To an instructor, the Windows Paint program may seem like a fun and easy introduction to Windows applications. To the majority of beginning Windows students, it is anything but fun and easy. After three years of teaching Beginning Windows classes, I’ve found that introducing Paint to new students at this stage can be frustrating.

After a mix-up with textbooks, I accidentally discovered that leaving Paint out of the introductory lesson made learning basic Windows less difficult for students.

Why can’t my students learn to draw?
In most Windows classes, when it comes to the Paint lesson, there is only time for a short demo, during which the student is given an exercise that is supposed to be easy for beginners. The fact is, what we are really asking students to do is decipher a bunch of cryptic tools and then use them to draw with a mouse. This can be scary to some students, especially since there are no tool tips to tell them what each box on the toolbar represents (unlike in Word).

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the skills needed to draw in Paint have little to do with what students have just learned about Windows desktop basics. For example, they just learned how to use click-and-drag to move an object on the screen; now they are told that click-and-drag doesn’t just move an object. Depending on the tool they click, click-and-drag can be used to draw a line or a circle, color an object, erase an object, or draw a text box! This certainly lowers the confidence level, since the student is not really sure what the mouse will do next.

Is information overload the problem?
Learning all those tools in less than an hour can be nothing short of information overload for some beginning students. As a comparison, a beginning Adobe Photoshop class I taught devoted a full day to all the techniques we ask the Windows students to learn. I also found that many of the Photoshop students (most of whom were graphic artists or designers) had to struggle with the tools just as my Windows students did. But the struggling students in my Windows class didn’t know that. They simply thought there was something wrong with them if they couldn’t draw on the computer when others in the class could.

There must be a better way
The students’ reactions made me rethink the feasibility of using Paint to introduce all students to working with Windows applications. I began putting less emphasis on Paint, and did away with the complicated exercise in the book. I made up a short demo using just a few of the tools, and then I let them experiment on their own. But having no specific exercise to work on seemed too much like play for some students and a waste of time to others. Those who already had become proficient with clip art and scanners on their own saw no reason to learn Paint at all. In the meantime, the struggling students’ frustration with the tools did not go away.

I was running out of ideas for my next Windows 95 course when a mix-up in book orders left us with no texts! I was able to teach the first lessons without the book, but I decided to forego the Paint lesson until after the books arrived. I used the lesson time normally devoted to teaching Paint to showing how basic Windows desktop operations (save, cut, copy, paste, delete, etc.) applied to Word.

It worked. There was much less frustration. Students were more confident about moving on to Word, including using the toolbars!

But what about the course agenda?
Even though eliminating Paint from the first Windows lessons was successful in this instance, it does not mean that an instructor should do away with teaching a particular topic just because the students are having trouble with it. The only reason it was successful at all was that I substituted another lesson designed to introduce them to Windows applications. In that way I was able to satisfy the course objectives as stated in the course agenda.

Students look to the course agenda to decide whether they want or need to take a course. But what if the course agenda calls for a topic that will actually make learning more difficult? Can you leave out a topic you know will slow them down?

It can probably be done if it is not needed to master another topic later on in the course. However, students often will take a course because they need to learn a specific topic or topics on the agenda. If you never get to those topics, the students will want their money back. Thus, you should always leave time at the end of the course to cover the topics you initially skim over, especially if they are of interest to the students.
Sometimes the agenda assumes the student has met certain prerequisites before coming to the course. For example, an introductory PowerPoint or Visual Basic course will assume the student is familiar with working with Windows applications. This is not always the case. I’ve usually found that in these situations it is better to take a little extra time introducing the student to Windows before beginning the course. Invariably, when I spent the extra time upfront, I had no trouble completing the course objectives; the later lessons actually took less time than the agenda called for.While working with an agenda that gives you too little time to meet the student’s needs is always difficult, an agenda with too much time to spare can be a problem too. For example, the original Introduction to MS-DOS course may have been designed as a full-day course—when it was taught on 386 machines. When the same course is taught on a Pentium, it goes a great deal faster—maybe half a day. Students will not want to pay for a full day if they are in class for four hours! Here again, you will need to add material related to the course objectives.
Confidence is the key
One thing I learned about the beginning of an introductory course: No matter what the agenda, all learning activities should center on gaining confidence with the product, not trying to master dozens of menus, toolbars, and mouse tricks. Once confidence is gained, the students become considerably more proficient in learning new skills.

And there was one other thing I noticed about not teaching Paint at the start: there was very little doodling going on in class!
How do you decide what to include in your classes and what to leave out? How do you help students with difficult material? Send Mary Ann a note with your experiences.