This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

Introducing the Shell


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • What is a command shell and why would I use one?

  • How can I move around on my computer?

  • How can I see what files and directories I have?

  • How can I specify the location of a file or directory on my computer?

  • Describe key reasons for learning shell.

  • Navigate your file system using the command line.

  • Access and read help files for bash programs and use help files to identify useful command options.

  • Demonstrate the use of tab completion, and explain its advantages.

What is a shell and why should I care?

A shell is a computer program that presents a command line interface which allows you to control your computer using commands entered with a keyboard instead of controlling graphical user interfaces (GUIs) with a mouse/keyboard combination.

There are many reasons to learn about the shell:

In this lesson you will learn how to use the command line interface to move around in your file system.

How to access the shell

On a Mac or Linux machine, you can access a shell through a program called Terminal, which is already available on your computer. If you’re using Windows, you’ll need to download a separate program to access the shell.

We will spend most of our time learning about the basics of the shell by manipulating some observational data frequently used in economics. Some of the data we’re going to be working with is quite large, and we’re also going to be using other packages in later lessons to work with this data.

After launching your terminal, you will see something like this


This provides a lot of information about the remote server that you’re logging in to. We’re not going to use most of this information for our workshop, so you can clear your screen using the clear command.

$ clear

This will scroll your screen down to give you a fresh screen and will make it easier to read. You haven’t lost any of the information on your screen. If you scroll up, you can see everything that has been output to your screen up until this point.

The part of the operating system responsible for managing files and directories is called the file system. It organizes our data into files, which hold information, and directories (also called “folders”), which hold files or other directories.

Several commands are frequently used to create, inspect, rename, and delete files and directories.

Preparation Magic

If you type the command: PS1='$ ' into your shell, followed by pressing the Enter key, your window should look like our example in this lesson.
This isn’t necessary to follow along (in fact, your prompt may have other helpful information you want to know about). This is up to you!


The dollar sign is a prompt, which shows us that the shell is waiting for input; your shell may use a different character as a prompt and may add information before the prompt. When typing commands, either from these lessons or from other sources, do not type the prompt, only the commands that follow it.

Let’s find out where we are by running a command called pwd (which stands for “print working directory”). At any moment, our current working directory is our current default directory, i.e., the directory that the computer assumes we want to run commands in, unless we explicitly specify something else. Here, the computer’s response is /home/dcuser, which is the top level directory within our cloud system:

$ pwd

FIXME: add callout about home directory and Downloads folder

Let’s look at how our file system is organized. We can see what files and subdirectories are in this directory by running ls, which stands for “listing”:

$ ls		code			data	doc

ls prints the names of the files and directories in the current directory in alphabetical order, arranged neatly into columns. We’ll be working within the data subdirectory, and creating new subdirectories, throughout this workshop.

The command to change locations in our file system is cd, followed by a directory name to change our working directory. cd stands for “change directory”.

Let’s say we want to navigate to the data directory we saw above. We can use the following command to get there:

$ cd data

Let’s look at what is in this directory:

$ ls
derived	raw

We can make the ls output more comprehensible by using the flag -F, which tells ls to add a trailing / to the names of directories:

$ ls -F
derived/	raw/

Anything with a “/” after it is a directory. Things with a “*” after them are programs. If there are no decorations, it’s a file.

ls has lots of other options. To find out what they are, we can type:

$ man ls

Some manual files are very long. You can scroll through the file using your keyboard’s down arrow or use the Space key to go forward one page and the b key to go backwards one page. When you are done reading, hit q to quit.


Use the -l option for the ls command to display more information for each item in the directory. What is one piece of additional information this long format gives you that you don’t see with the bare ls command?


$ ls -l
total 0
drwxr-xr-x@ 31 koren  staff  992 Oct  9 10:17 derived
drwxr-xr-x@  4 koren  staff  128 Oct  9 10:16 raw

The additional information given includes the name of the owner of the file, when the file was last modified, and whether the current user has permission to read and write to the file.

No one can possibly learn all of these arguments, that’s what the manual page is for. You can (and should) refer to the manual page or other help files as needed.

Let’s go into the raw directory and see what is in there.

$ cd raw
$ ls -F
cepii/		worldbank/

We keep navigating deeper into the worldbank subdirectory.

$ cd worldbank
$ ls -F
WDICountry-Series.csv*	WDICountry.csv*		WDIData.csv*		WDIFootNote.csv*	WDISeries-Time.csv*	WDISeries.csv*

This directory contains six files with .csv extensions. A CSV (comma separated values) file stores tabular data (numbers and text) in plain text.

Shortcut: Tab Completion

Typing out file or directory names can waste a lot of time and it’s easy to make typing mistakes. Instead we can use tab complete as a shortcut. When you start typing out the name of a directory or file, then hit the Tab key, the shell will try to fill in the rest of the directory or file name.

Return to your home directory:

$ cd

then enter:

$ cd Downloads/she<tab>

The shell will fill in the rest of the directory name for shell-economics.

Now change directories to worldbank in raw, which is in data.

$ cd data
$ cd raw
$ cd worldbank

Using tab complete can be very helpful. However, it will only autocomplete a file or directory name if you’ve typed enough characters to provide a unique identifier for the file or directory you are trying to access.

Try to access one of our sample files:

$ ls W<tab>

The shell auto-completes your command to WDI, because all file names in the directory begin with this prefix. When you hit Tab again, the shell will list the possible choices.

$ ls WDI<tab><tab>
WDICountry-Series.csv  WDICountry.csv         WDIData.csv            WDIFootNote.csv        WDISeries-Time.csv     WDISeries.csv  

Tab completion can also fill in the names of programs, which can be useful if you remember the beginning of a program name.

$ pw<tab><tab>
pwd         pwd_mkdb    pwhich      pwhich5.18  pwpolicy 

Displays the name of every program that starts with pw.


We now know how to move around our file system using the command line. This gives us an advantage over interacting with the file system through a GUI as it allows us to work on a remote server, carry out the same set of operations on a large number of files quickly, and opens up many opportunities for using software that is only available in command line versions.

In the next few episodes, we’ll be expanding on these skills and seeing how using the command line shell enables us to make our workflow more efficient and reproducible.

Key Points

  • The shell gives you the ability to work more efficiently by using keyboard commands rather than a GUI.

  • Useful commands for navigating your file system include: ls, pwd, and cd.

  • Most commands take options (flags) which begin with a -.

  • Tab completion can reduce errors from mistyping and make work more efficient in the shell.