Exercise leaders

Exercise Leaders are an essential part of the CodeRefinery workshop team and allow CodeRefinery to scale to many more people than we could otherwise handle. During a (n online) workshop, Exercise leaders will be in a breakout room (virtual side room) with around 5 people, guide them through the course, keep time, and let us know when more help is needed during the exercise sessions. Instructors and expert helpers are always just one click away. It is very likely that you’ll grow as a mentor and learn how to be a more efficient teacher.

Background: hierarchical workshops to scale

Traditionally, a workshop has instructors and exercise leaders/helpers, but the capacity is limited by instructors, so we are limited to ~30-40 people at most. Then, we tried to scale to larger numbers: even up to and beyond 100 people. For this, we have to rely on exercise leaders a lot more, to run a breakout room. An exercise leader does not have to be an expert in the material, but should be able to keep things flowing.

What is needed to be an exercise leader?

Most importantly, you do not have to know everything (we don’t, either), but you are expected to:

  • Have been to a CodeRefinery before and used git some since then, OR have some general experience with git (branching, pull requests) and command line work, OR be able to generally follow the path of the exercises that we have laid out.

  • Be present in your assigned breakout room during exercise sessions of the workshop.

  • Show a positive, motivating attitude to learners.

  • Keep exercises going and let us know when there are difficult questions!

  • Come to a one-hour “Exercise leader onboarding” (see below) before the workshop.

If you aren’t sure if you can be an exercise leader: you probably can be one!


We try to arrange people in teams which stay together for all breakout sessions on all days. This allows people to form a bond and get the rooms started sooner. We will try to keep you in the same breakout room as long as we can, but we give no promises and will rearrange as needed when people can’t attend.

We sometimes allow people to register as teams: This could for example be a group colleagues/friends where one of the team members has a bit of knowledge on the tools presented in the workhop. This person can act as exercise leader for the workshop, but may still learn a thing or two themselves. In that way you can work with people you know and the barrier for asking questions and discuss together may be a bit lower than in a group of strangers. Since teams with exercise leaders are ‘self-sustaining’ we usually accept all team registrations, while registrations as single learner may be put on waiting list or, if applicable redirected to the stream, when they exceed our capacity based on the number of individual exercise leaders.

Exercise leader onboarding

We usually offer two one-hour timeslots in the week before the workshop (check the schedule!) for exercise leader onboarding. You are expected to join one of these times. During this time, we will talk about the role of the exercise leader during the workshop and answer any open questions you may have. We will also go through the material below.

Material for exercise leaders

If you have been to a CodeRefinery workshop before, you will most likely know the following, but if unsure, also check these links:

If you have any doubts, questions, ideas or anything you want to tell us apart from these sessions, please let us know! We are here to help.

If you want to contact us before the workshop you can send an email to our general email address support@coderefinery.org or you can join the CodeRefinery chat (we recommend the #workshops stream, and if you can’t find it then #general is good). During the workshop, we use a topic in #workshop-chat to coordinate (exercise leaders do not need to use this, use HackMD instead).

During the workshop, HackMD (collaborative document) is our main communication channel, where you can ask questions or request us to visit your breakout room in case of tricky questions or further discussion potential.

If you had fun being an exercise leader for the workshop, please visit our contributing page page, to find out about further volunteering possibilities within CodeRefinery.

Tips for exercise leaders

As an exercise leader, you are what can make a breakout room / group work very good or just normal. This is a lot of responsibility and isn’t easy, but it’s also not that complex: you aren’t expected to know everything, but instead focus on the flow. Our guidelines below should make it doable for everyone.

Before the workshop

As an exercise leader, we do not expect you to know all our CodeRefinery training material but if you have time:

  • Take a look at the exercises in advance of each days (revised lessons tend to have an “exercise list” page). We try to make each exercise self-explanatory so that you can easily lead, but if you do one thing, scan over the exercises and understand the general point of each of them.

  • Be ready to introduce yourself in one or two sentences to your breakout room: think about what you would like to convey as exercise leader to the classroom. How did (or does) CodeRefinery help you?

  • If you are interested, also read through the instructor guides for the lessons (there should be a link at the top or sidebar of each lesson).

During the workshop

Code of Conduct

Teaching isn’t about helping those who are already “in”, it is for those who aren’t. Thus, we follow a code Codee of Conduct for all our interactions before, during and after workshops.

If you see anything that is not supporting an equal learning environment, please mention it to one of instructors.

Creating a positive learning environment

As an exercise leader, you have a crucial role during workshops:

  • Encourage learners to learn from each other.

  • Acknowledge that some of the material can be difficult and that people in your breakoutroom will learn more working together.

  • Acknowledge when learners are confused and raise it to the instructors. Understanding why learners are confused provides useful feedback for instructors. You are our eyes and ears.

  • As we said, you don’t have to know everything, just like learners don’t necessarily know everything (we don’t know everything, either). It’s more important to be responsive and work together.

  • In an online workshop: Turn on your camera, and encourage everyone else to do so as well. Have an introductory round in the first breakout room session, to get to know your group. Whichever strategy you choose for your breakoutroom (see also Helping in breakoutrooms), be present and encourage learners to ask questions.

  • In an in-person workshop: Stand up and walk around, try to make rounds by everyone. If you are convenient, students will ask. If you are sitting in the back, student’s wont. Students rarely try to get your attention from across the room if you don’t look ready.

Things you should not do in a workshop

  • Take over the learner’s keyboard (neither physically nor remotely). It is rarely a good idea to type anything for your learners and it can be demotivating for the learner because it implies you don’t think they can do it themselves or that you don’t want to wait for them. It also wastes a valuable opportunity for them to develop muscle memory and other skills that are essential for independent work. Instead, try to have a sticky note pad and pen / use the zoom chat and write the commands that they should type.

  • Criticize certain programs, operating systems, or GUI applications, or learners who use them. (Excel, Windows, etc.)

  • Talk contemptuously or with scorn about any tool. Regardless of its shortcomings, many of your learners may be using that tool. Convincing someone to change their practices is much harder when they think you disdain them.

  • Dive into complex or detailed technical discussion with the one or two people in the audience who have advanced knowledge and may not actually need to be at the workshop.

  • Pretend to know more than you do. People will actually trust you more if you are frank about the limitations of your knowledge, and will be more likely to ask questions and seek help.

  • Use “just”, “easy”, or other demotivating words. These signal to the learner that the instructor thinks their problem is trivial and by extension that they therefore must be stupid for not being able to figure it out.

  • Feign surprise at learners not knowing something. Saying things like “I can’t believe you don’t know X” or “You’ve never heard of Y?” signals to the learner that they do not have some required pre-knowledge of the material you are teaching, that they don’t belong at the workshop, and it may prevent them from asking questions in the future.

In the breakout room

As an exercise leader in a breakout room, your main task is to keep people talking and interacting, understand their difficulties, and encourage them to work on the exercises together.

  • You can always start by greeting people and asking how the lesson is going

  • Encourage people to turn on cameras

  • You can use chat within breakout rooms: Chat to “Everyone” in a breakout room only means people in that room.

  • There are several strategies below. Combine as needed - read the room and see what they want, but do provide encouragement to do something.

  • If you need extra help, write it in the HackMD, someone should be watching it and relay it to the host. Expert helpers/instructors will try to visit your rooms periodically, anyway.

  • Watch the time and try to keep things moving. If some debugging takes to long, it’s reasonable to ask for an expert helper who might have seen the problem before.

    • If any one problem takes too long, it’s OK to say “we don’t have time, let’s come back”

    • Or, ask for an expert helper to come by and maybe answer quickly, or break off to work on a solution.


Example of HackMD during a breakout session. a) clear description of topics of the exercises. b) breakout room status. c) as always, questions at the bottom.

Breakout room strategies

There are several strategies you can use to run your breakout room:

Strategy 1:

  • Exercise leader asks someone to share the screen and go through the exercise.

  • You can encourage the others to guide the one who is sharing the screen. Or let the person go on her/his own pace.

    • If no one dares at first, you can also start sharing your screen and let the room tell you what to write.

    • That way they see how it can go and the barrier shrinks.

  • Try to alternate who is sharing the screen for each session.

  • When someone has an issue, it is a good idea to switch screen share to them and maybe even continue from there

Strategy 2:

  • Everyone does the exercises themselves, and once someone has a question, encourage them to share the screen and you discuss.

  • If everyone is active, this can be good, but there is a risk that no one starts off.

Strategy 3:

  • You can also share the screen if no one is willing to.

  • It might be good to give learners some lead first, and use this only if no one volunteers.

Common problems

  • One learner asks very many questions, ends up monopolizing all of the time. Other learners are left without help, and the whole group may not get the exercises done

    • Call an expert helper to the room. They should be circulating, so let them know to spend some more time

    • It can be very hard to say “no”, but it’s more important to have balance than answer every question you are asked. If you need to say no, you can try things such as “I’m sorry, but in order to finish we need to go on now. We can keep working on it later - would you like to watch?”

  • There is some sort of problem that ends up taking a lot of time

    • Work on it for a minute or two.

    • Ask for an expert helper to drop by, by writing in the HackMD. Nothing wrong with this.

See also