Having started in the field of computer instruction as a course developer, I learned firsthand that it is impossible to write course materials that will fit every student, every instructor, and every machine configuration. Course materials are not meant to cover every situation. It is up to the instructor to adapt the materials to the students’ needs to meet the course objectives.

First, start with good materials
Instructors new to a course usually rely heavily on the course materials the first few times they teach the class. So, for the new instructor, the course materials should include an easy-to-follow guide with solutions to all potential problems, and goals that the students should be expected to accomplish at the end of each lesson. Another helpful guideline would be how much time (on average) it will take the students to learn each lesson.

A well-designed set of course materials will also provide more than enough demos, exercises, and supporting text from which the instructor can pick and choose to meet the needs of students with varying backgrounds.

For example, there should be guided, step-by-step exercises for beginners and a choice of exercises that have students apply what they have learned. Some exercises should require students to apply at least 50 percent of what they have learned; other exercises should ask students to apply 70 percent or more. Still others should allow students to research and try out new methods not provided in the book.

Always a need for change
Even with a wealth of examples and demos to choose from, you probably will need to supplement and/or modify the materials for special situations. Some materials may introduce five or six new concepts in what is meant to be a step-by-step exercise for beginners. For example, a first lesson in word processing may introduce the student to tabs, margins, fonts, alignment, and character formatting, all in one exercise. If students are finding this too much to handle, try creating five shorter exercises that cover each of the topics individually. Then use the one in the book as a review exercise.

Sometimes the sequence of the course materials causes problems. Teaching Module 4 before Module 3 may be more helpful if the students are already familiar with the concepts in Module 4. You must be careful with this, however, because course materials are generally not written as stand-alone lessons. It is often assumed that the students have completed each module in succession before they go on to the next one. Make sure your students have the background skills needed to jump ahead.

Make materials relevant
I remember a certain exercise in a physics course that I took that required me to know what a torque wrench was in order to solve a problem. Since I had never used one, I had no idea what the book was talking about. Needless to say, I could not solve the problem. Using course materials that provide examples from financial accounting to teach Excel to liberal arts students will have the same effect.

One way to make examples relevant to the students is to find out what they would like to use the computer for, and then develop exercises that relate to their interests. One student didn’t have much interest in a beginning MS Office class until I showed him how he could use Excel to make his statistics homework easier. Not only did his attendance improve, but it made statistics more interesting for him as well.

Another student was in danger of failing an MS Office course until one day she asked me how to make signs that she could hang up in her Laundromat. She ended up passing the course.

When is it safe to leave out material?
Knowing what to add to a course is one thing; knowing what to eliminate is another. One class of non-typists found the mail-merge exercises so confusing that I felt compelled to scrap the exercises in the book and create a simpler one. This one showed how to use the Memo template to create the Main Document and how to send the same memo to five people using the Firstname and Lastname Mail Merge fields. This exercise was much easier for them to understand; all of the students were able to successfully complete it.

However, should I continue to leave out the complicated sales letter demo in the book for the next class? Again, the overriding guide should be to use the materials to meet both the students’ learning needs and satisfy the course objectives. If the objective is to know about the mail/merge function, then my example lesson will suffice. However, if the student must be able to produce a mass mailing to 100 salespeople on the road when they go back to work tomorrow, then the complicated sales letter exercise should also be taught.

Test, test, then test again
No matter how good the course materials appear to be, don’t have your students test them out for you. The only way you can anticipate the problems a student will have with the materials is to test them out yourself. A good rule of thumb is that if you have trouble understanding the text, at least one of your students will as well.

By thoroughly testing out all course materials beforehand, you will be able to make changes to poorly written or confusing materials before the student has to deal with them. More importantly, you also will ensure that the exercises will work on your classroom’s equipment.
Small-scale changes and additions can improve your courseware and help your students. But what about when you’re spending hours on this work and changing many aspects of each module? How do you decide when to revise and when to just start over? Send us the decision-making factors that you use when deciding whether to revise or recreate courseware.

Mary Ann Richardson is an independent computer consultant and trainer for CMR Executive Advisory. Previously, she worked for Datapro as a computer industry analyst, focusing on imaging, workflow, and distributed databases. She also worked for Unisys for five years as a senior instructor.