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How to Recognise a Student

I keep hordes of wolves away from my door by teaching people how to use their computers to the best advantage. I've just finished teaching a web site development class. I told the class the story of Cinderella, we discussed the curious relationship that Humpty Dumpty has with words, and I quoted several stanzas from The Hunting of the Snark. Trust me - all these were relevant to the subject at hand. We also studied many mysterious computer topics not unconnected with web pages. A fine time was had by both teacher and students and much knowledge was exchanged, to the great benefit and enjoyment of all.

To be fair, the vast majority of courses are as enjoyable and successful as this one was. But sometimes there are exceptions.

Often it begins when the student arrives at reception.

"Hello, I'm here for the course." The definite article in this sentence is always a dead give-away that trouble lies ahead.

"Which course are you on?"

"Errr." A look of panic begins to spread over the student's face and there is much hunting through pockets, bags and briefcases. Somewhere there must be a copy of the official welcome fax that gives details of the course being attended?

The receptionist tries another approach. "What is your name?"

The student's panic increases. Oh God! All the hard questions are coming first!

Once I was privileged to hear the following dialogue:

"Which course are you here for?"

"Building Blocks!" This was stated firmly and proudly. A hurried hunt through the courses scheduled for that day revealed only one that might apply.

"Would that be Microsoft Word Building Skills?"

"Yes, that's right." The student nodded happily. "Building Blocks!"

The next major initiative test comes when the student first encounters the coffee machine. This is a fearsome beast, much given to the making of odd grinding noises as it ponders the current refreshment requirements. A liquid crystal display requests the prospective imbiber to "Select Beverage". A column of buttons provides a wide menu of choice.

Most students do actually manage to place a cup beneath the spout and press the button corresponding to their refreshment of choice (though failure in these early stages is not entirely unknown). The liquid crystal display then changes and exhorts the customer to "Please Wait". There are grinds and groans; liquid gushes and the machine vibrates in a demented manner. The general impression is that it is about to take off and blast a hole in the ceiling on its way into low Earth orbit. The student begins to quiver with anxiety.

There is a brief moment of silence as the machine takes a deep breath and girds its loins for a final stupendous excretory effort. The student often takes this as a signal that it has finished its task. Despite the fact that the display still says "Please Wait", the student snatches the cup away, stares in bewilderment at the thick sludge it contains and watches helplessly as vast quantities of savoury liquid pour into the waste tray. The display then changes and says "Select Beverage" again and the machine sits smugly, waiting for its next victim.

Some students never manage to muster the requisite skills for taming the coffee machine, and they spend the entire course in a state of acute caffeine deprivation. They have far too much blood in their coffee stream as a result, and so they learn very little and get poor evaluations from their instructor. Perhaps we need to run a coffee machine operating system course?

Once settled in the classroom, students often exhibit many more odd behavioural traits.

There is the student who nods thoughtfully at regular intervals and takes copious notes. Often a second or even a third notepad is requested. Important points are underlined and highlighted. If you examine these notes after the student has left for the day, it is usually found that every single word you said has been written down verbatim - including the jokes. Ominously, the punch lines are all underlined and highlighted. At this point in the proceedings you generally begin to regret informing the class that the only sure-fire guaranteed way to solve network congestion problems is to sacrifice a live goat on top of the DHCP server.

I am convinced that many students have had an operation to remove their sense of humour gland.

I have long since given up telling my classes that once a month they should back up their entire system onto a printer. If trouble ensues and it is necessary to restore some files, all you have to do is feed the relevant sheets of paper through a scanner. So many people have taken this outrageous statement seriously, that I have become severely depressed and have had to retire it.

The more studious and serious-minded class members will treat the instructor as the source of all knowledge. They will take advantage of the opportunities the course gives them to regale you with questions of monumental complexity (and self-contradiction) regarding scenarios so extremely unlikely that several ice ages will come and go in the nether regions of Hell before they come to pass. Often the student will become lost inside a twisty maze of subordinate clauses and the question will gradually glide to a puzzled full stop. (Equally often, the general tenor of the question will reveal that the student has utterly failed to understand anything you have said for the last three days).

Faced with this situation, the experienced instructor will simply lie and make up an answer on the spot. Any answer at all will do (preferably one that involves subjects well outside the scope of the course, in order to minimise the chances of the student ever trying to implement it). As long as the answer is given with a straight face and enormous authority, the student will happily accept it.

Then we come to the lab exercises and the student is required to manipulate a mouse and caress a keyboard. This too is a great separator of sheep from goats. The tongue protrudes a quarter of an inch from the left corner of the mouth, a deep frown of concentration furrows the forehead, and a single finger hovers tentatively over the keyboard as letters are searched for. Eventually an approximate match is found and the finger stabs wildly. Damn! Where's the backspace key? The hunt starts again.

Programming courses are particularly susceptible to odd student syndrome. Every so often help is requested to debug some program or other that the student is working on. Woe betide the instructor who falls for this one.

"Just bring the program in, we'll take a look at it."

The next day the student turns up with a briefcase stuffed to bursting point with a printout of a 500,000 line monstrosity that gives every appearance of having been written by a left-handed warthog in the middle of a very bad acid trip. (They never think to bring the program on a diskette so that we can actually run it to see where it breaks).

Structure? Logic? We don't need no steenking structure! Logic is strictly for the birds.You begin to realise why the student has so far failed to complete any of the programming assignments in the class, and you resolve to make sure that the student never finds out your email address.

Perhaps worst of all is the student who thinks (if that is the word I'm groping for; I don't believe it is) in watertight (some might say thought-tight) compartments. Such people are constantly amazed to find that the things they studied in chapter three have some relevance to the subject of chapter four. Applying them again in chapter five is utterly beyond their comprehension.

Such a blinkered, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-road reaction to a technical problem often implies that the student is really searching for the philosopher's stone of computing. They just KNOW that there is one simple answer to life, the universe and every computer problem. A cookbook, a recipe list, one simple series of steps leading to computing nirvana. They bitterly resent that I don't tell them what it is. Why do I have to torture them with arcane concepts and force them to type bizarre things and click on buttons with the frightening caption Advanced on them?

I once explained to a class that there is indeed a single, simple secret known only to the initiated. But to become initiated, you have to dance naked around a bonfire of computer manuals at midnight, and sacrifice a nerd (not a geek - if you use a geek, it won't work). Predictably, several people appeared to take me seriously. They wrote it down.

All students who attend courses are asked to fill in a background form detailing their experience and expectations. When the students actually fill one in, they can indeed be quite revealing. I always make sure to read them carefully so as to ensure that the prospective students meet the prerequisites. However some always slip through the net.

"Why do I have to understand arithmetic? I don't need to know how to calculate a percentage. I just want to learn how to use Excel!"

"Why do I have to know how to type? I just want to learn how to use Microsoft Word!"

Even worse are the students who do not fill in a background form because they are incapable of doing so. One instructor recently had the dubious pleasure of teaching a student whose grasp of written and spoken English was so poor that he could neither speak nor write his own name. He could not fill in the course sign in sheet, and he was unable to understand the lunch menu and therefore could not order lunch. Bets were taken as to whether or not he would starve to death before the week was out. Quite what he managed to get from the course itself remains moot.

Sometimes though the background forms are less than useful. Once I read a form that contained no information other than the student's name and the course name; and recently one form had as an answer to the question "Course being attended?", the big, bold, black word NONE.

I should be so lucky.

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