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Learn to code with these 5 proven learning strategies

Jun 10, 2022 - 11 min read
Hunter Johnson

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”- Albert Einstein

Let’s pause for a moment to think about not just what we’ve been learning, but how we’ve been learning it. Take it from Einstein – true learning is less about the memorization of facts and more about learning to think the right way.

Of course, focusing on how to train your mind facilitates constant growth and promotes flexibility for whatever changes an industry may experience. In the high-growth landscape of software engineering, programmers must learn to become creative problem solvers and critical thinkers in order to become successful. Focusing solely on memorizing information isn’t enough. It’s the same as the saying, “Giving someone a fish will feed them for a day but teaching them how to catch fish will feed them for life.” Learners need training and support that will set them up for life.

When considering resources for learning to code, it’s essential to consider the teaching approach. Is the platform or solution designed to engage learners and support long-term retention? Programming is not a subject that most can dive into blind and come out on top. Learning to code is an impressive feat that can’t be accomplished without a game plan. Understanding how you will be training your mind to think like a coder is the first step in your learning journey.

Let’s go over 5 proven learning strategies to guide you in your learn to code journey and set you up for long-term success!

We’ll cover:

1. Metacognition

Metacognition is a concept built on thinking about why and how you’re learning. Science shows that memorizing countless facts without considering patterns diminishes your ability to retain information.

A metacognition foundation has been built into many curriculums for elementary school students, especially for students who struggle with mathematics. Students who feel lost in a forest of numbers feel more at home in math class when they’re focused on grasping the fundamental concepts rather than spending hours cracking a set of problems. Some learners thrive amongst numbers and formulas, while others thrive by searching for patterns between ideas – but studies show that understanding underlying patterns can set learners up for long-term success. This is because it makes it easier to solve individual problems when you can identify the type of problem you’re encountering.

There are many ways you can incorporate metacognition into your learn-to-code journey:

  • Create a roadmap (or syllabus) of what you will be learning each week in your coding journey.

    • This will focus more on the progression of the concepts instead of focusing solely on specific problems. Understanding how each topic relates to the initial and subsequent concepts is critical for learning to think like a professional developer.
    • Search ferociously for patterns and themes rather than one-off answers to single problems.
    • Check out some existing courses and curriculum online to familiarize yourself with the terrain.
  • Write out your thoughts

    • Especially in coding, you can get lost in the sea of commands and figures. It can be helpful to take a step back and write out your thoughts on paper. Doing so will allow you to visualize and reflect on your thoughts and connection instead of losing them among the thousands of other thoughts running through your brain.
    • This is an excellent exercise if you consider yourself a primarily visual learner.
    • Diagram your thoughts with a flowchart.
  • Engage in self-reflective questions

    • “How does this information conflict with or enrich my prior knowledge?”
    • “What concepts do these problems represent, and why is the concept valuable to me?”
    • “How does this relate to what I learned yesterday?”

Thinking about why and how you’re learning is probably not new. You’ve probably used similar processes in your early days of education while reviewing concepts for a final or relearning old formulas in math class. Even though metacognition is not a recent breakthrough, it’s important to actively acknowledge it as a tool so that you don’t fall into bad learning habits.

Bad habits can appear as diminished long-term retention due to unstructured memorization and an inability to adapt to unforeseen complications. Good learning habits lead to essential problem solving and critical thinking skills in development, as well as in every aspect of your life. It may take some more time and effort, but so is the case with everything worthwhile.

Learn to code today!

Try one of our 300+ courses and learning paths: Learn Java from Scratch.

2. Divergent thinking

The dynamic landscape of software development calls for divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is a form of cognition that emphasizes numerous responses from a single line of inquiry instead of convergent cognition, which is satisfied by a single, factual answer. Software engineering is a field where there is rarely one right way of accomplishing something. Developers benefit by remaining quick on their feet and being able to attack an issue in multiple various ways, especially as technology continues to advance.

While attempting to think divergently, try to focus on three aspects of the ideas running through your head:

  • Fluency: The number of ideas
  • Originality: The number of unique ideas compared to your peers
  • Flexibility: The number of different concepts or categories that can house your ideas

Keeping these tests in mind helps train yourself never to be satisfied with one answer when exploring a new concept. It feels awkward at first, but your mind will be operating divergently without even having to try after a while. The creative problem-solving skills you acquire will make you a great asset to any team.

3. “The Learning Pit”

The Learning Pit is a learning framework developed by educator and author James Nottingham that aims to reframe the inevitable struggles learners will face into a productive learning process. This productive struggle is less a learning theory and more a learning roadmap built around converting learning frustrations into stepping stones.

The aim is to set up a path where students feel as if they succeeded after a struggle, which leads to better retention and increased confidence for the next concept. Putting learners into the pit allows them to emerge from the pit with experience in how to learn despite initial struggles.

The Learning Pit (Nottingham, 2007, 2010, 2017)
The Learning Pit (Nottingham, 2007, 2010, 2017)

Learning to code can be hard. You will face many challenges, whether you’re learning the difference between arrays and linked lists or understanding how to train machine learning models.

However, we know it is more productive to embrace these challenges head-on instead of allowing them to stand in the way of your goal. The Learning Pit framework empowers us to strive ahead – no matter where we are on our learning journey.

The Learning Pit progresses in four stages:

  • 1. Concept:
    • The learner is presented with the overall learning objective
    • The student leaves this stage with a surface-level understanding of the objective
  • 2. Conflict:
    • This is the stage where the learner enters the “learning pit” and experiences cognitive conflict (two or more ideas that are true but in conflict with one another)
    • The conflict between the known and unknown encourages students to challenge, question, and wonder
    • Overcoming cognitive conflict leads to the foundations of a “growth mindset,” which simply means you view challenges and mistakes as a springboard rather than an obstacle
  • 3. Construct:
    • This is where connections are beginning to be discovered between what is known and unknown
    • Learners must use different modes of thinking, including testing, evaluation, summarizing, interpreting, verifying, etc.
    • An uncomfortable “conflict” stage leads to a triumphant sense of accomplishment
    • The “Eureka” stage of the learning pit
  • 4. Consider:
    • This stage centers around a thoughtful reflection of the learning process
    • Reflection leads to new understandings about what aspects of the learning process were successful and how they can be replicated

So, when you encounter challenges while learning to code, this concept will help train your mind to embrace your challenges. If you find yourself in a cognitive bind, you need only remember that you are in the second stage of the Learning Pit, and it is only a matter of time until “Eureka” is achieved. It all comes back to training your mind to think and learn more effectively, all while building resilience.

4. Hands-on learning

Gaining knowledge through doing is a powerful tool for learning any new skill. Most educators agree that a critical element of the learning process is interacting with the concept firsthand. Information is more likely to be retained in your long-term memory if it is absorbed by multiple senses. A learner is much more likely to store information from a lecture if they practice along with the instructor instead of just passively listening. Activity while learning also helps to engage your full attention so as not to get distracted by external factors.

The physical connection made with the material will implant itself in your mind, making it nearly impossible to bury with new information. Without that real-world connection, it is much more likely to lose that new concept amongst incoming and pre-existing information. Learning is a journey that never stops, so it’s imperative to make as many connections to each concept as possible so they do not get lost.

For instance, anyone can get on GitHub, download one of the multitudes of public repositories, and experiment with code to learn how it works and make it work differently. It’s a free way to get a sandbox for learning, just like the interactive sandboxes in our courses and paths. It may sound a little obvious, but nobody learns to do anything without trying and failing. Students at a university practice coding every night while working on their homework. Thankfully, you don’t need to be paying for a computer science degree to have access to the practice you need. Sandboxes, guided projects, and quizzes are all accessible things you will assist in your coding journey that reputable learning resources provide. Just as the best baseball players in the world still practice with a tee, the best developers keep their skills sharp with the practice of critical concepts.

Learn to code today!

Try one of our 300+ courses and learning paths: Learn C++ from Scratch.

5. Peer learning

If you’re a predominantly auditory learner, or just like the social aspect of being a learner, it is a fantastic idea to form a study group. There are still many ways to connect and converse with fellow learners for those taking on coding as an individual challenge. A huge advantage of taking computer science courses at a university is not necessarily for better instruction, but for the constant access to peers.

That said, going solo is also totally fine. It is up to you to choose what will work best for you. But if you are learning alone and feel like you need people to bounce ideas off, then there is no shortage of places to do so. Just as literary concepts can be taught through debates and discourse, so can development concepts.

A great place to find a study group is to connect virtually via Discord servers or with a study buddy on a video call. If you can’t find anybody to discuss with immediately, don’t worry. Reading and answering concepts aloud to yourself may seem silly, but it can be a helpful way to retain information for an auditory learner. It’s the same as a visual learner writing out their thoughts or rewriting notes with symbols and pictures. It may seem slightly silly, but if it works, it works – and the science says it does!

Finding the right learning resource for you

While these strategies for learning may seem simple, they are proven to work. Planning out how you’re going to learn is an essential first step in the learning journey. This involves choosing well-crafted learning resources that are designed to support and engage learners. While deciding how to go about learning is ultimately up to you and your preferences, we hope some of these proven learning strategies will provide some inspiration to get started!

Be sure to check out Introduction to Computers & Programming and courses like it to understand how some of these cognition strategies look in action as you begin your learning journey!

Happy learning!

Continue learning about programming basics and learning strategies

WRITTEN BYHunter Johnson

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