Most computer users don’t want to simply memorize five steps to accomplish a task; they want to know why each step is part of the process. To explain the “why,” I use a time-honored teaching method: the “concepts first, details second” approach.
For additional training tips, see “Three essential lessons for teaching beginning computer users.”
Tell ‘em, show ‘em
Effective teaching requires the instructor to come up with lots of metaphors and similes to help students relate to the subject matter. You know, like “think of the computer as your secretary,” or “talking to your computer is like talking to your toaster.”

How do you talk to your toaster?” my students ask. I say, “Well, before we get into the details, let’s talk about what you need to say. You need to tell the toaster how dark you like your bread or bagel toasted, and you need to tell it when to start toasting—so it doesn’t get done too soon and you get cold bread.”

So then your students are imagining talking to a toaster. The details of this lesson are simple: To tell the toaster how dark you want your bread, you turn a knob. To start toasting, you press a lever.

Now let’s talk about computer lessons. Here’s an example of how to introduce concepts before details when you’re training.

How to download a file from the Web. To teach this lesson, you could say, “Click on the link, and when the dialog box appears click OK.” Strictly speaking, those details are all most computer-literate people need to hear. However, beginners will ask questions like:

  • But how do I know what I’m downloading?
  • How will I know when the downloading is done?
  • Where’s the thing I downloaded?

So when I teach beginners about downloading files, I start with the concepts. I say, “Downloading a file is like asking someone to hand you a box off a shelf. And the person who’s handing you the box needs to know where you want the box to go. Should we pop it open right now, or set it on the floor or in that cabinet over there?”

At this point, the student is picturing someone reaching up, retrieving a box off a shelf, and doing something with the box. Then I say, “When you’re downloading a file, the link is like the label on the box. If the link says, “Download XYZ file,” when you click it, you’re going to get a dialog box asking if you want to open XYZ now or save it. If you choose the save option, you’ll get another dialog box.”

“That second dialog box contains all the information you need. The filename corresponds to the name of the box, and the Save In field determines where the box gets put on your system.”

I realize this example is pretty basic, but I use it because I’ve seen so many people download things and have no clue whatsoever where the file went. I say, “Look at the filename field—that contains the name of what you’re downloading. Look at the Save in field—that’s where the download is going.”

My theory is that my students will associate the filename with the label on the box. Visualizing a box on the floor helps them understand that the file has to land somewhere on their hard drive—and then I show them how to click on the Save in field and navigate to another folder. I say, “When you navigate, you’re saying, ‘Hey put that box over here instead.’”
Do you agree that teaching concepts before details is an effective way to get through to your students? To share your opinions and experiences, please post a comment below or send me a note.