Five Fundamental Principles about Learning & Teaching Spreadsheets (Excel)

A 3-D Icon for ExcelAs an instructor who has been teaching Microsoft Excel to students for over a decade, I have found key problems of learning to often occur with students due to the structure of curriculum.  The following five fundamental principles are those that I have found to be true for how students can best learn spreadsheets.

  1. Spreadsheets are inextricably connected with mathematics, thus when teaching spreadsheet software, the best student comprehension will occur when students either previously have gained sufficient mathematical skills or when learning mathematical skills are appropriately integrated within the spreadsheet curriculum.
  2. Similar to mathematics, many concepts within spreadsheets build upon each other, and without sufficient prior understanding, students cannot understand future topics.  Thus the order of concepts within a spreadsheet course is critical to student success.  For instance, a student cannot truly grasp using absolute and mixed references, until a student deeply understands both spreadsheet formulas and the copying of formulas (via the clipboard, fill handle, etc.).
  3. The use of spreadsheets within the real world spans the spectrum of simple to complex, dependent upon the user’s job.  But within the knowledge economy, in general, careers with higher wages will have a need for more complex skills.  Thus, for instance, entry level positions within any type of office will have a high probability of needing to enter data into pre-created spreadsheets, with little need to know formulas or even formatting.  Mid-level managers and knowledge workers (such as nurses) can often benefit from developing basic spreadsheets, which they may present to others, thus needing to understand charts and formatting.  High-level managers and knowledge workers (such as scientists) often have a need to do more complex data analysis that can benefit from the use of advanced features, including pivot tables, what-if analysis (such as using goal seek or solver), transferring data between software, etc.  Although, it should be recognized that at times advanced skills may also be used by lower-level workers.
  4. Given the nature of ideas building upon each other, and how use of spreadsheets progress from simple to complex, it is valuable to focus instruction on the mastery of one area at a time, especially when it comes to fundamental concepts. This does not mean that concepts and skills should be learned completely in isolation, but that they should be learned within the context of knowledge and skills the students already have, and then build to greater skills and knowledge, increasing the scope of context as the student increases their scope of ability.
  5. Evaluation/assessment of students work and learning should be consistent with the context that they will likely use this learning in the future.  Although, to maintain equity amongst students, a consistent set of objectives must be determined based upon the best analysis of the average context students will likely find themselves within.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *