Topic Selection Tips From Top Teacher, Rich Armstrong

This guest post was written by Product Designer and Skillshare Teacher Rich Armstrong. 

This guest post was written by Product Designer and Skillshare Teacher Rich Armstrong. 

A few years ago I made my first Skillshare class. I didn’t know I would enjoy making classes so much. I never thought I could or would be a teacher before I finished making that first class.

Teaching others is important, fun and rewarding. But sometimes you don’t know what to teach, or what to teach next. So, read on for my tips for selecting your class topic!

Start With What You’re Good At

You’ve probably got some experience doing something. You may have studied it. You may have a natural knack for it. I have 10 years of professional experience making websites and apps, which is how I make my living. I design and code. This is an easy go-to when deciding on a class topic. Make a class based on what you do on a daily basis.

This can be rather broad. How can you teach 10 years of design and coding in one single class? You shouldn't! You split it up! Consider some of the following:

  • Focus on parts of the process.
  • Focus on specific skills, subtopics, tools, and techniques.
  • Cover topics in more detail in later classes.
  • Cover topics for students at different levels.
  • Consider the journey of a student and what made the biggest differences to your journey.

The first class I made was on The Basics of HTML and CSS. I removed all the long and fancy words. I included doodles, hand-drawn type, and explained things as easily as I could. I certainly didn’t teach all I knew. I made separate classes on JavaScript, Emmet and Sublime Text – all important parts of my coding practice, and things I believe are important and valuable to know.

Perhaps you don’t want to teach what you do in your day job. That’s understandable. What else are you good at? I originally made my Creating A Website class because people used to stand behind me, watching me code, and marvel at how I could possibly understand all that gibberish. I knew it wasn’t that hard, as long as someone explained it well. So that’s what I did – I made a class for people who didn’t know what a webpage was and taught them how to write HTML and CSS. Ask yourself what people keep on telling you you’re good at. Baking? Making music? Exercise? Drawing? Collecting stamps? It doesn’t have to be something that you make money from. People code for fun. People knit for fun. People build houses for fun.

This leads me to my next point: passion and excitement.

What Makes Your Eyes Light Up?

What can you not stop talking about? What do you want to learn more and more and more about? I love animation, doodling, illustration, writing, and ideation. I try to incorporate these things into my daily work but sometimes they are best left as hobbies and side-projects, which is totally cool. But these things can also make awesome classes! If you’re passionate about a subject, you can often learn a lot about it in a short period of time, and you'll probably be more interesting to learn from. That’s why I made The Play-doh Technique and An Intro to Layer-Art in Illustrator. 

Here’s a super important secret: Before I started making each class, I wasn’t an expert. I learned a lot along the way. I experimented. I researched. Teaching is a great excuse for learning!

If you’re passionate, but not very knowledgeable on a topic, you get to research, learn and then create a class that reads something like “I learned this, check how awesome it is!”. Even teaching something you just learned is great, as you’ll be teaching it from the the perspective of a novice, rather than someone who’s been doing it intuitively for 10 years.

When I make a class I draw from these 2 spheres – things I’m good at and things I‘m excited about. For me these 2 things happen to be next door neighbors. What subjects lie in your 2 spheres? If you’re passionate about something and you’re very good at it and there’s more to learn, then even better!

The More Ideas The Better

Once you know your general spheres, brainstorm class ideas. I then pick my top 3 or 4 in a field and work on those. I keep a list of all my class ideas and keep jotting down notes and ideas as they come to me – which are often while I’m working on other classes. Sometimes while I’m making a class, I get so excited on a single sub-topic, that I have to make an entire class on it alone. What I’m getting at here is that you should always be open to class ideas. Be flexible. Experiment. From experience, there will always be more class topics on your to-make list than there is time to make them all. Choose class topics that make you most excited. Choose classes that you must make. Not ones you simply should make.

Get Your Mind Into Gear

Here’s a few questions you can ask yourself, that may help you figure out what class you’re going to make next:

  1. What are you experienced in?

  2. What are you excited by?

  3. What are people telling you you’re good at?

  4. What class do you wish you had access to when starting out?

  5. What class would you love to take?

  6. What parts of what you know were particularly hard to understand or learn? Can you make it approachable, accessible and easy for others to learn?

  7. What subtopics, techniques, tools, and little things would your students find most valuable and beneficial?

  8. What class topic would be a mixture of what you know and what you want to learn?

  9. Who are you making the class for? What level are they at? Where are they on their journey?

  10. What do your students need to know now and what can they learn later

  11. What do you often find yourself explaining? Either because you’re excited about it, you have a lot of knowledge on the topic, or both.

  12. What’s missing in the class lineup (either yours, on Skillshare, or anywhere) – there may be a lot of “How To Make A Website Using Wordpress” classes, but no “Hand-Coding Your First Website” classes.

Have fun making classes and your students will have fun taking them. If you have any questions or want some advice, find me on Instagram - @taptapkaboom