tsql2sday150x150 T SQL Tuesday #008: Top ten mistakes to make when attending a class

Every month there's a flurry of blog posts around the same topic – it's called T-SQL Tuesday and is a neat concept. This month it's being driven by Robert Davis (blog|twitter), who I had the pleasure of teaching in the March rotation of the Microsoft Certified Master – SQL class (he passed first time) and previously in internal Microsoft classes. The topic is about how to teach and learn, so I want to twist it around a little and talk about things from an instructor's perspective.

Kimberly and I teach a *huge* amount – classes, workshops, conferences, private clients – and we've seen the whole gamut of student types and classroom antics. In this post I'd like to lay out what I consider to be the things most likely to annoy your fellow students, annoy the instructor, and/or prevent you from getting the most from your class. Think of it as a not-too-subtle rant at a few bad apples out there. Either read along and feel guilty that you've done some of these, or read along and tut-tut that you've seen someone do this and it sucked.

These are in loose order, with #1 being the worst mistake to make. Some of these are controversial, but I'm an honest kind of guy, and people like how I run my classroom, so I want to get them out there. Here you go:

10 Take a phone call during class

If you take a phone call during class, I'll ask you to leave the room. At the start of the class I always ask for phones to be on vibrate and to step out if you have a call. I don't mind people walking in and out a few times to take calls – it's very hard to put me off when I'm teaching. But talking on a phone in class (apart from saying 'hold on a sec while I go outside') is just antisocial and inconsiderate. Don't do it.

If a phone rings during class, I'll start to dance. Everyone laughs. I'm letting you know that we all realize you totally ignored the instructions about phones that everyone else adhered to.

And if you *make* a call during class, expect no mercy. I've had this happen once. After he came back in from making the call, and at the next break, I went over and explained how incredibly rude that was and he could choose to stay in the class without his phone or leave. He stayed.

9 Sit at the back and do email/surf and then ask questions

There's one person in every class like this – who surfaces every so often and asks questions about stuff we just covered. My response is usually something like "we just covered that ten minutes ago, read the slides and let me know if you have questions". If you can't get it together to pay attention, at least check where we are in class before asking questions that tell everyone else you've been doing something else and are now wasting their time.

8 Persist with a tangential rat-hole

While laying out the ground-rules of the class at the start, I talk about how questions are excellent, the whole point is that you're here to learn, but that long discussions about your particular situation will have to go to the break, lunch, or after class. And I mean it. Classes are carefully planned to have a certain percentage of question and discussion time (some more than others) and so if you're going on and on about something that's not relevant for the rest of the class, you'll need to wait to monopolize the instructor's time when it's not everyone else's time too. I've actually had to say "ok – stop talking about that now, we have to move on with the class". Most often these people are really trying to do #1 below.

7 Bring your smelly lunch into the classroom

Everyone will hate you.

6 Come to a class where you don't understand the language it's being taught in

I struggled over whether to include this one, but it has to be said. Don't come to a class where you can't understand the language it's being taught in. I speak English, reasonably well :-), and I make a point of speaking clearly and explain things in a concise, unambiguous way. If I'm teaching a class in the US, the UK, or any other English-is-the-first-language country, I expect that students in a deep technical class about an engineering topic, with lots of arcane terms and the need for precision in explanations, are able to understand the language. I know there are a lot of ESL (English-as-a-Second-Language) folks in these countries, but if you come to a class with a bunch of other people and ask me at lunch on the first day to speak a lot slower and with smaller words because you don't understand English very well, the answer has to be no. I'm not being inconsiderate, you are. On the other hand, if I'm teaching in China, for instance, I'll seriously go out of my way to speak slowly and avoid language complexities and colloquialisms as that's the totally different audience.

The MCM has a prerequisite that you have to understand English really well before being accepted on the course, as it's fast-paced and deeply technical. A couple of ESL folks have fudged that requirement, come on the course, and failed because they couldn't keep up. It's really not fair to everyone else to have to slow right down for one person in a face-to-face class.

That's the most controversial of the mistakes I wanted to list, but I stand by what I've said. I'm not against ESL students in any way – many of the people I teach inside Microsoft are ESL – but you have to have a certain level of proficiency in the language the class is being taught in to be able to keep up. I've had people in classes that knew so little English they couldn't even ask a question I could understand – and I'm very patient and usually able to understand most people.

5 Come to a class without the required experience and knowledge

Most classes list the detailed agenda and the prerequisite knowledge, if applicable. This is so that you can gauge whether you're qualified to take the class. Don't come to an advanced class on disaster recovery and ask how to take backups using SSMS, or come to a workshop on performance tuning using wait stats and ask what an index is. You wouldn't send someone who can't swim to a class on cave diving, or send a freshman medical student to a symposium on endovascular aneurysm repair techniques, would you? So don't take a SQL class that you're not qualified to understand. You will end up a) not being able to follow the class and getting frustrated b) asking really basic questions that annoy the rest of the class and the instructor.

Oh, and by the way, reading a book about SQL Server doesn't remotely equal having experience as a DBA – so if you simply read a book to pass a qualification, you're doing yourself and whoever employs you a disservice.

4 Don't take notes

If you really want to learn, take notes about what gets drawn on the whiteboard and salient points of what gets discussed. That's why we give you a printout of the slides – so you can take notes on them. This may be more necessary with some instructors than with others – our slides are pretty dense so you can follow the story when reading them later (but that's a whole other discussion…) If you don't take notes, you'll forget things. And if you ask the same thing several times because you didn't note down the answer the first time, you'll really piss off the instructor. I had a class earlier this year where someone asked me the same thing 4 times over the course of 3 days. I was not happy, and I made sure it showed the last time by starting with "you've already asked me that three times…" as it was beyond ridiculous.

3 Ask questions to try to make it look like you know more than the instructor

You don't look cool. You look like a fool. Everyone is rolling their eyes at you, but you just can't see it. Yes, really.

Every so often I'll have someone in a class who wants to prove to everyone that they're very clever and know more than everyone else, and really doesn't need to be in the class because they're so smart. 100% of the time it's a man. There's nothing to be gained from trying to one-up the instructor. If you succeed, you may sit back all smug, but everyone else is thinking 'jerk' (or worse). These kinds of questions are usually about really narrow scenarios, or deep internals, that are beyond the scope of the class and most often the tactic fails, which makes the questioner more frustrated and ask more questions…

Invariably this leads to #2…

2 Argue that the instructor is wrong

Cardinal sin. If you think the instructor is wrong there are two correct ways to express that opinion: 1) say something along the lines of seeing different behavior in some circumstances, which leads to a nice discussion where everyone can agree and the instructor can explain he can't remember everything with a smile 2) come up to the instructor at the break to discuss it. Never accuse the instructor of being downright wrong in front of everyone. If you do, you'd better be 100%-absolutely-sure-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt because one of two things is going to happen: 1) you'll be proved right and everyone will think 'jerk' (or worse). Or, and this is much, much, much more likely, 2) you'll be proved wrong, become embarrassed, frustrated, and angry and everyone will think 'jerk' (or worse).

Arguing obnoxiously is not the way to win friends and influence people, or to endear you to the class and the instructor. Most often the instructor is there because he or she knows way more than anyone in the class about the topic at hand – which is the whole point, so it's unlikely that they're wrong. It does happen, people are not infallible, but point it out nicely. And be really, really sure you know who you're arguing with before you start – pay attention to the two minute bio at the start of the class, because that's the explanation of why the instructor is qualified to teach the class, and what their expertise is. Every few classes I find myself arguing with someone about how DBCC works, or what allows the log to clear, or this or that and very occasionally I have to resort to one of the trump cards, which I hate doing, by saying "I'm sorry, you are wrong – I wrote that code", or "I'm sorry, you are wrong, I designed that feature". That sucks because I feel like I'm being arrogant. Sigh.

1 Come to class looking for "the answer"

There's one of these people in every class, who simply wants to know "how to index for *this* query" or "the *best* backup strategy". I like to joke that the answer to every question about SQL Server is "it depends!", with one exception: "should auto-shrink be enabled?". That's because there are no hard and fast answers – the answer really does depend on the circumstances. A good instructor does not teach answers, but instead teaches methodologies, theory, and background information, along with real-life examples of applying all of those so that you can find the answer for yourself, and even pass along the knowledge to your team/company. There's no point just teaching the answer, because what happens next week when you have another question? If you don't understand how the first answer was derived, you'll be stuck again and no better off for attending the class.

I see this over and over and it's depressing.

Summary

Ah – that's better. If you avoid doing all these things then you'll have a great learning experience and the atmosphere in the classroom will be conducive to being a sponge to the fire-hose of information. If not, then now you know why the instructor is looking at you disdainfully…

This turned out to be a lot longer than I expected. Now, don't take this the wrong way – I *really* love teaching, which is why I do it so much, so I'm not being a jerk saying all of this – I expect that when you come into a class, you come to learn. I don't expect you to disrupt things for the other students, and disrespect me as the instructor. I guarantee you that everyone reading this who's ever been an instructor has agreed with everything I've written above.

Don't be that person.