How to Teach with spreadsheets

Initial Publication Date: October 14, 2010
Lego guys on laptop
Spreadsheet programs provide a wonderfully powerful and flexible tool for exploring and manipulating data and models. They can enhance learning and presentation of nearly any topic that contains data, and may be used flexibly in a variety of assignments and settings. In addition, assignments may be constructed to teach or mask spreadsheet skills, or to require or obscure mathematical skills. As such, spreadsheets can be used flexibly as a transparent tool for enhancing technical skills or as a black box that allows for intuitive concepts to be explored. See more about using spreadsheets flexibly to handle technical content.
However, the successful implementation of an application requires some careful choices and some preparation. In addition, there are some pitfalls instructors should be careful to avoid. See some tips and cautions.

Six steps to formulate a successful spreadsheet example

1. Find an appropriate topic

The first step is to identify course content that can be more effectively taught with spreadsheets.

2. Choose the type of assignment and setting

Spreadsheets may be integrated with a variety of pedagogies.
See more about types of assignments and settings

3. Determine the time to devoted to learning spreadsheet and mathematics skills

Spreadsheet skills may take considerable time to teach to students. Likewise, the mathematics underlying a spreadsheet model may be extensive. The instructor must decide how much time to devote to technical matters, and assignments may be tailored to demand varying degrees of student involvement in spreadsheet construction and mathematics.
See more about tailoring assignments to student technical skills
See another SERC site that teaches spreadsheet construction

4. Select appropriate spreadsheet tools

Excel and other spreadsheet programs offer a variety of plotting, analysis, modeling and calculation tools.

5. Write or present the assignment carefully

Grading with laptop

As a computer program, spreadsheets are subject to the "garbage in - garbage out" phenomenon. Small errors may result in the assignment failing to work, leading to lost time and frustration. As a result, it is important to provide students with very clear instructions, training in spreadsheet skills, or partially or fully completed spreadsheets.
See some tips and cautions
The Examples page provides a list of tested activities with detailed instructions or automation, with directions on how they may be successfully implemented.

6. Assess results

While at first it may seem that giving students access to computers complicates assessment, in fact spreadsheet exercises may make it easier to judge learning in some contexts.