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How to Learn Code: Active Learning Strategies

Woman using a laptop and books to learn code

Many online tutorials exist solely to teach to learn code, many of which are effective. Throughout the years, I have personally gained valuable knowledge and skills from online tutorials. However, for those just starting out, learning to code can be challenging. Leading to discouragement and abandonment of the endeavor.

Aspiring developers are constantly bombarded with many new concepts, syntax, tools, etc., which can be overwhelming. Sometimes you may even forget the information as quickly as you learn it.

Many times, the problem with our learning process is the speed at which we acquire knowledge. For your convenience, some courses make it easy for you to copy and paste code into their editor or even download entire solutions. Then, the lesson is discussed line by line, covering all the essential points.

Although you may feel like you comprehend the information given, it can often be a deceiving sense of understanding. It’s crucial for novice learners to gain experience by writing their own code before tackling new concepts prematurely.

Therefore, an active learning strategy is crucial in learning how to code. By actively learning, you can take your time and gain practical experience with syntax, code concepts, tools, and more. This approach will help you comprehend and retain the lessons.

Now that we’ve pinpointed why learning to code can be so difficult let’s explore the idea of active learning and how it can assist us in helping us learn to code.

Person taking notes to help learn code

Understanding Active Learning

Active learning is an approach to actively acquiring knowledge rather than passively receiving the information, such as through a teacher, textbook, or in our case, online tutorials.

It shifts the focus to a learner-centered approach where you, the learner, become actively engaged in your lessons. You are encouraged to participate in activities that promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and applying the knowledge learned.

When applied to learning code, this strategy incorporates many hands-on activities that require you to create, experiment with, and solve real-world problems using code. Thereby reinforcing your current knowledge and abilities.

Let’s explore how we can apply this strategy to bolster our understanding of the information we learn.

Learn Code Through Hands-On Practice

The idea behind the active learning strategy is to get as much practical hands-on experience as possible. The more we practice something new, the better our understanding and ability to recall that information becomes.

The approach we are discussing can be applied to all areas of learning. However, in this context, we will specifically explore active learning techniques in online tutorials, courses, and textbooks – the most frequently used formats for learning to code.

Computer with an online tutorial to help the user learn code

Learn Code Through Online Text-Based Tutorials

One of the advantages of online text tutorials is that you can go through the material much faster than watching a video or listening to a podcast. However, this format often makes it far too easy for someone to copy and paste the code from their web browser to their code editor.

After completing the lesson, we may think we’re ready to apply what we’ve recently learned to a project. However, the harsh reality soon sets in when we sit in front of our code editor, struggling to remember how to apply what we’ve learned.

Does this sound familiar? I experienced this firsthand when I was first learning to code. At the time, I didn’t have anyone to guide me on a more effective way of learning the material.

Having a good mentor is crucial; however, not everyone has access to someone who is willing to help them learn. In that case, adopting an active learning strategy is the first step towards taking control of your own progress and learning.

Now, let’s look at improving how we learn from online text-based tutorials.

Active Learning Strategy: Do Not Copy and Paste

Do not copy and paste anything. Not notes, not code, nothing. Moving forward, it is imperative that you input the information manually. This approach will require you to reduce your pace and concentrate more closely on the information presented.

When it comes to learning code, you will immediately get practice not only using the language but using your tools as well. Even if you need help understanding the code you’re writing, you will begin to learn and get comfortable with the language syntax and your code editor.

Additionally, you will start to build up the muscle memory needed to think about the problem you’re trying to solve rather than the syntax and semantics of the language.

Think about it, when a carpenter uses a hammer, do they think about how they’re going to operate the hammer? No, their focus is directed towards their project, and using the hammer will undoubtedly come as second nature as they work towards achieving their goal.

The more you know your tools, the more you can focus on the task at hand. Over time, repeated exposure to your tools will help you master those tools.

Active Learning Rule: Take Plenty of Breaks

When studying, we might think we’re being productive by reading through a lot of content at once. However, this can easily overwhelm us with too much information, especially when using online text-based tutorials.

There are no bounds to how long information on a webpage can be, and you can scroll through a lot of content very quickly. Instead of trying to get to the end of a long lesson, it’s better to find a good stopping point and take a break.

Your brain needs time to digest the information, and taking a break will allow you to think about and reflect on the information you learned. The lesson will still be there when you get back, and you can start a new session when your mind is fresh, and you’re ready to learn more.

Video lessons to help learn code

Learn Code Through Online Video Lessons

We will likely use many online resources that deliver the lesson in a video format. Websites such as YouTube, Pluralsight, Udemy, etc., are valuable resources; however, we often find ourselves less engaged while learning from a video.

Additionally, many video tutorial series will make the code available as downloadable files or through a Git repository to serve as either the starting point of a lesson or completed solutions.

It’s okay to use these resources as a starting point. However, it would be best to refrain from downloading completed solutions, as this will greatly reduce your engagement with the material.

Now that we’ve ripped off that band-aid let’s move on to the next strategy for our active learning approach.

Active Learning Strategy: Code Along with the Instructor

It is best to code along with the instructor when watching a video tutorial. It can be tempting to download a completed solution and read along, but there are more engaging ways to learn.

The great thing about the video format is that we can quickly and easily pause the content and refer to it while we write the code in our own editor.

It may seem tedious at first. However, you will quickly realize that you’re learning more about the language’s syntax and how your code editor responds as you write code. Such as when we misspell a variable name, forget to close a curly brace, or miss that pesky semi-colon at the end of a statement.

Junior developer study notes

Learn Code Through Textbooks

There may come a time in our coding journey when we may find it helpful to pick up a textbook to learn from. For instance, we could pick up a copy of CLRS or Cracking the Code Interview to learn more about data structures and algorithms.

Books such as these are timeless and will stand the test of time as the content is academic and not directly tied to which technology we’re using. However, the information in these books can be challenging to understand due to their density.

We need to identify the key topics and ideas to condense the information into a more readable and easy-to-digest format. Secondly, we need to do it in a way that makes sense for ourselves.

Active Learning Strategy: Take Notes in Your Own Words

Just as if we were learning from the textbook in a classroom environment, we should actively take notes while reading.

However, a common mistake is to write down information exactly as it appears in the textbook. Taking notes this way is ineffective as it fails to ensure complete comprehension of the information we received. Leading to confusion when we revisit our notes in the future.

It’s frustrating to revisit your notes after a while and realize that you can’t comprehend them. This forces you to go back and reread a long chapter in a thick book in search of information you believed you had already grasped.

To remedy this, writing your notes using your own words is best. Instead of simply copying information word for word, take the time to think about and process it.

You will have a much better understanding of the information you just learned. Additionally, your notes will make more sense to you because they were written specifically for you.

Planning phase for developing a software product on whiteboard to help learn code

Learn Code Through Projects

We must absorb a lot of new information while learning how to code. We often think that we must reach a specific point in our learning before it’s finally time to start working on a personal project.

That notion is completely wrong. We can and should always have a personal project that we’re working on. We must use the information we have learned in order to reinforce crucial details about the language we’re studying.

Failing this may require you to search your notes for an example of something that should already be familiar to you. This leads me to my next point.

Active Learning Strategy: Always Have a Side Project

A project is unguided practice that forces you to think through problems and build solutions on your own with the tools you currently have in your toolbox.

It’s okay that we don’t know everything yet. In fact, we’ll never know absolutely everything about the language we’re working with. Programming languages often change quickly. New language improvements and features are regularly being reviewed and released.

Furthermore, always having a project means we will occasionally write less than ideal code. But that’s okay; we’re using the skills and knowledge that we currently possess. Working on a project allows us to improve and expand our current skillset.

As we work on our side project, we may encounter challenges or require specific features of the language that we have yet to discover. You will eventually overcome these challenges by independently researching the language and tools; acquiring new skills along the way.

Learn code through LeetCode contests

Learn Code Through Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking

When we learn in a classroom, we are expected to complete additional work to reinforce what we’ve learned. We may be assigned to research a specific topic or complete exercises at the end of a chapter. Additionally, the instructor holds us responsible for this practice and evaluates our performance through our grades.

While self-learning, we often don’t have the luxury of someone holding us accountable for what we learn. We must hold ourselves responsible for our learning and expose ourselves to additional forms of practice to improve our problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Active Learning Strategy: Challenge Yourself

When learning how to code, it is paramount that we find ways to challenge ourselves while we learn. Challenging ourselves will improve our understanding of our tools and give us another avenue to organically use what we’ve learned.

Whether it’s a more ambitious project than what we’re used to or solving coding challenges on sites such as LeetCode, it is resilience in the face of adversity that fosters personal growth. By challenging ourselves, we become more in tune with the tools and knowledge we use.

Here are some suggestions to help you push your limits:

  • Do coding challenges
  • Build a slightly more ambitious project than your last
  • Participate in an open-source project
  • Find an automatable problem in your life and solve it with code
  • Participate in coding contests and hackathons
Dev community helping each other to learn code

Get Involved

It is a known fact that being around people who share similar interests and goals helps us gain knowledge and accomplish more. At some point, whether in your learning, projects, or career, you will encounter a challenge you can’t overcome alone.

Developer communities offer a supportive environment where you can seek help and guidance when stuck. The community’s collective wisdom can provide valuable insights and solutions, helping you overcome the most challenging obstacles.

Active Learning Strategy: Engage in a Developer Community

An online developer community is about more than just talking about code. It’s also about contributing and sharing your knowledge and experiences with others to create a vibrant and supportive ecosystem that fosters growth and collaboration.

They provide a platform where you can learn from experienced developers and expand your skill set. You can ask questions, seek guidance, and even receive feedback on your code.

Additionally, it’s an opportunity to network and collaborate with others who share a passion for code. You can engage in discussions and exchange ideas that help to stimulate your growth as a developer.

Furthermore, coding can be challenging at times, and we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by our challenges. If you’re feeling stuck or lacking motivation, an online community can offer the encouragement and inspiration necessary to keep you going.

Here are a few options to help get you started:

Remember, every community has its own atmosphere and focus. It’s important to find a community that aligns with your interests. Take your time to explore different communities, participate in discussions, and assess whether they meet your needs as a developer.

Recap

We covered quite a bit in this article, so let’s quickly recap what we’ve learned so far.

Active Learning Strategies

  • Refrain from copying and pasting code: You will immediately get practice not using the language and your tools.
  • Code along with the instructor: You will learn the syntax of the language and how your code editor responds as you write code.
  • Take plenty of breaks: Allow time to digest the information; you can always pick back up when you’re fresh and ready to learn again.
  • Take notes using your own words: You will understand the information you have learned more clearly.
  • Always have a side project to work on: You will significantly enhance your existing abilities and acquire new ones.
  • Challenge yourself: More ambitious projects, coding challenges, and contests will help you grow as a developer.
  • Engage in a Developer Community: Get the support you need to stay motivated and inspired.

Adopting an active and engaged learning style can be highly advantageous when it comes to coding. You will improve your understanding of the material, learn syntax quicker, and utilize new tools more proficiently.

Additionally, active learning can enhance your understanding and retention of what you learned. Adopting active learning strategies will unlock your coding potential through hands-on practice, critical thinking, and community engagement.

Conclusion

I hope this article has enhanced your learning experience and enabled you to get the most out of your efforts. Keep this strategy in mind when going through an online tutorial or video series in the future.

As always, feel free to discuss the topics in the comments, and remember to subscribe to my newsletter.

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Until next time. Happy learning.

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