There’s No Substitute for Practice

When I teach classes in computer applications, there is occasionally an expectation that after a six-hour class, the student will have mastered all the material we’ve covered in the class.

I wish it worked that way, I really do.

But the problem comes in when the student takes the class and then never touches the application except to do the routine things that he’d originally done before spending all that time being exposed to new material. He forgets it. He has to forget it. There is no way he can retain it.

Practice is important. No, it’s more than important, it’s crucial to retaining the information.

Every computer application class I teach has independent practice exercises for each concept covered. The student is meant to go back to the home or office, then try out the new material and see how it works in the non-classroom environment.

The students that do well will do these provided exercises in a day or two, often emailing me for help with the sticky parts.

The students that genuinely develop mastery take it a step further. After playing with the provided exercises, they’ll start creating their own solutions relevant to their lives, their jobs and their interests.

As a teacher, of course I have to maintain mastery of the applications I teach. To do this, I come up with exercises or play with solutions, myself, that are relevant to my interests.

As a computer professional, I do tend to have geeky interests. My husband, alike in geekery, was noodling around on a discussion board when a complaint about a long-term science fiction program (Doctor Who) came up. The main character flies about in a time machine and picks up companions to travel with him from all over time and space. Someone complained that the companions were all from present-day (at the time of the episode airing) Earth, and that didn’t make sense.

I disagreed that the companions were all from present-day Earth, and immediately pulled up MS Excel to come up with some solid proof.

We made a list of the companions in one column; then populated the second column with a Y or an N to indicate whether or not they were from the present day. After that, I created a couple of named ranges for the columns.*

This groundwork made a COUNTIF function to find out how many companions were from present-day Earth a simple matter.

From Present Not From Present
24 18

The formula in cell D3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “Y”)

The formula in cell E3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “N”)

As a small addition to this little practice exercise, I created a little pie chart from my findings.

Is it in any way important where characters from a science fiction program hail? Of course not! But consistent, deliberate practice? That’s crucial and vital to mastery.

But there’s no reason that the practice can’t be a little fun and goofy!


* A named range is a meaningful name you can give to a cell or range of cells that you can then use in a formula or function. I’ll be posting how to create one in a future Nifty Tip.

Author: Noël Figart

Noël Figart is a computer applications instructor, technical writer and editor.

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