who was a little slower than everyone else, and present him or her with a Spreadsheet Maintenance Kit, which consists solely of a 10¢ pencil sharpener. This same item, coincidentally, is also known as a Word Processor Maintenance Kit.

I think these little techniques, as well as the hands-on aspect of training, bring them back for more.

Down to work
When the laughs die down, I start the day’s work by asking the students, “What is a spreadsheet? What’s it for and why do we have it?” I usually get a few responses to the effect that you can “put stuff in blocks” or “sort stuff” (I love that technical terminology) or “do financial work.”

When a student responds with anything regarding numbers or calculations, I point him or her toward the idea that a spreadsheet’s primary purpose is to perform mathematical calculations. While it can do many other tasks, at its core, Excel’s strength is calculations. This usually brings up the need to calm their fears that the course will be too tough for their math skills. Excel does the hard work; we merely tell it what to do. But I also remind them of the need to keep some basic mathematical principals in mind, such as order of precedence.

Back to the basics from junior high
Much of our effort in Excel is expended assembling formulas to "do the math." One rule that folks tend to forget is something that applies to the following calculation:
=3+4*5

Is the answer 35, 23, or 66?

The usual incorrect answer of 35 then leads me into the mathematical order of precedence rule, which we learned a long time ago in junior high school. It requires us to calculate in the following order:
  • Calculations that are in parentheses
  • Exponents
  • Multiplication and Division
  • Addition and Subtraction

The mnemonic device that I use for this order is: Please (parentheses) excuse (exponents) my (multiplication) dear (division) Aunt (addition) Sally (subtraction).

After the usual grumbling about brain cells lost for various reasons and "my junior high school doesn't exist any more," I sprinkle in some more jokes and continue.

In the above instance, we have neither exponents nor nesting within parentheses. Therefore, 4 is multiplied by 5, then 3 is added. The answer, of course, is 23.

This is an example of something that, if not remembered, will reach around and kick us square in the posterior when we least expect it. Indeed, two hours later, we encounter an exercise that involves an average. Before I introduce them to the Paste Function/Function Wizard, we explore the manual method of averaging. Of course we key it as =A1+A2+A3+A4/4 to come up with an obviously incorrect answer. We troubleshoot the problem, correct it and continue into functions.

Throughout the day, I emphasize new words and phrases and define their meanings in everyday terms. When we do an exercise that puts a smile on their faces, I define that function as “cool.” Of course, that means there are many “cool” things, and they’ve usually got that memorized before the day is done.

And away we go.

Overview of Al’s Excel class
This is a general outline of what I cover:
  1. Starting
  2. The basics
  3. Formulas
  4. Page setup
  5. Printing
  6. Adjusting columns and rows
  7. Formatting numbers
  8. Formatting text
  9. Tweaking
  10. Large worksheets
  11. Multiple worksheets
  12. Charts

Al Hedstrom has been teaching Windows, applications, and networking for six years. He is currently a systems administrator/technician/trainer at a regional bank. Al likes to inject humor into his classes whenever possible and is a strong believer in the joke of the day approach to life.

How is your training going? What do you have to know in addition to the application to teach your classes? If you have an article suggestion or a comment on Al’s Excel approach, send him a note.

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