Effective learning strategies for programmers. Part 1 Setting for growth

Original author: Allison Kaptur
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In early September, I presented the main points about effective learning for programmers at Kiwi PyCon in New Zealand. My lecture consisted of two parts: one about the way of thinking, and the second about some strategies that we can use.

The articles that we publish are an ambitious and slightly edited version of the first part of the lecture on the way of thinking.

part 2

Recurse center

Before I joined Dropbox last year, I spent two years working at Recurse Center in New York. Recurse Center is a kind of refuge for programmers. Participants 3 months working on what they are interested in. That is, one who has written in Java for ten years can come to RC and learn a new language, for example, Clojure; someone who has just graduated from a university with a degree in CS can come to work on his web development skills; or someone who has studied programming in his free time may come to expedite his studies. The program has virtually no structure - there are no deadlines, no assignments, no studies. This is an experiment in unstructured adult learning.

My role as a coordinator was to help people cope with the disorienting amount of freedom that they received in RC. People who come with a traditional learning experience or after regular work quite often simply do not know what to do with it. Therefore, I helped them with setting goals and gaining most of their experience.

One of the things we often thought about was how to create the most effective training for programmers. Today I want to talk about some research on how to become an effective student, and how we can apply the results of such research in everyday life as programmers and engineers.

What do you learn from this article

Think for a moment what you want to learn from this article. Perhaps you want to learn something new about how to be as efficient and productive as possible in your work. You might want to hear how to become a better teacher or mentor for junior engineers. Or maybe you want to hear about how to make an institutional change in your organization to create a more comfortable environment for such an activity.

All of these topics are quite useful, and I will touch on materials related to each of them. However, I want you to basically think through strategies yourself. When I hear about such strategies, it often seems obvious to me that other people should follow them, but I myself do not have to do this. A little later I will return to this awkward situation.

Growth Attitude: Carol Duque

Let's talk about the first key to effective learning. The sociologist Carol Duque has done a lot of interesting research on how people think about intelligence. She found that there are two main ways of thinking about intelligence. The first, which she called fixed consciousness, is that intelligence is a fixed trait, and people cannot change how much it has. The second way of thinking is the attitude towards growth. From a growth perspective, people think that intelligence is flexible, and people can increase it by making an effort.

Duque discovered that people's understanding of intelligence, whether they see it as a fixed or growing feature, can significantly affect how they choose tasks for themselves that they want to work on, how they respond to difficulties, their cognitive work, and even their honesty. In this article I want to consider a couple of the most interesting results of her work.

Different types of consciousness lead to differences in effort.

The first interesting result is that this separation affects the way people perceive effort. If you have a fixed consciousness, you believe that people are either smarter than you or not, and they cannot change it - so you also most likely believe that if you are good at something, it will always be given it’s easy for you, and if something is too difficult for you, then you will never be good at it. This is a fixed consciousness. People with a focus on growth believe that you just need to make an effort and work harder on something to achieve success.

Several studies have shown that people with a fixed consciousness may be reluctant to make an effort, as they believe that this means that they are not good enough in the field in which they have to work hard. Duque notes: “It would be rather difficult to maintain confidence in our abilities, if every time a task requires effort, this would call into question intelligence.”

Reverse Praise Effect

The second interesting result is probably the most famous. Duque and her staff have shown that if students praise a little differently, this significantly affects their performance.

In this study, Duque and her staff gave students a set of tasks. After the first complex, all students did pretty well. Then half of the students said, “Wow, you really did well with these tasks - you are probably very smart,” and the second half, “Wow, you really did well with these tasks — you probably worked very well.” After that, they were given a second set of tasks, but let's go back to the first for now.

In this case, a fixed consciousness was set in the first group of students (your performance shows that you are smart), and a flexible consciousness was set in the second group of students (your efforts led to success).

From this experiment, they learned a lot of interesting things. The first aspect of the experiment is that between the first and second set of tasks, they asked the students what tasks they want to get further - harder or simpler. (In practice, everyone got more complex tasks). The duel and the rest wanted to see what would be the difference between students who received different praises. And the results were not long in coming: 90% of the students who were praised for their zeal asked for more difficult tasks, while in the group that was praised for their minds, there were only a third of such students. Children who were praised for their zeal turned out to be much more interested in overcoming difficulties.

The second thing that interested them was how the students coped with the third set of tasks. They found that students who were praised for their minds did much worse with the third complex than with the first, while students who were praised for their zeal did a little better. The students who were praised for their minds were unable to effectively “come to their senses” after the second set of tasks, while the students who were praised for their zeal quickly returned to normal.

After that, all the students were asked to write letters of this study to their penpals, saying that "We took part in such and such a study at school, and this is the point I got (a)." They found that almost half of the students who were praised for their minds lied about their results, and among the students who were praised for their hard work, almost no one lied.

Three conclusions can be drawn from this: the growth orientation made students more often choose difficult tasks instead of easy ones, and recover faster after failures, as compared to students with a fixed consciousness.

What is most admiring here is how insignificant the difference in praise is. If you tell a person that he is smart, he will give up all efforts to maintain the appearance of intelligence, performing only light tasks that he copes well with and hiding his failures. If you tell a person that he did a good job, he will try to maintain the appearance of hard work, and the best way to do this is to really work hard.


Another study looked at what would happen when students faced temporary confusion. Duque and her staff developed a short course in psychology, which was introduced to elementary school students. The course was a book on psychology, after which a survey was conducted. In some books there was one rather complicated paragraph, while in the rest it was not. The difficult part was not mentioned in the survey, and therefore, students could study the material even if they completely ignored the difficult part. Researchers wanted to see how students can recover from being extremely puzzled in the middle of the book.

As it turned out, students with a focus on growth studied the material in about 70% of cases, regardless of whether the book had a difficult paragraph or not. Among students with a fixed consciousness, if they came across a book without a complicated paragraph, about 70% studied the material. At the same time, students with a fixed consciousness who faced a difficult paragraph showed a reduction in the assimilation of the material to 30%. Pupils with a fixed consciousness recovered rather poorly after confusion.

What is the best way to characterize the nature of people who basically exist in such a way as to imitate others as often as possible? Are these the people we want to be like because they are good, or are they the people we want approval from?

I decided to give an excerpt from a complex paragraph, because I really like it.

Raise your hand if you ever started using a new instrument or documentation that sounded like that. (Hands raised almost 100%.)

This happens all the time - you receive documents written by experts in the industry with a focus on beginners, or irrelevant documents, or encounter other problems. For programmers, this is a very important feature - to discard this kind of confusion and be able to successfully retain the rest of the information contained in the document that we are reading.

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