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.


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.

25 thoughts on “T-SQL Tuesday #008: Top ten mistakes to make when attending a class

  1. Nice one! I can think of at least a few students I’ve had who fall into each category, except #7. I eat a lot of curry and other "smelly" foods so I don’t tend to notice :-)

  2. I’ve been teaching adults how to use computers since 1984, and how to use SQL Server since 1993.

    This list is a great summary of what not to do in a class. Over the years, I’ve seen all of these happen in some form, although I must say that the most serious sins are incredible rare these days. I don’t think I’ve seen a #1, #2, or #3 in many years.

    As for #8 – the sidebar conversations – I am usually willing to pursue them for a few minutes, because there might be other students with similar or identical situations, and the class timing is usually flexible enough to allow the intrusion. However, I keep a careful eye on faces to see the level of tolerance, and I’m completely willing to do as you do and ask for it to move to offline.

    All in all, a good, honest list. And every "’jerk’ (or worse)" thought is correct.

  3. I’d like to add another one:

    Come to class with special needs, but provide no pre-notification so that the instructor can be prepared and ready to make the class more valuable to you.

    I’ve had students with disabilities, allergies, and other special needs who wanted me to instantly respond to these needs. If I had known that the person needed a marker-free room, to have audible assistance with visual materials, have a desk lamp, have handouts printed larger prior to the class, I most likely could have made arrangements so that everyone could have what they need. For most things, I need only 24 hours notice. Or I could have done some additional prep to think through how I was going to help them get what they needed from me.

    One student provided feedback that good instructors always have all right materials at hand to meet anyone’s needs.

    All instructors want their students to get the most out of the class, so letting them know before that something is needed is very helpful.

  4. Wonderful! Though I’ve never been in a position to attend one of your classes, I know I will someday and will keep this all in the back of my head – not that I have ever really done any of those things anyway.

    One comment I would like to make though is about #2. I don’t think you should feel arrogant for having to resort to the "I wrote that" trump card. I think the fact that you wrote a lot of that stuff is what makes the idea of attending one of your classes so appealing to begin with.

  5. Very sensible rules which apply to all levels of teaching. On a lighter note & I speak from experience, students should not sit at the back of the classroom & fart on purpose.

  6. You are so wrong on that shrink db thing. While I was in the southern hemisphere last year I discovered that their harddisks spin counter-clockwise(to overcome the coriolis force). These are perfectly optimized for reading data backwards. I now keep a shelf of these disks in the SAN for storing the clustered indices on while keeping non-clusters on "northern" disks. It works just fine for me. I even asked a university physics professor and he agreed with me.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, my phone is ringing and my liver and onion sandwich is getting warm.


  7. Great post. Regarding #6. Be patient with us ESLs :) (actually I am a ETL: English as a Third Language). Usually we understand more than we can express. That is why in all classes that I attend I ask my questions offline. It is sometimes intimidating to ask questions in front of everybody but now that I know how you feel about this topic I will think twice before signing for one of your classes…kidding :)
    You just never come to Miami :)

  8. Vry well said Paul…hope this will make future classes better :D
    We are waiting for you here in INDIA.

  9. Thank you, very good summary, really! I give classes on SQL Server and have seen all of this – except #7. I’ve experienced that things may even get worse, as sometimes the listed topics appear in combination. I’ve seen a kind of hybrid from of #2, #3, and #9, where attendees sitting in the back, “google-ing” on some very specific topics just to ask very detailed questions of no particular interest. The only aim is to tease the instructor and prove they are somewhat smarter – really, really annoying and hard to come by.

  10. Enjoyed the post and the comments. I’m just amused that no one who has commented had admitted to doing any of the above. I’ve probably done #4 (I’m a horrible note taker) and #5 (not intentionally). I’ve done part of #9 (email/surfing, but I don’t stop the class to ask questions).

    As a presenter/teacher this is a pretty comprehensive list.

  11. I love this post and, of course, all others. Sorry for sounding like a suck-up but it’s true. Not reading this post before any training course is a definite violation of #5. We have a term for the ‘or worse’ people in the ‘jerk’ category but I won’t soil such a great post with such vulgarity. I’ve seen all of these but the worst #10 was a guy that took a call in the middle of a ‘State of the Company’ address by the CEO. The guy didn’t even leave the presentation room and the CEO was so taken aback that he stopped the presentation and waited for the call to finish in shock. I thought fire was going to rain down from the heavens but the guy didn’t get canned for an entire year after that for something completely unrelated.

  12. Great post and some funny comments. I would add "Talk or whisper to other attendees while the instructor is speaking". Whenever I am around that I want to crawl out of my skin as I see the instructor start fuming and get quite annoyed as it bothers me as well. People often don’t realize (or care) that whispers are audible in that environment.

  13. So next April 1 those in Paul’s class need to pick a few of those numbers and … well, you know…. ;)

    Great post.

  14. An excellent post! Though, I have a very different view on number 2 about arguing with the instructor.

    Now, of course, if you are going to disagree with the instructor, I concur you should do so respectfully and choose your phrasing carefully (this is similar too, but I don’t think the same as what you say in point 1). But if you think the instructor is wrong, I think you have a responsibility to yourself and the rest of the class to question the point, respectfully but in open class. If they said something significant that was wrong, the rest of the students should know that and get the right information. If you are wrong about them being wrong, you should know that. While sometimes you want to approach the instructor

    I also have a difference of opinion in some of your justification for number 2. I fully understand that you and those teaching at the Microsoft Certified Master class level are highly knowledgeable, but I have dealt with many who are not, especially in local classes. And I find who is teaching the class to be of minimal relevance. If they are wrong, they are wrong. Even an unqualified instructor should be treated with respect, and even the most qualified can be wrong and should be questioned respectfully in that case. Now, if dealing with someone more eminent, I may mentally shift to suspecting I am wrong than they are wrong when asking the question, but the question should be asked and respectfully either way.

    Finally, I do not think "I wrote that code" is an absolute trump card. It certainly lends a great deal of authority, but code, especially code that constitutes only a part of a system built by many hands, may not do what it was intended to do or it may interact with other code in unexpected ways or (unless you absolutely know otherwise) may have been modified later between writing and publication. So, while a strong point of authority, it is not absolute.

    Overall I think it was a great post and you made some excellent comments that I think all students, including myself, could benefit from.

  15. Gonna have to comment on #4, since this is one of those things that I notice all the time in the courses that I’ve taken – I totally agree that notes are useful, but *only* if they are taken well. I’ve seen *far* too often, people sitting at their desks and spending the entire class alternating between looking at the blackboard and looking at their sheet while writing everything down.

    Taking notes helps you to jog your memory when you look back at them later, sure, but you’ve gotta be able to understand what the teacher is saying, and listening to him/her and understanding them is a lot more important as far as I’m concerned.

  16. I’ve never had the opportunity to hear you talk. I’m sure I’m missing out.

    And do you know what? I can’t be sure, but I think I may be guilty of #3. So to be safe, I apologize on behalf of all jerks to all presenters. It won’t happen again. :-)

    But for #1. Coming to class looking for "the answer". I imagine that it looks a lot like coming to class looking for "an answer" or "any answer". In the past, when starting out, I’ve felt like I’ve gotten way in over my head. I remember looking for any indexing strategy and not necessarily the best one (i.e. the methodologies you’re talking about).

    What I’m saying is "It depends" sounds like a non-answer unless you immediately explain why it depends.

  17. Nice post – completely agree with #5. I’ve been on courses which want specific experience in SQL and 75% of the class didn’t have it, so the instructor has to spend ages explaining the basics and couldn’t focus on the published syllabus. I didn’t feel that those classes gave me value for money as too much time was spent on things I already knew.

  18. Sir! This list looks pretty nice to read and should generate a wave of responsibility in a person who attends such deep sessions.But one point I would like to highlight:

    You sound very strict:-)

  19. I came to Paul’s blog then clicked on Kimberly’s blog at the top nav, did a blog search, and then clicked thru to this post from the search result. So I thought I was reading a Kimberly post until i read user comments.

    So how about adding this one: Don’t come to class thinking your instructor is someone else :-)

    Also, from your top ten i deduce that sleeping soundlessly is not a sin :)

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