October 13, 2004

The Devil is in the Detail

There are lots of topics I do know something about, but one thing I know very little of is English literature. I have no idea about quotations, and I can't cite who might have said "the devil is in the detail", but it is certainly true when it comes to writing programming worksheets, one of today's tasks. One little error in the details of the information given on the sheet, and you can spend many minutes in the lab paying for it (as will all the other poor tutors that have to teach from it).

For example, ask students to use a certain function to solve a problem, then if you forgot to tell them that it already exists and all they need to do it use it, then you'll be faced with lots of students looking blank, as they try to define the function for themselves.

Give the wrong location for a file that they need to access for the work, and they'll all tell you "I can't find the file" individually at 2 minute intervals. If you attempt to circumvent this by telling them en masse, this refrain will change to "Where did you say that file was again?", and if you attempt to circumvent that by additionally writing it up on a nearby whiteboard, the refrain will change to variations along the lines of "What did you say earlier?" or "Is that an 'a' or a 'd'?". All of this could have been avoided if you'd got the location of the file right in the first place!

The dratted thing is that even when you attempt to go through the sheet with a fine tooth-comb, to weed out mistakes, you can't find many of them, because you're not looking at the sheet from the perspective of someone new to the material, you're looking at it from the perspective of the author who knows all the stuff on the sheet and is fed up of it by now. Really you'd need to leave it at least a week before checking it, to try and get more of a fresh perspective. But rarely do we manage to find the luxury of that amount of time in advance of the practical session itself.


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