Category Archives: teaching

Notes from helping with physics

J-‘s final exams were last week. We’d been helping her review physics, since she was okay with her other subjects. She solved many of the review questions on her own, and then asked us for help with the ones she didn’t know how to do. I was surprised to discover that I remembered enough of kinematics and other topics to be helpful (and to enjoy helping). Yay! =)

We walked her through solving the problems that stumped her. Lots of math and science problem solving is about pattern recognition: seeing how the problem you’re working on is similar to other things you’ve already done (possibly with help), and adapting your experience to the current situation. Having someone sketch out a map and provide quick feedback can make studying a much more productive and less frustrating experience.

Here are some notes on the sub-skills involved:

2015-06-15b Notes from helping with physics -- index card #physics #math #tutoring #j- #family #science #teaching #school

2015-06-15b Notes from helping with physics – index card #physics #math #tutoring #j- #family #science #teaching #school

Algebra’s a big one. I’m not sure how you can develop fluency in that aside from practice and different ways of exploring it. Practising this seems pretty low on the priority list once homework’s finished and even lower priority during vacations. On the other hand, it’s hard to cram understanding when the pressure’s on. I think either John Mighton’s The End of Ignorance or The Myth of Ability had some tips on helping people develop a more intuitive understanding of algebra.

On a related note, there’s also the challenge of translating a word problem into the appropriate math, especially when multiple parts or equations are involved. Maybe we can think out loud more often, modeling the real-world applications of this skill.

There are the usual small mistakes related to doublechecking one’s work or getting the units straight, but she’ll get the hang of that.

J- will be taking more physics, chemistry, and biology next term, so it might be good to do a bit of this review during the summer. In general, I get the impression that she’s doing pretty well, especially compared with the rest of her class.

Thinking about when I enjoy helping people

Sometimes I love helping people, and sometimes I feel hints of stress. I’m a good fit for some questions or approaches, and I’m not for others. What’s the difference, and how can I tilt it towards positive experiences more than negative ones? Let’s look at the negative side first, since that often gives strong clues.

2015-01-30 How can I get better at being clever on demand -- index card #emacs

2015-01-30 How can I get better at being clever on demand – index card #emacs

I tend to feel a little bit of an impostor syndrome around coaching, because I doubt my ability to be clever on demand. In terms of Emacs, I’m not a good substitute for Stack Overflow, mailing lists, or newsgroups. I’m not going to teach the One True Way of doing things. In terms of drawing, I’m not a visual thesaurus.

But I shouldn’t let this get in my way, since people don’t expect me to be those things. (And if they do, that’s under their control, not mine.) Instead, I can focus on the fact that people are often looking for a discussion of workflow options with some ideas, and that they’re going to translate those thoughts into something applicable to their situation anyway.

2015-02-09 Why do I respond differently to variants of the same question, and what can I learn from that -- index card #coaching #preference

2015-02-09 Why do I respond differently to variants of the same question, and what can I learn from that – index card #coaching #preference

I also feel a bit of friction when we start from a negative position (“This sucks”, “I’m frustrated”, etc.) instead of a positive one (“I’ve figured some stuff out”, “I’m looking forward to learning this”, etc.). I can filter it out when I pay attention, but it feels easier to build up something positive than to shore up something that’s sloping downwards.

I think part of it is the difficulty of distinguishing these situations:

  • someone who isn’t ready to change, but who wants to vent
  • someone who wants to change, but who’s frustrated at being stuck
  • someone who’s uncomfortable with being a beginner (still attached to the feeling of competence?)

Actually, the first situation can be identified by focusing on action. The third situation is a matter of mindset and patience. For the second situation, how can you tell the difference between something that will eventually become a good fit after practice and learning, and something that just doesn’t jive with what someone wants? Hmm. I think this is why I like focusing on building a tiny beachhead of happy competence first, because it’s frustrating to deal with the feeling of constantly running into walls.

On my side, it’s not fun to only see the parts where someone bumping into walls. I feel much better when people share their triumphs and excitement, too, instead of just presenting me with the next thing that annoys them. It’s like the criticism sandwich. I want to hear about stuff people like, not just stuff that needs to be fixed. In fact, I prefer it even more if people use something similar to my “How can we make this even better?” mindset: talk about what works and how we can improve.

Hmm. Since I do this voluntarily and I benefit a lot from focusing on people who energize me, perhaps I should just redirect people whose learning styles, stages, or mindsets aren’t a good fit for my own. A number of people offer paid-for services for the kinds of things people often ask me about, so I can refer work to them. Someone who isn’t ready to change won’t bother investing. Someone who’s frustrated at being stuck can more easily value help in moving forward. Someone who’s uncomfortable with being a beginner can benefit from the attention. But there’s no obligation for me to do that kind of emotional work for free, and I don’t need to earn money that way either.

So if I reduce the kind of help I don’t like to give, what kind of help would I like to focus on?

2015-02-06 What kind of coaching do I like to give -- index card #coaching #teaching

2015-02-06 What kind of coaching do I like to give – index card #coaching #teaching

I love it when people write about what they’re learning in blog posts or other ways to share with the community. I think the reflection time is important, and it helps me build on their understanding. I like reading blogs as a way to keep in touch. Best yet, blogging brings them closer to the community, so they (and I!) can learn from other people’s comments.

Few people blog. Sometimes people are intimidated by the thought of posting mistakes or not explaining things well enough. I think that’s actually one of the best reasons to write, since then you can learn more. Maybe requiring them to write blog posts (even rough notes) will demystify the process. It’s also a good way to see who takes action.

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward -- #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward – #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

Sometimes I take questions and turn them into blog posts myself. While this is useful, I don’t want to rely on it. If I do most of the writing, I benefit from the additional thought and connection, but I’m limited to what I can write about. I’d rather build up more voices in the community.

Hmm. There’s an abundance of questions to explore or topics to write about, so questions from other people are nice to have but not essential. On the other hand, questions from other people are helpful at identifying gaps so that I can fill them. So I’m a little divided on this, although I’m leaning towards requiring blog posts as a way for me to focus on people who create lots of value. These don’t have to be amazing, eloquent, insightful posts either. Rough notes with questions, ideas, or code is fine. The important thing is that the knowledge doesn’t get stuck in e-mail or in conversation.

2015-02-09 What characterizes people I like helping -- index card #coaching #preference

2015-02-09 What characterizes people I like helping – index card #coaching #preference

There’s an interesting idea there. Let’s say that there are a few people for whom my preferred way of teaching/learning is an excellent natural fit. If I focus my resources on those people, we might be able to accelerate each other’s learning tremendously. There might be more people who are somewhat compatible with my preferred way of teaching/learning. Maybe all they need is the nudge to try out blogging, for example. I can create resources to help them bridge the gap, or give quick tips here and there. There are also lots of people whose preferred ways of learning don’t mesh well with mine. It’s okay if they find other sources of help for now. As I grow, I’ll get better at handling a diversity of learning approaches, so I might intersect with them someday too.

2015-01-08 Imagining coaching or guiding others -- index card

2015.01.08 Imagining coaching or guiding others – index card

So maybe wild success looks like this: someone describes what they want to do and where they’re getting stuck or what they’re curious about. I suggest a couple of approaches, and maybe we explore them together. These experiences get turned into blog posts, and the blog posts generate more ideas and conversations. (They might even get compiled into books and courses.) The nature of the conversation is such that we’re both excited about learning, we both learn interesting things, and we both contribute to the greater community.

I like that. I think that’s worth investing time in. It feels selfish to say, “I’ll help here, but not there,” or to tell someone, “The way I work right now might not be a good fit for the way you work.” But if I take a step back and think of the other things that I could direct my time and energy to, it makes sense to try to allocate them where they would produce the most value. Hmm…

Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp

I’ve been working on an Emacs Lisp beginner’s course, something focused on helping people become more comfortable configuring Emacs. The web-based guide is taking shape quite nicely, but it’s still a lot of scrolling, and it can still feel overwhelming for newbies. I think it might make sense to offer it as an e-mail course. That way, I can spread the lessons out, help people with their questions, and improve things based on people’s feedback.

2014-05-12 How can I take Learn How to Read Emacs Lisp to the next level #emacs #packaging #writing #teaching

2014-05-12 How can I take Learn How to Read Emacs Lisp to the next level #emacs #packaging #writing #teaching

I can improve the guide by adding more structure, examples, exercises, and so on. I’ve requested several books on e-learning and course design, and I’m looking forward to learning more over the years. And I can also improve it by testing it with people… =)

2014-05-14 Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp #emacs #teaching

2014-05-14 Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp #emacs #teaching

I floated the idea on Twitter and lots of people e-mailed me to join. Instead of setting up an autoresponder, I decided that I would do things by hand as much as I could. That way, I can personalize the messages based on people’s interests and configuration, and I can enjoy more of the back-and-forth conversation.

After getting annoyed with the SSL hassles of setting up Gnus on Windows, I decided to just use my Linux-based virtual machine for handling mail. That was pretty straightforward, although for some reason, my IMAP view of Gmail doesn’t have all of the messages under a label. It just means that I have to manually re-check the messages to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

I used an Org file to keep notes on each person, including TODOs under each of them. I sent everyone a checklist to see which section we should start with. A few people are starting at the beginning, and others will get the e-mails once I’ve updated those sections. Text registers (C-x r s) were really helpful since I was pasting different things into different e-mails. I’m still figuring out the workflow for this, and I’m sure I’ll automate pieces of it as more people move through the course.

I’ve sent the first section to some people already, including the Org version in the e-mail body and as an attachment, and linking to the web-based version. The Org version is a little more cluttered than the text export, but the text export uses box quotes, so I figured the Org version was the best to start with.

2014-05-16 A plan for delivering the Emacs Lisp course #emacs #teaching

2014-05-16 A plan for delivering the Emacs Lisp course #emacs #teaching

Want to be part of this? E-mail me at [email protected]

What you’re really there to learn in computer science

You know that feeling of struggling to learn something that everyone else seems to have an easy time with? The one that makes you think, “Maybe this isn’t a good fit for me.” Or worse, “Maybe I’m not smart enough.”

That one.

Embrace it. Learn how to deal with it. This is the real hard work in a degree in computer science or IT or whatever. The rest is just implementation.

You see, there will always be more to learn. There will always be challenges to pick apart and overcome. If you’re not running into them, you’re not pushing yourself enough. There will always be those moments when you think, “How on earth do I even begin to learn how to solve this?”

You aren’t learning a computer language or a platform or a system of abstract concepts. You are learning a way of thinking. You are learning how to break down a big challenge into smaller pieces. You are learning how to try different approaches to understand and solve each small part. You are learning to set aside your worries and fears so that you can focus. You are learning how to adapt, even as changes come quicker and quicker. You are learning how to organize your thoughts. It just so happens that you’re organizing them in a way a computer can understand.

What can help you build your confidence? Start by building a small base of things you know well. Celebrate that. Expand through practice and curiosity. Ask for the help you need. If you don’t get it, fight on anyway. All learning feels weird in the beginning. It only becomes natural through repetition.

If you’re taking a course, learn what you have to learn, but leave yourself room to learn what you want to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to learn everything the first time around. If you know it takes you several tries to understand something, start before you take something up in class. That way, you’ll have better questions. Continue afterwards, too. Computer science lessons build on each other, like the way mathematics lessons do. They assume you understand the previous material. Practice and questions pay off.

There will always be people who have learned what you want to learn, or who will pick up things faster than you can. Most of these people are awesome. They know that your questions can help them learn even more, and they’re happy to pay it forward because people helped them too. Pay them back by writing about what you’ve learned and sharing that with them and others. Other people who are also learning will find your questions and answers useful, too. This is true whether you’re learning in class or on the Internet, so go ahead and share your journey.

There will always be some people who haven’t quite figured out their own insecurities – people who want to establish their position by putting you down. You can learn how to recognize what they’re doing. That makes it easier to ignore them. Don’t mind them if they try to make you feel bad for asking stupid questions. It just means they’re missing out on opportunities to learn how to ask and learn how to learn. Don’t partner with them. Look for people who help others up, not tear them down.

It is not easy to wrap your mind around new topics or break down a complex unknown. If you can get good enough at it, you may come to enjoy that excitement when a problem looks like it’s solvable. You’ll learn how to tell if you’re going in roughly the right direction. You’ll be able to celebrate even the tiniest progress. If you can do that, you’ll do fine.

Besides, the real world is little like the classroom. Even if you never get the hang of the artificial projects you do for education, you may find that you like working with technology. Don’t count yourself out just yet!

Sometimes I hear from students who find computer science intimidating. I hope this makes the big picture a little easier to see.

Google Helpouts Update: People like it, so how do we scale this up?

It turns out that the newly-launched Google Helpouts platform is a great way to offer quick, focused help to people. 15 minutes is just enough time to ask a few questions to understand where people are coming from and share some tips and resources that can help them try out something new.

My note-taking Helpout is fully booked for the rest of the slots I opened in November. I’m keeping it to 15-minute slots for two hours a day or every other day so that I don’t get overwhelmed. My two other listings (Emacs geekery and introvert hacking) just went live. I added a few slots for those so that I can test the idea out. You can find all three at… but they’re probably going to be fully booked by the time most people check it out.

Requests for more slots are piling up in my inbox, and I haven’t quite figured out what I’m going to do about them. I really really want to connect! People have all these fascinating questions, and I’ve gotten great conversations and drawing prompts out of these Google Helpouts. But I can’t let it take over my work or my life, so I need to find a better way to scale up that don’t involve just adding more hours.

2013-11-07 Google Helpouts - sold out

One way to increase my impact without increasing my hours is to reduce the no-show rate. I think charging for a Helpout (even if I refund it on attendance) will drastically reduce my sign-up rate because people will need to set up a Google Wallet. I’m reluctant to introduce that kind of friction and effort when many of the people reaching out to me are blog readers (hi folks!) or students. I could be wrong about this assumption, so I should test it. Maybe charging will still result in sign-ups, in which case I may set the fee to a token amount (a cup of hot chocolate?) and inch it up until the slots reach equilibrium.2013-11-08 Wha twould make me feel comfortable with charging for a Helpout

I want to make sure that I’m overdelivering value and that I can still encourage people to contact me for free. I’ve started a discussion in the Helpouts community to find out whether my idea of directing people to free resources (Hangout on Air? Blog and mailing list?) that are outside the Helpouts platform is compatible with Google’s Terms of Service. Google doesn’t want Helpout providers to channel people off the platform and into non-Google-hosted paid services… Would they mind if I nudged people towards free resources if I’m out of scheduled slots? We’ll see.

If I go this way, I also want a significant non-Google-Helpouts-marketplace way of encouraging people to sign up. That’s because most people browsing it will probably focus on the free offers (I would too!), and I want to make sure that people who really want to talk to me can still find me. I could update the page about what I can help people with so that it lists different topics and options in a visually engaging way.

Anyway, assuming that charging fills the time 100% with people who show up prepared to ask questions and pick my brain, then that effectively doubles my impact. It’s still about 1:1 interaction, though, and it’s still going to be limited by hours. Another way for me to scale up the help I can provide is to collect the answers together. For example, here are some sketches that grew out of people’s questions over the past week:

If my goal for doing these Helpouts is to collect interesting questions that I can use to share what I’m learning and fill in the navigational gaps, then it’s in my interest to ask questions beforehand, share some quick resources, and cancel Helpouts if people aren’t responsive or if those resources answer the question so that other people can take the slot. (Be firm, Sacha!) The Helpouts interface doesn’t make it easy to keep track of the age of messages, but maybe using Google Mail with Boomerang will do the trick. Most likely, people who are engaged will then have follow-up questions, so we can fill in the next gap along the trail.

2013-11-08 How would I scale up helping people learn more effectively

People don’t need more information. They need to figure out where to start. For me, the value I provide in the Helpout is in the back-and-forth of a quick conversation that clarifies what people need. That way, I can either point them to the right resources or give them some tips in case there are no such resources handy. (And then I can build those!) It’s a little difficult to do with a group session, although maybe if I get better at Q&A, I might be able to pull that off.

So maybe what I need to do is:

  • Update the help page on my site and add different help options to it.
  • Set up a mailing list for Hangout On Air, new Helpout availability, and new resources for different topics.
  • Schedule a Hangout On Air experimental Q&A.
  • Test conversion through my own page. Keep the session free.
  • Package free resources.
  • Be firmer about session preparation. Maybe give guidelines: three questions?
  • Switch to a token fee with a cancellation policy, especially if I can update the listing or autorespond with include alternatives when fully booked.

Any suggestions?

Experience report/invitation: Pick my brain through Google Helpouts

Quick note: You can book free help sessions with me through There’s a listing focused on note-taking/visual thinking, and I have two other listings focused on Emacs and introversion going through the review process. Feel free to talk to me about other topics, too!)

UPDATE 2013/11/07: More notes at the end!

I’ve been looking for ways to make it easier to help people online. ScheduleOnce + Skype/Google Hangout was great, but scheduling was a bit cumbersome, and sometimes one-hour chats felt a little awkward. When Google announced their new Helpouts service, I signed up to be one of the early providers. I started with note-taking and visual thinking because those are useful skills that a lot of people need help with, compared to digital sketchnoting workflows which would be a tiny tiny niche.

2013-10-24 Google Helpout

Although Google Helpouts lets you charge for your sessions, I decided to focus on giving help for free instead. I wanted to see what it was like and what I could help people with, and I didn’t want people to worry about the cost. I also didn’t want to worry about expectations! So I set up my Helpout listing, practised with a few people, and set aside some available slots in my calendar.

My first few Helpouts were surprisingly fun. I talked to a number of people who were either Helpout providers or people who had received invitation codes to try it out. One session turned into an awesome Emacs geeking around thing, which I need to post at some point. =)

2013-11-02 Google Helpouts Experience Report

And then it was the official launch day. Google Helpouts was open! I woke up to more than a dozen sign-ups, and my phone kept buzzing with notifications throughout the day. It was exciting and scary at the same time.

Many of the other Helpout providers said they were seeing a lot of no-shows. I didn’t mind because that meant I could get a bit of a breather in between the 15-minute sessions. I had some time to e-mail people and ask them some questions before starting, which really helped.

2013-11-05 Additional Helpout observations

I talked to students about study skills, teachers about teaching, and professionals about mindmaps and other thinking tools. I was nervous going in, but I was delighted to find that the conversations flowed well. I could think of questions for people to clarify what they needed and I shared tips that they could try. Afterwards, I felt a little buzzy, but not as much as I do from presentations (very very buzzed!) or hour-long chats.

Since the service has just launched and I’m offering a free Helpout, many people who signed up probably won’t make it to the sessions. Coding is terrible when it comes to interruptions, but drawing seems to be just fine.

2013-11-05 How does Google Helpout fit in with my goals

I really like the way answering people’s quick questions helps me validate that people want and need what I can share, and it gives me a better sense of who’s out there.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to experiment with how this fits into my flow. Where do I want to put it in my schedule, and how does it interact with the other work I want to do? Because Helpouts can break my time into lots of little segments, I want to make sure I still have blocks of focused time for deep work. I also want to avoid introvert overwhelm, and I want to focus on proactive content instead of letting Helpouts swing me too much towards being reactive. That’s why I’ve been setting aside blocks of 1-2 hours for Helpout scheduling instead of letting it take over my day. Now that we’re off Daylight Savings Time, the sun sets pretty early too, so I’m experimenting with another change to my consulting schedule. I want to make sure that I do right by my consulting client, too, and I don’t want to drop my personal projects.

Hardware-wise, I like my current setup. I handled all the calls from my newly-re-set-up desk downstairs, with a webcam, lights, and external monitor. I don’t want the sessions to interfere with W-‘s concentration, though. If he’s at home instead of at the gym, I can work in the kitchen with my extended battery. I’ll keep an Ethernet cable there as well. The kitchen isn’t as well-lit, but it will do.

So it looks like this month’s experiment will be connecting through Google Helpouts – reaching out and helping random(ish) strangers. I’m making surprisingly good progress towards my goals of modulating my pace. I’m getting better at matching people. I’m also working on articulating my thoughts without repeating words or phrases, since a stutter tends to shows up when I’m excited. If I can get the hang of harvesting questions from these Helpouts and turning them into blog posts, that would be even better. =)

UPDATE 2013/11/07:

This is working out really well! Most people respond to my intro messages, so I have a sense of what they’re interested in before we start. I’ve talked to lots of people in school who want to improve their study skills, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I can offer tips that they hadn’t considered. Enthusiasm carries across well in video chats too – it’s great to be able to bounce ideas or cheer people on. Best of all, I’ve been able to connect with people who read my blog or chat with me on Twitter – it’s just like jumping into the middle of a good conversation. I’m turning the tips into more drawings, which I’ll post on my blog. (Hmm, I should set up a mailing list…) I’ve set up AutoHotkey shortcuts for my welcome message and various URLs I find myself often sharing. There are occasional no-shows, but I don’t mind because I draw and reflect during the gaps. I just leave the Helpout window open in the background as I draw on paper. In fact, sometimes I wish people will miss their appointment so that I can keep on going. And the gradual accumulation of positive reviews is ego-gratifying – it means the stuff I learned along the way is useful, and I’m glad I can share it. =)

All of my slots are booked at the moment, which is a little mind-boggling. I’ll probably open up more after December, or maybe even during December once I figure out what my schedule is going to be like. I’m not going to open up a ton more for this month because 1-2 hours a day of intense talking to people is probably a good limit. Some days have slightly more because I got carried away with setting up my availability in the beginning, and I didn’t want to cancel any. =) Maybe I’ll settle down to ~1-2 hours every other day, and possibly have a mailing list for tips and new availability. It’s an awesome feeling helping other people out, although I also want to make sure I keep making progress on my other (quieter) projects! <laugh>


Want to give Helpouts a try? You can schedule a session with me at or browse through the other sessions at I think you can sign up there to offer your own, too. Have fun!