How Teachers Can Help Students to Understand and Appreciate Microsoft Excel Better

How can you help students understand better and pass Excel? In this article, I share the strategies that I have tried and tested with massive results.

Microsoft Excel (Or simply Excel) is one of the examinable topics of Computer Studies at UCE and Sub ICT at UACE. Also, any person who enrolls for a computer literacy course must do the spreadsheets module and at least attain basic understanding with practical application of the concepts.

But in my years as a teacher of ICT, feedback from students and teachers alike shows that Excel is kind of tricky for them. I found out that it is attributed to the fear that Excel goes hand in hand with Mathematics, a subject not many have a good relationship with.

Students doing an assignment in Excel at E-zone School of Computing

So, when I recently received a batch of students for my holiday training at E-zone School of Computing, who wanted to polish their Excel skills, I decided that I would write an article to share my thoughts with fellow teachers on how we would beat this phobia. If you are that teacher of ICT with the same challenge, this article is for you.

Explain why Spreadsheets

First things first! Do your students even know why they need to acquire skills in using spreadsheets? Many teachers will show up in class, ask students to launch Excel and then give them data to fill in. It is important in your first lesson to explain to students why they need to know how to use spreadsheets. When students have no background information, they are already lost and their journey ahead is mainly to finish the lesson and not to grasp the concepts.

GCF Learn Free has some amazing videos on Excel. You could borrow a leaf from this intro video which is among the list that I archived on the E-zone School of Computing website.

In the picture below, I show you how I prepared my Excel lessons to start with an informative intro.

Give a deeper intro to spreadsheets

Students should clearly be informed that Excel is just one of the many spreadsheet software options that are on the market. You shouldn’t leave out options like Google Sheets which is now popular and freely available for anyone with a Gmail account.

Take students through the journey that popular spreadsheet software has gone through to get to where we are. For example, talk about the different versions of Excel over the years and help them learn how they can tell which version they are using.

Break down the content into manageable units

It would be good if a student knew in advance the depth of the content to be covered and probable time it would take to complete it. During the intro session, students should be given an overview of the content and what they should expect.

In the pic below, I proposed that we could cover Excel in 10 days. I clearly mentioned what we expect to cover on each day. Although due to different factors this may not go as planned, but a deliberate plan does a student good since they know what is to be covered in a specific. This helps them plan accordingly and also check on their progress.

Start slow

Remember, many students link their weakness in Excel to their phobia for math. Therefore, it is important to show students that you can use Excel for simply data entry without minding about the math involved. At this level, teach them how to meaningfully enter data and create beautiful work.

Show them that Excel can be used to simply enter information and the math can be left for another day or person. Students can learn about the interface, play around with sheets and workbooks while trying out with simple tasks like creating a contact list, class list or list of countries with their corresponding populations. This will slowly take away the fear for the application and as they get used to it, more complex concepts can be introduced.

In my classes, I use a list of 7 exercises to test students’ understanding of basic Excel concepts. These exercises are given on Day 2 of my lessons in which students are tested on their data entry skills, working with cells, cell orientation, sheets, rows, columns, autofill, cell color, tab color and the like. This pic shows the contents of day 2 after which I assess progress using the 7 basics excel exercises with each exercise done on a different sheet within the same workbook.

Use real life examples

When giving examples in an Excel class, endeavour to use real life situations. For example, marks scored by students in a class can help students better grasp the concepts of addition, average, ranking and organising data in alphabetical order.

Other examples can be, a back to school shopping list, shoe colors in a select group of people, a birthday party budget, telecom subscribers statistics, gender distribution in a class, converting school fees to other currencies etc.

As for me, when I know that I am about to teach Excel, I send my students on a data collection task for like a week. I could, for example ask them to categorise the vehicles that they see as they come to school. I could also ask them to count the number of males and females in the vehicles they use to get to school, phone brands that they see during a specific day or even count the number of boda boda men with and those without helmets.

Later when I introduce Excel, we use that data to learn data entry skills and get meaningful insights from the data collected.

Teach with projects

You can also come up with projects to help your students appreciate better the use of Excel in real life. For example, students can come up with a tool to calculate the day’s sales in a small business. There are many small businesses that keep their business records in books. You can assign students to come up with a spreadsheet that helps to do the calculations while storing the data in an online spreadsheet thereby reducing the risk of loss of records.

Use student created data for assignments

While you will give students assignments from different sources, once in a while give an assignment with self created data. One assignment that I often give my Excel class is to create a class list of 100 students with random marks in 10 subjects. They are then required to enter the data in meaningful form in Excel, find the total marks, average mark, find each ones grade and position and then print it out.

This helps students practice with a wide range of formulas and functions and thereby better understand the concepts taught while it prevents them from irresponsibly copying from each other.

Give plenty of practice exercises

Give students a lot of practice examples covering a wide range of scenarios. On top of the locally available examples, expose students to as many assessment options as possible. I wouldn’t be comfortable if my student hasn’t attempted all UCE and UACE Excel past paper questions.

When students have done all these numbers comfortably it is obvious that any exam they come across will comfortably be done.

There are many sources of such exam papers for example Sharebility Uganda and All Past papers have a huge collection of past papers from which you can come up with a question bank.

Create avenues for feedback

Along the journey of learning Excel, avenues for feedback should be a must. Excel gets more confusing as the lessons progress so it is advisable to fully grasp the basics before one proceeds. With feedback, you can easily detect the weak points and work on them before you go to the next unit.

In the module progress sheet I created, I added a column for comments where students are supposed to note their challenges. Using this feedback, I will revisit the particular area and revise with them. This gives them a better landing in the next unit.

Stephen Dumba is the National Coordinator of the ICT Teachers’ Association of Uganda. Besides teaching ICT, he repairs computers and builds websites. Steve is a speaker and facilitator at tech events and and CEO of and a consultant on education technology.

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