Reversing Excel: Teaching Common Excel Procedures

Yana Wieckowski, a visiting assistant professor of Biology, discusses her experiences on targeting specifically challenging lessons that benefit from a “reversed” approach in the classroom.

One of my teaching goals for this past school year, which led me to apply for the 2012 FTI, was to incorporate reverse learning into the classroom.  I teach BIO 211 (Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Biology), a required course for all biology majors.  BIO 211 includes, in addition to normal classroom time, a weekly three-hour-long project-based discussion section aimed at teaching students basic skills required to succeed in biology.  While I did incorporate FTI-inspired reverse learning into my lecture, I want to share with you today a way I used it in my 211 discussion to tackle one specific problem.

The Problem

One discussion project my students complete involves data analysis using Microsoft Excel, something I’ve found that the seemingly computer-savvy tech generation struggles with.  In the past, myself and the other instructors who teach the same project in their discussion section, have dedicated a three-hour section entirely to working with Excel.  What this has resulted in is one instructor running around the room helping each student individually with at least ten students waiting somewhat patiently with their arms raised.  In reflecting on the situation, we realized that most of the students were asking very basic questions and that addressing them was not the best use of anyone’s time.

The Solution

My goal for Fall 2012 was to have the students work through the basic Excel functions on their own time and at their own pace and then use classroom time for discussions of results and data analysis.  Here is what I did. . .

Using a combination of tools (inspired by the 2012 FTI as well as an episode of 60 Minutes I caught on TV about Khan Academy), I made a video tutorial that walks students through all of the Excel functions they need for their data analysis.  Next, together with my colleague (and fellow 211 instructor) Dr. Matt Rutter, I created a simple homework exercise that required students to use their newly-learned Excel skills.  Here is the result for your viewing pleasure:

Making the Video

Unfortunately, I was not able to use my Mac to make the video because we teach to the latest version of Excel for PC, so one of the biggest challenges was finding software to do screen capture.  I found a free, online tool called Screencast-o-matic on TLT’s Technology Tools for Learning.  Next, I used the Apple video-editing program iMovie to edit the video and add text.  Finally, I hosted the video on my YouTube channel as “unpublished” so that it won’t come up in a search but anyone with the link can access it.

The Results

We used this reverse learning tool in three discussion sections during Fall of 2012 and my colleagues used it in three sections this past spring and overall we have found it to be greatly successful.  During discussion, students quickly analyzed their own data (consulting the tutorial, if needed), which allowed for more time to discuss the meaning of their results.

The Future

I have grand plans to revamp the video for the Fall 2013 Semester.  For one, I plan to re-do all of the screen captures to increase resolution.  Screencast-o-matic gives you options for video resolution when you are recording, and if you watch the video it is pretty clear that I did not choose the highest resolution.  Additionally, I am going to remove all of the text slides and replace them with voiceovers either directly in iMovie or using the iPad.

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