The First 10 Things to Teach a New Computer User

Nate Baker
5 min readMay 26, 2013

Say you want to teach your friend, grandmother or spouse how to use the computer but they have very little or no experience.

I’m talking very little or no experience.

Test: Does your student have an email address? If not, you’re in the right place. Read on.

I’m Nate. Every week I teach a computer class to homeless at Room In The Inn, a place that services those on the street in Nashville. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Understand the Problem

The problem isn’t your student. It’s you. You’re too awesome and you’ve forgotten the struggle of your first clicks.

After you’ve mastered retweeting, minecrafting, and control-alt-deleting it’s hard to remember your first few hours on the computer.

You really sucked, if only for the first hour. You’ll need to unlearn all your awesome.

If you start too advanced, you’ll make computers more scary, not less.

What You’ll Need Before Getting Started

Your tools are talking and pointing with your finger. Never take the mouse or type for your student.

Let Them Drive

Unless you’re explaining how to hold a mouse and use right and left click, don’t touch the controls. They’ll retain the knowledge if they are the ones with instant feedback. They need the room to make mistakes.

One hour

Give your student one hour of your time. You’ll need the full hour as they get used to driving.

To Be there

Physically be there. If you walk away, the student will be overwhelmed. This may be their first experience with a computer. Don’t let confusion be their first impression.

The Right Language

Don’t say a word unless you’re ready to explain it. Here’s an example.

Don’t say “Ok, now open a browser.”

Do say “Move the arrow towards the E at the bottom, left of the screen.” After your student is carrying out a mission, give them context.

“E stands for Internet Explorer. It’s a program that connects to the Internet. You may see different programs like Firefox or Chrome, but this is a common one. Programs that connect to the Internet are called browers because you can browse the Internet with them.”

First give a mission that’s easy to understand and after they start to carry it out, over-explain what’s happening.

Encourage Them

Don’t say “It’s really easy.” It’s not. Do say “Wow, you sure you haven’t done this before? You’re catching on really well.” and “Awesome, that’s exactly right.”

Your student needs to hear your excitement. Otherwise they will assume they are a waste of your time.

The Goal

For a first-time computer user, creating an email address isn’t a step, it’s a goal. And it will take an hour to do it right.

An email is your passport to the Web. To join mosts service online, you need one.

“Creating an Email Address” may look like a step to you, but for someone who doesn’t have an email address, this is like saying “Build a treehouse.”

We’re going to break it way down. Remember, unlearn your awesome.

The First Ten Things

Ok, we’re ready for the nitty-gritty.

  1. Ask your student if they know the parts of the computer.
    If they say no, point out the keyboard, mouse and screen.
  2. Show how the mouse works.
    Move it up/down and left/right and show them the result. Teach them how to stabalize with the sides of their hands when they click. Tell them they will click once on the left side most the time. The except is they will need to double-click if they are opening a folder or program.
  3. Tell them take the mouse and aim for the Internet Explorer icon.
    (Or the preferred browser on the computer you’re using.) If it’s not on the desktop, tell them the steps.
  4. Tell them to aim for the text field at the top.
    This is a good time to explain that the blinking cursor shows you where your text will appear when you type on the computer. They need to click inside the text field before typing.
  5. Tell them to type in
    I recommend gmail so you can show them Google Drive later. Tell them you if you know the website you want to go to, you can type it in, and then click Enter to go there. If they misspell something, let them. Then explain how they can a search result that looks relevent if a site doesn’t come up right away.
  6. Tell them to click the Create An Account button at the top, right.
  7. Walk them through each text field and menu.
    Be patient. There is a lot to cover here.
    Explain you may have to try multiple usernames till one is available. If they click backspace when not within a textfield, explain the backspace takes you to the previous page when not in a textfield and it deletes text when you’re in a text field. Make sure they will remember their email and password or they have it written down in a safe place.
    You may have to start over a few times. The goal here isn’t to be done. The goal is to allow them to learn the parts of a form and how to interact with it.Have them click the Next Step button when everything looks good.
  8. Send them an email.
    First show them how to get to their Inbox. Using your phone, show them if anyone has their email address, they can email them. Type an encouraging note like “Congrats! You have an email address!” in the email, then watch the email come into the inbox with them. Explain the importance of remembering their email or keeping it written down so people know how they can send things to them.
  9. Show them how to logout.
    Explain it’s import to log out when they are at a public computer, say at the library, so someone else can’t see their stuff.
  10. Now, see if they can log into their email.
    Have them close all windows and pretend they just sat down. Repeat the steps with them and make sure they can log into their email. It may take a few times to get the hang of it. Write down the exact steps including the email and password for them if they’d like them.

Extra Credit: If you’re blowing through this in the first hour, explain the difference between typing into the browser text field and a search field such as at Then cover left and right-click.

Now, say something like “Look at that. You’re in. Well done.” And then shut it down for the day and schedule the next lesson.

This first hour may be awesome, but it also will wear you both out. It will only get easier from here as your student picks up more and more of the basics.

Want ideas for the next lesson? Here are 5 lessons that create a wow moment for new computer users.

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Nate Baker

Hi, I’m a business analyst for, on the ChessKid team. Also, I love designing board games and playing chess.