A lot of us trainers find it hard to teach database applications, not because we don’t know the material but rather because we don’t know the best way to present database concepts. My approach to teaching Access has changed a lot since the first time I taught it, and here’s the formula that has brought me the most success.

Where to begin
Start by walking Access newcomers through the environment. I use the Northwind database, which is loaded by default in the Samples folder in Microsoft Office. That sample database has many good examples of tables, queries, forms, and reports, which saves you from loading an additional exercise file on all of the machines.

I ask students to click on all of the object tabs in the database window so they can see the different items that Access can create. As they surf around the tabs, I explain what each item is and what it does. For example, “Now click your query tab at the top of your database window. You can see all of the queries that have been built in this database. A query is a way of looking at specific fields or records in a database and being able to tell it which records to find and how to display that information once it is found. We will be building our own queries later and you will see exactly how they work.”

Table festival
If the students aren’t familiar with Access, they will be confused by the way the windows, toolbars, and menus change depending on the type of object they are looking at. Instruct everyone to open the sample tables so they can see what they look like then have them switch to design view so they can see how each table was built.

Break down some of the field properties to show what type of information those fields can contain (field type) and how it will hold or display that information (field size or number type, format, input mask, validation rule, or required). Do the same for the queries, forms, and reports. Be sure not to get too technical too quickly—you may scare some students away from learning the program.

Hot button: I like to stress that designing a table the right way initially makes data entry easier in the long run. Once they’ve looked under the hoods of the sample tables, I have the students create their own database. In this database have them create tables, both from design view and using the table wizard. You’ll want your students to create relationships for later use in querying exercises, so show them how to design their tables so they can relate all or some of those tables later.

When they’re designing tables, teach them about primary keys, formats, input masks, validation rules and text, and required fields in the Format Properties pane. Also discuss different field types and when to use them.

Hot button: If you’re looking for a great example of a primary key, mention our Social Security numbers.That’s a primary key everyone can relate to—it identifies each of us in countless databases in our lives. Once the tables are all built, explain database normalization and tell your students how and why they built the tables the way they did and how those tables will relate to each other.

Now the fun begins! After building the tables have the students open the Relationships window so they can make the tables see each other. From there they should add all of the tables to be joined with relationships and drag them away from each other so they can see the relationships better when they create them. Explain why you must have relationships between tables when querying between two or more tables.

Be sure to explain the concept of referential integrity and when and why to enforce it. I get into the difference between one-to-one and one-to-many relationships. As they work through examples, mention that all changes made in the relationships window are saved automatically when a change is made.

Getting logical
Once all of the relationships are established show them how to build select queries. After building one or two simple queries, start to throw in sorting and multiple criteria with “and” and “or” statements. The two last things to show are parameter queries and calculation queries. Once they have a good idea of how to query for information, show them how to generate forms and reports from both the tables and the queries and how to format both the forms and reports.

In a nutshell, that’s all there is to teaching a beginning Access class. The hardest thing to make clear to beginning users is the concept of normalization and relationships. However, once the students understand how all of the pieces of the database work together and why, it will make their lives and yours a lot easier.
If you’d like to comment on this article or share your own tips for teaching Access, please send us a note .