Teaching Basic Excel to Adults
October 10, 2005 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on teaching basic Excel skills to adults in a classroom setting.

This week I'm starting to teach an Adult Ed class called Beginning Excel. It's for adults who probably have very little computer experience generally [but are supposed to know how to use a mouse, click, etc]. The class is two hours, twice a week, for two weeks. I have around 6-8 students. I figure we'll learn vocabulary, learn to create/save/open/close a spreadsheet, do basic formatting and printing, maybe make a graph and learn some basic functions. The class is in a classroom where I have a white board and an LCD projector if I want it. Each student can have their own computer. The computers are newish PCs running XP and cannot be customized by me. Students can't save documents to the hard drives across sessions but they'll all have their own disks for their work.

I'm smart with computers generally, Word and Internet stuff, but only decently competent with Excel. I know how to use it, but I've never taught other people to use it. I teach novice computer users to use computers all the time, just not this piece of software. What are Excel-specific things that would be good to prepare for, in this sort of setting? Is it better to demonstrate more on the overhead, or have students work right along with me from the get-go? What do people who are new to spreadsheet concepts have trouble grasping? Are there websites that would be good for me to read before I head into this, or exercises that you've used that get points across well? Any advice for this setting would be appreciated.
posted by jessamyn to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Programs such as Excel have so many features that it is hard to do justice to them in a class room setting. Beyond the basics I think you are better off showing them how to navigate the menus and demonstrating some of the more advanced features without really expecting them to remember exactly how to do something, but at least be able to find it in the menu. "Here is a neat feature - this is where you find it." As for basics I would think they should include a minimal amount of using functions in cells (but I am an engineer by training) and how to link together sheets in a workbook.
posted by caddis at 7:49 AM on October 10, 2005


I think one good exercise would be how to print mailing labels from excel - a very pratical application of the software that people in the class might want to use.
I have a friend who teaches basic excel classes - I can ask him to send you some of his teaching examples if you're interested.
posted by gnat at 7:53 AM on October 10, 2005


I still have trouble grasping how Excel decides to make a chart when you select a range of organized data and invoke the chart wizard. Make sure you understand exactly what a Series is, so that you can teach the best way to organize your data before you start the chart wizard.

If you'd like to get into it, you could try demonstrating Web Queries. I always thought they were a neat, but seldom used, feature.

Just to get started, try Data > Get External Data > New Web Query. For the Address, try http://icasualties.org/oif/, then pick "One or more specific tables on the page." and enter the table name Table2, then hit OK. You'll have the casualty numbers automatically imported from that site directly into the spreadsheet. Step 2: Make charts from the data.
posted by odinsdream at 7:55 AM on October 10, 2005


Excel is good for two basic things: number-crunching and formatting. Both of these topics are dry, dry, dry, dry, and dry.

Know your audience and use their demographic to select exercises that will be meaningful to them.

For example, if you have people with grandkids, you might show how you could put in their birthdays and a little formula to show their current age.

One of the few non-number-based things I've done is to build a tiny database of students who were failing a class of mine and then put together a Word mail merge to write their parents a "personal" form letter using tricks like using 'son/he/his/him' and 'daughter/she/hers/her' based on gender, etc, etc.

I did an exercise with 9th graders in which they had to write an article for a teen magazine that reviewed 'blah' where 'blah' was some item that they were interested in that was manufactured by several competing companies (gum, frozen pizza, sneakers, etc). They had to create a table that rated each item in 5 different categories on a 1-5 scale and each category was weighted in importance. Weights get applied to each rating and the overall score gets tallied. This exercise makes them use simple formulas and requires modicum of planning. For your group, they should have no problem with the planning and the challenge will be in expressing the formulas and laying out the table.
posted by plinth at 8:12 AM on October 10, 2005


Something I have found useful in Excel (as a regular person, not as a techie), is figuring out my pay for each period when I'm freelancing (and how much I should take out for taxes).
posted by matildaben at 9:32 AM on October 10, 2005


I'd definitely spend the first day doing nothing but formatting. Have some unformatted spreadsheets laid out and have the students format them. They should be able to get around the ctrl+1 (format cells) menu very easily. Nothing bothers me more than getting an excel spreadsheet with a bunch of math and exactly zero thought put into how it looks. Teaching a few keyboard shortcuts would be helpful. Also - teach them to never use "merge cells" for labeling purposes, always use "center across selection" in the "Alignment" tab of the format cells menu. The "paste special" menu is also very helpful, especially pasting formats, pasting formulas, and pasting values.

Once the students start building formulas, two key concepts include the use of the "F2" key and trace precedents/dependends (alt->t->u->t/d).

When I started out in investment banking, all of us new analysts were put in a classroom with an Excel instructor who took away everyone's mouse and gave us a whirlwind lesson in Excel formatting and keyboard shortcuts. We had to do basic formulas (sum(), if(), etc) and format financial statements while he screamed that we needed to be "wicked fast." While extreme, this was very helpful and I am now wicked fast indeed (but I also dream in Excel models, so there's a downside as well).
posted by mullacc at 10:35 AM on October 10, 2005


One other thing to consider, many people will want to use Excel as a database. Some help in that regard such as sorting, look-ups, etc. might be useful.

One of the most basic concepts that a surprising number of people do not seem to know despite using Excel frequently is the difference between absolute and relative references in formulas. You were probably going to cover that anyway. Another basic feature not to forget, how to make the grid lines go away.

One very powerful, but not necessarily easy feature of Excel is the pivot table. I doubt beginners are ready for that, but you might want to show them that some powerful features like this await them as they gain familiarity with the program.
posted by caddis at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2005


I used to teach Excel in Adult Ed. Have them do tasks. People learn best by doing. Have them create a payroll worksheet w 4 employees. a column for rate, a column for hours and columns for weekly, monthly (4.3 weeks) and annual pay. Demo absolute links by adding a link to the annual increase cell. Playing w/ the amount of the annual increase, esp. as it relates to several people is generally interesting and illustrative. Same with the ability to change the rate and see the annual effect. Then add an employee and copy formulas. Do some stuff w/ interest, showing growth of a savings account, or a monthly mortgage over 15 years. My students were mostly in a welfare-to-work program, so I did some budgeting and analysis of credit card costs, which they found pretty interesting (I paid them to say so on the evals. not really)
posted by theora55 at 11:17 AM on October 10, 2005


Along the lines of teaching a [person] to fish: show them how to use the help menus and tutorials.
posted by acridrabbit at 11:18 AM on October 10, 2005


I work in the computer lab at a public library, and my department teaches Excel broken into two classes. (I'll be glad to send you a copy of the booklets we use if you want.)

Our biggest problem is people showing up for the second class who weren't at the first one and don't see that as a problem. Even if you do get the same people every time, expect to spend the first 15-30 minutes going over what you did last time.

Take a look at http://www.gcflearnfree.org/Tutorials and www.learnthat.com. They should give you some idea of what it's like to be looking at Excel for the very first time.

The first hurdle is explaining what Excel is used for. The templates from Microsoft at office.microsoft.com might help them envision using Excel in their day-to-day lives.

The structure that seems to work best for us is to do everything twice. First, work through the lesson using the projector. Students can follow along if they want, and I'd say 99% of them do. Then we have a so-called "exercise" for the unit, which we do ask the students to do. Unless there are one or two students who need specific help, we talk the class through the exercise as well.

There are two concepts I hit hard that aren't specific to Excel: Undo and Help. (I'm always surprised at how many people have taken lots of computer classes without learning to use Undo.)
posted by Jaie at 12:18 PM on October 10, 2005


Look out the book "Adults learning" by Jenny Rogers it's packed full of good advice
posted by Lanark at 2:21 PM on October 10, 2005


Thanks a lot everyone. Caddis, my sister specifically warned me against pivot tables and since I didn't know what they were, it will be easy for me to avoid teaching them. We have someone else teaching the advanced class so if people are too far ahead of the rest of the students, I can refer them to the other class.

Jaie, I'd love if you could send me a copy of the booklets if you have them in digtal form. My email is in my profile.
posted by jessamyn at 2:53 PM on October 10, 2005


If they're really as unsophisticated as you describe, you'll probably have to devote most of the first class to skills not specific to Excel. I'm thinking of things like saving files, then finding and opening them again. Plus, as you say, basic formatting and printing. For people who hardly ever use computers, that can take a lot of practice and repetition.

If you've taught computer classes to adult beginners before, you probably already know that it's really hard to impress on some people that they don't have to remember how to do everything.

Caddis and Jaie are right that you'll need to take some time explaining what spreadsheets do. I found this surprisingly hard to explain, especially to students with limited office or budgetting experience. (For this part of the class, you might prefer not to have them follow along on their own computers, so they don't get caught up in the panic-inducing notion that they're supposed to remember it all.) Also, it's probably important to make sure that at least some of your examples and exercises aren't business-related. Some of Plinth's suggestions will probably be very helpful here.

With very unsophisticiated students and only four two classes, it may not be realistic to expect to get them to do very much. I think the ideas you mention are pretty realistic: basic formatting, adding a column of numbers, very simple formulas. I'd add sorting, because when I taught similar groups they seemed to appreciate it. Also, they'll definitely want to create a chart, if only for the gee-whiz factor.
posted by tangerine at 2:57 PM on October 10, 2005


Um, four two-hour classes.
posted by tangerine at 2:58 PM on October 10, 2005


To repeat at least several other folks: adults learn best when they can see the practical use of what they're doing. So I'd argue for some number-crunching (the reason spreadsheets were invented) before showing people how to do formatting, for example.

Useful stuff with a spreadsheet: budgeting, calculating how savings (or savings bonds, or whatever) will grow with compound interest; the impact of an interest rate on (say) car payments.
posted by WestCoaster at 5:02 PM on October 10, 2005


A general tip for teaching any Office component: show your students how to go to Tools->Customize->Options and turn on "Always show full menus" (or turn off "Show recently used items in menus" if that's what's in the version you have).

The are a bazillion features in Office, and it's almost impossible to figure out where the one you think you remember seeing your instructor show you is tucked away if half the menus are missing.
posted by flabdablet at 7:58 PM on October 10, 2005


updatefilter: hey guess what, they're not unsophisticated at all, and my little four class syllabus was half over by the end of the first class. I had two students who were new to computers and three who were pretty advanced, and two in the middle. I used Jaie's booklet as a guide to help me along past the basic vocabulary and exercises. Having a pre-made little spreadsheet [I used one that tracked donations, so it had lists, totals, money and an average that did a function on two functions] was really handy. We spent a lot of time mucking about formatting it and changing the way it worked. Now I have to bone up on functions before Thursday's class. Thanks very much to everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2005


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