Teaching through my R mistakes

I blogged earlier about a new textbook that I am adopting for an analytics course. The first few chapters are primarily an introduction to using the R coding language within RStudio. One of the resources I’m posting for students this week is screen capture videos of me manipulating data in RStudio.

Sometimes I make mistakes, shockingly. I’m a professional, and yet sometimes I still make careless typos in R. I found out that my version of R was outdated, right when I was in the middle of recording a lecture.

I could have deleted the footage of my mistakes. I could have re-recorded a clean smooth video in which I run command after command without saying “ok… I got an error”.

Lots of professors, very recently, have started teaching from open-source data products. One of the biggest upsides is that the products are free, so you don’t have to stress out about telling students they will need to pay for a license or asking your dean for money for licenses. Open-source software is nice for distance learning, since you can’t expect students to come to a computer lab where the school might have software installed.

If we are going to teach with R, I believe the most important thing to teach students is resilience. What I told my students is that they get errors while they are struggling through my coursework (of course they will). More importantly, if they go out from this class thinking they know R, they will get errors in their professional endeavors. And there will be no teacher to ask for help. I want them to see me bang my head into walls, so that they don’t panic when it happens to them.

Having been through a few rounds of teaching evaluations, I was careful to tell the students what I was doing and why, from a pedagogical perspective. It’s boring, annoying and a little weird to watch a professor make mistakes, if they don’t see any use for it.

Of course, there is such a thing as too many video seconds spent on error fighting. When I realized that I needed to re-download the entire program, I shut the recording down. Later, I recorded a quick update on all that I had done in order to proceed with using basic functions. There are many ways to make screen captures videos. I use the function that comes with Canvas, which my university pays for.

You might think that if I was better at using R I would make a better teacher. In one sense, that’s true, because I would know more. But, if you are really good at R, I encourage you to make some mistakes on purpose in front of your students to help them.

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