This document pertains to “learning to program” (in the context of
a college course) and not to “programming”. Some advice pertains to both, but
some is excellent advice for learning to program and not particularly good
advice for someone who already knows how to program and is trying to accomplish
a task. There exist human beings who have learned to program who did not follow
every suggestion in this document. However, these suggestions will work for
just about anyone.
Successfully learning to program a computer begins with a correct mental
- — Programming is fun and hard.
You need to adopt the mindset of a prexathlecon:
- understand how something works and then fix it
- take time to look around even when the destination is unknown
- be dedicated to training and practice
- start with intention of winning and never give up
- — Programming is a skill.
For any skill you can observe this phenomenon:
The perplexing thing about this process is that the only thing to happen
between step 1 and step 3 was rest! I call this a struggle-rest cycle.
You need to think in terms of maximizing these struggle-rest cycles.
Spending 4 hours practicing in one day and then taking three days off
is not as beneficial as practicing an hour a day for four days.
- Practice the skill.
- Rest from practice. (Do something else or sleep).
- Try the skill again ... and find you have improved.
- — Programming requires understanding.
A programming language is an abstraction of commands that a computer
performs. Learning to program requires building an accurate mental
model that explains what will result from a particular statement.
Such an understanding implies that you also know what each individual
programming statement accomplishes according to your mental model.
Once you are thinking like a prexathlecon and are committed to daily
practice and to building an accurate mental model it is time to focus on
effective learning behaviors:
There are two patterns you should use:
- When you are learning a programming concept
you try it out. Once you have code that works don't think of yourself as
being finished. (Would a basketball player stop practicing free throws
once they make one?) Instead, try it again (from memory). Type the code
multiple times and each time try to recall the correct syntax without
looking at anything you've done before. Having syntax memorized is
essential as you progress to increasingly complex topics.
- Every time you try out programming
statements begin by predicting what will happen when the program
runs. Don't ever run a program without first making a prediction!
Once you execute the program compare the actual result with your
prediction. If they match that's great. If they don't match that's
good too because you have credible feedback that your mental model
was inaccurate and needs adjustment. Continue the
code-predict-execute-adjust pattern until your mental model agrees with
- Just Start Don't feel like you have to know every detail of
every step needed to solve a problem before starting. If you are
trying to make your way through a foggy landscape you won't be able
to see your destination, but if you never move you'll never be able
to see anything more than you see right now. Start moving in some
direction ... and if you approach a cliff you'll learn where
the cliff is and that you need to try a different direction.
- Know the Type Anytime you have a variable (or a value
returned by a function) you should know it's type!! You should
practice saying the type out loud. Once the type has been identified
you will immediately inherit all knowledge about values of the
specified type ... which will determine what makes sense as
you move forward.
- Draw The Picture Ultimately programming statements use
values that have been stored in memory. Representing the computer's
memory with accurate diagrams can explain clearly what may otherwise
be confusing behavior. It does require a bit of effort to learn to
draw pictures accurately but doing so will be an important step
in your effort to build an accurate mental model. Remember:
“No Picture ... No Worky”.
- Take Baby Steps Don't type beyond your accurate/verified
mental model! If you can't accurately predict what a line of code
will do then you need to apply the code-predict-execute-adjust
pattern to that one line of code until you know what it is doing.
- Ask the Lobster I've had students come to my office asking
for help and as they walk me through their code they answer their
own question! So, instead of asking a person you can also ask an
inanimate object (we use a lobster). For this technique to work you need
to explain your code (out loud) step-by-step and believe the lobster
- Version Control Version control is your friend—not busy work!
In a decent sized program you might write for a course there are typically
four or five pretty clearly delineated steps that you can get working and
test individually. As you complete each step you should take time to
commit (and push) your changes. Don't wait until the entire program works
to do a commit.
Here are some behaviors to avoid:
- Be in a hurry. When learning to program the goal is not to
“finish” ... the goal is to learn how to program. Besides,
computers can sense hurry like an attack dog can smell fear!
- Copy and paste. When learning to program the goal is not to
“save time” ... the goal is to learn how to program. By
typing code from memory rather than copy-paste you are participating in
the practice-repeat-memorize pattern. (The same concept applies to copying
programs or parts of programs in other ways as well.)
- Get help. Remember, this is a behavior to avoid! When learning
to program the goal is not to “finish” ... the goal is to
learn how to program. Don't use Google. Don't ask a friend. Don't email
your instructor. Instead apply the patterns and practices listed above to
figure it out on your own. Normally, if you're stuck on a single issue for
a while it is because you have taken too big of a step or that your mental
model is lagging behind the topics you are undertaking. If you do
need to get help and you've already asked the lobster then try to get the
smallest amount of help needed to get you moving forward. BOTTOM LINE: It
is okay to be stuck for a while. The act of trying to get unstuck will
modify your mental model and will improve your problem-solving skills.
Here's how these right ways of thinking and right ways of doing might play out
in the context of programming course.
- Day 1
- In class the instructor introduces how to use various methods
in Java's String class. You understood the examples as the instructor
presented them but you know that seeing examples and being able to
use those commands from memory are not the same thing. So, you create
a small program (from scratch) for the purpose of playing with those
commands. You focus on one command at a time trying to remember the syntax
from memory. (This utilizes the practice-repeat-memorize pattern and the
code-execute-predict-adjust pattern.) You check your notes when you get
stuck. You draw a picture of a string (including its indexes) and use it
to explain/predict how the various string commands will function. These
steps take 30-45 minutes. It's time to do something else for a while.
Later that day you come back to your program and, having learned the
commands, are ready to start on the homework assignment. So, you read
the assignment and plan how you will structure the assignment (methods,
parameters, variables, classes) and identify what new commands will be
needed to solve it. Write (on paper) your overall design (this takes
another 30-45 mintes). Time spent: 1.5 hours.
- Day 2
- In reading the assignment the day before you realized that
some parts of the assignment cannot be finished until more is discussed
in lecture. There are, however, quite a few parts of the assignment
you can do, so you get started on those parts. Review your design and then
start writing code. Use baby steps and employ relevant practices as well
as the code-execute-predict-adjust pattern. At each step along the way
take time to commit and push your work. Let's say you are working on a
function and you can't get it to behave the way you want. Follow this
Let's suppose your day ends in the “worst case scenario” that you got
stuck and couldn't get past the issue. So, you will need to get outside
help. Remember, as you finish each section of your code take time to
document it and commit/push your changes. Total time spent: 2 hours.
- Mentally step through your program and as you do so draw a
picture of the list/array/objects your program creates. If you can't
find a statement that creates those structures then don't draw them.
- When walking through code say (out loud) the type of every
- If, as you walk through the code, you encounter a statement you
don't understand then stop and write a separate program for the
purpose of testing that single command until you understand it. Then
continue walking through your code.
- Put print statements in your program (or use the debugging features
of your IDE to track variables) and predict the output and reconcile
differences. For example if you get Java's dreaded “null pointer
exeception” when you run your program it will (mercifully) give you
a line number. Go to the specified line number and identify which
variable was null. Identifying the null variable explains why you
got the null pointer exception, but the real question is this: “Why
was that variable null?” Presumably you were expecting the variable
to point to an object and instead it is null. So, trace backwards
through your program to see where you set that variable to start with.
- If you're still stuck ask the lobster. As you walk through the
section of code that isn't working explain out loud to the lobster
what each statement is doing and see what lights come on.
- If the lobster doesn't help then take a 30 minute break and come
back and walk through the code again. If you still can't figure out
the issue then it may be time to invite some human intervention.
- Day 3
- After a good night's rest take a moment to revisit the code
that isn't working. If you don't have new insights ask for help (from
instructor or fellow student). Once you get over the hump and reach
the next milestone be sure to commit/push your changes. Today was
another class day and more commands/concepts were introduced. You
take time to play around with the relevant commands that are needed
to complete the homework. Take time to write another (from scratch)
program for the purpose of playing with/learning the new commands.
Then take a moment to revisit your initial design which can be
enhanced now that you know more. Time spent: 1.5 hours.
- Day 4
- Continue working on the homework using the techniques described
above. Let's say you get stuck again and re-apply the checklist (draw,
print, lobster, help). Time spent: 1.5 hours.
- Day 5
- Revisit the code that wasn't working ... if no new insights
then get help. Once you get over the hump be sure to commit/push. If new
commands are introduced in class then play around with them. Today you
will likely finish the homework. Time spent: 1.5 hours.
- Day 6
- Take time to re-read the assignment and make sure your program
meets all requirements. Commit any tweaks that are needed. Time spent: 1
- Day 7
In this scenario you will have spent about 9 hours outside of class. The truth
is that most people who invest 1 to 2 hours a day in an undergraduate
programming course will have good results. So, you might be able to spent closer
to 1 hour per day (outside of class) and have success. As discussed earlier,
spending 1 hour a day is not the same as spending 6 hours one afternoon. Also,
it matters how you spend your time. If you spend it actively learning
concepts presented in class rather than looking online at other people's
solutions to your homework assignment then you will develop good skills. If
instead you focus on “finishing the homework” you will find yourself on
the wrong side of a snowball on its way down a hill.
The bottom line is that programming is a valuable skill precisely because it
leverages very powerful hardware and is a difficult skill to master. Lots of
people have started down the path of learning to code because they heard about
the good jobs and high pay but they gave up. If you learn the ABC's and apply
the 3P's presented here you will join the ranks of those who can say with
confidence: “Yes, I know how to program a computer!”