First, I want to say props to you for considering Launch School. As someone that worked in higher education for several years and has a master’s degree for instruction/working in said higher education, I think Launch School’s model is the future of education; it’s cost effective and worthwhile. I’ve been in the paid portion of Launch School for several months now and I’m still doing the first course. Before you become concerned for my apparent lack of advancement in the program, understand that it’s been my choice to proceed at this pace and that I’ve actually advanced quite a bit in my pursuit of mastery of the concepts that I’m studying. To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever really had to study something to mastery before, and it is a welcome — albeit scary at times — challenge. Everyone learns different, but here are some tips that I found useful as someone that’s doing this full time:
1. Public libraries are a great place to study your Launch School stuff. Several students seem to agree. It becomes part of your routine (almost wrote return…haha…you’ll see why this is KIND OF funny down the road. It’s not really that funny, I know.) and gets you out of the house. When you’re at the library, you have minimal distractions and know you’re there to learn what LS has to offer. If you do have an office at home, make sure it is clean and inviting — a place that you enjoy being in for several hours a day. Get a really nice office chair. One that makes you think “Ahh..this chair is so comfortable I don’t mind sitting here for hours on end. (no pun intended)” Or better yet use a standing desk. I haven’t used one but I hear great things. Also, I’d recommend putting up several rubber ducks on your desk, or some cool action figures, Pop! toys, or anything that is geeky and cool that you can talk to — not because you’re anti-social, but because you would be utilizing an excellent debugging technique. Seriously, this is a real thing. And you just thought all the developers were talking to themselves for reasons….
2. Study Hacks! Chris Lee — one of the co-founders of Launch School — posted in the Slack chat about this book called “Study Hacks” by Casey Dzuong. Here’s a link for it: Study Hacks! (I’m not being compensated for recommending this book, by the way. I just found it useful, and I think you may need all the help you can get. After reading “Mastery” and doing the “Learning How to Learn” course, read this. Pay particular attention to the sections on dealing with exhaustive amounts of text and efficient note-taking). Apparently she completed the core program waaay sooner than most students (she was probably almost done with the whole program by the time she was where I am timewise!) and I can see why.
The book offers some very useful tips for processing information and retention. It’s an easy read, and though the material isn’t exactly related to computer science and programming, the techniques therein are useful and I would recommend picking it up. As someone that comes from a background that isn’t really all that software engineering related, there is A LOT of material to understand when it comes to learning Launch School’s material to mastery: git, command line, learning how to solve a problem, learning how to get a problem into your brain, learning what a language does, learning what it doesn’t do, learning what a method is, learning a bunch of different methods for different classes, learning what a Class is, etc. Not only do you have to learn what they are, you have to learn how to utilize them from memory, when to use them, etc. It’s not just cursory knowledge folks. And this is all in the first course. There’s a reason the running joke among some students that the unofficial mascot for Launch School is this snail.
Study Hacks helps with the efficiency side of processing so much information. Sometimes I feel like I’m just treading water in a sea of information, but over time I understand more and more and feel like I’m swimming further towards the shore of understanding and comprehension.
3. Hand writing notes does help you retain the information better. I have several notebooks that I have used for just the first course…one for notes and one for problem solving/PEDAC (you’ll learn more about this later). There is just something about putting something to paper that makes it stick in your brain. For this reason I use paper index cards as flash cards (and it totally has nothing to do with that really good program Anki giving me various issues in regards to being able to read syntax on my MacBook Air… *glares at Anki*).
4. Stay consistent and be cognizant of your life. By this I mean, realize that life is going to interfere with your studies…and you can interfere with yourself as well. I started the paid program in March and on second thought I probably should have waited until April, because I do a lot of fasting in March and I wasn’t really all that mentally astute to study as much. Few things in life are easy to do without various steps, or progression in other words. For example: A person that has never ran more than 50 feet is probably not going to run a 5K in two days time. (By two days time I mean that they are going to have to run a 5K two days from the current day. Hopefully they would be able to run 5 kilometers in two whole days!) They would need to build up to that. Consider building up to the idea of consistent studying.
If you’re doing this full time, it might not even be a bad idea to slowly introduce yourself to studying the material. For example, let’s say we’re starting fresh on the first week of a month; this is your first week of doing Launch School full time. During the Monday of that first week, you go to the library and only study ONE to TWO hours a day, every week day. That’s it. For a total of 5-10 hours that week. Then the second week you do TWO to THREE hours a day (10–15 hours), et cetera until during the last week you have increased your study time to 4–5 hours a day(20–25 hours). (Pro Tip: Try to get to the library right when it opens. Not only can you get a good spot to study, you can leave earlier. I find it’s easier to study Launch School earlier in the day as opposed to later. ). Also, for most people their Circadian rhythm is optimized with rising early.
You might think you’re wasting your time by only doing that little bit of studying the first week, but by now you should be aware that Launch School is a journey of consistent perseverance, not sporadic sprints. This leads to another important topic…your brain.
5. Studying and memorizing material is taxing, and learning to solve problems can be a mental drain. Having a good breakfast before you start studying for the day can go a long way to helping you retain information and focus better throughout the day. I’m starting to see that software engineers are basically people that solve interesting problems and puzzles. You’re an athlete of the mind. A soldier of thought. And without your primary tool of choice — your brain — being fully optimized, your life is going to be more difficult than it needs to be. Stay hydrated and healthy. Take breaks through out the day.
6. Speaking of breaks, the Pomodoro method is a wonderful way to stay on task and be productive. Remember your brain needs breaks too! The Pomodoro method was invented by this Italian guy name Francesco Cirillo back in the day (the late 1980’s in fact). Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, because as someone of Sicilian descent I can tell you Italians love tomatoes. There’s red in the Italian flag, red Ferraris and Lamborghinis, Super Mario wears a red cap, pizza and pasta sauce use them. Nah, I’m kidding…he had a timer that looked like a tomato so that’s why he called it Pomodoro, but tomatoes are an amazing fruit. Basically you divide your study time into sections — or pomodoros. You study intently for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. After you do this four times in a row, you take a 10–15 minute break. I like to change it up a bit, because it makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. I study for 24 minutes then take 6 minute breaks (usually by reading an actual book to give my eyes and brain a rest from the screen). After four of these pomodoros I take a 12 minute break. By breaking the day up into various chunks (something that you do when solving problems as well), it really allows the day to fly by. When you complete two sets of four Pomodoros take a 20–25 minute break. Go for a walk. Call your mom. Buy a boat. Drink a … Ahem, anyway. After a while, you’ll be surprised at how fast six hours at the library can go when you’re taking breaks consistently throughout the day.
7. Treat yourself! I go to Subway every Monday before heading to the library. I’m at the library M-F from 10–4 and take the weekends off. I’ve never really had a good case of the Mondays, but knowing Monday is Sub day is just another perk to get me to the library on time. In addition to this, be sure to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated — especially if you’re like me and you need to drink copious amounts of coffee before you’re what your friends and family would call “functional”.
8. Meditate. There are a lot of good meditations on YouTube. I personally like the channel Great Meditation and use their “This Powerful 6-phase Morning Meditation has Everything You Could Want in a Guided Meditation” meditation daily. Well, at least weekdays for sure. It helps put your mind in the proper mindset, pardon the pun, for the day.
9. Nootropics. I’m not sure if this is “controversial” or not, but I find some natural mushrooms, and clarity enhancers really help me focus and stay on task. At times I really have to say that these have helped me out immensely. Before taking anything like this, be sure to talk to your doctor about what you are thinking about taking. I enjoy Genius brand Consciousness quite a bit, and you can see the reviews on Amazon for yourself (Once again, I’m not compensated by them, but I’m thinking I should maybe get a NASCAR jacket for all the books/products that I recommend to people). It gives me a boost to concentration and mental stamina. I can tell a difference when I forget to take it for the day (Is that paradoxical?). It’s pretty expensive at about $38, but lasts about a month (The jar, not one dose. That would be insane.) and I feel that it is worth it. In fact, I plan on taking it for the foreseeable future.
10. Stay consistent. Do it every day…or at least a consistent time. If you’re doing Launch School full time, try taking the weekends off to take a break and let your brain settle. It seems to be a consensus among Launch School students that you can only really study the material for about four to five hours a day MAX. Your brain does need some time to relax from the work that you’re putting it through; this helps with retention. When life takes a hold of you — and trust me, it will — try not to let yourself get too distracted from your goal of becoming a software engineer. When you’re studying on how to solve problems (because that’s really what you’re learning to do. You’re learning how to figure out what a problem is — more difficult than it sounds — and writing a process to solve it.) Allow the outside world to take a step back. Focus on the task at hand. Outside of emergencies, try not to be overly concerned about things that will distract you. Don’t focus on what’s trending on Twitter, or what political story is happening for the week.
11. Try to avoid checking your cell phone when you first wake up. What you do in the morning can determine the way the rest of your day goes. Ever wonder why you feel less motivated after spending an hour in the morning scrolling Instagram and Reddit? Well, it’s not just because you spent an hour really doing nothing. Your brain produced quite a bit of dopamine during your cell phone session. It seems to me that you only have a certain amount of the feel good chemicals to go around, so you use them wisely.
12. Go to the study sessions. They will help you. You don’t have to have everything mastered before you attend those. You’ll no doubt be impressed by other students’ abilities to solve the problems; I know I was. The cool thing is one day you’ll be one of those students that other students are in awe of because of your awesome use of the PEDAC process! These study sessions are a friendly place for you to get an idea of what the tests will be like, and what to focus on in terms of your studying. Also, reach out to your fellow students about studying together. You’re likely to always see students talking about studying together.
13. If you’re really serious about doing Launch School, I really recommend Sublime Text. Launch School itself recommends it, and I find it to be pleasant to work with. I used to use Cloud9 (which Launch School also recommends) but they were bought out by Amazon a while ago and now have a pricing scheme, so I just use Terminal and Sublime Text. Sublime Text is worth the money…though you can use it without paying, and Terminal seems safe enough…I just don’t practice the delete commands too much. Heh.
14. Be patient. Realize that what you are learning to mastery can be a complex topic, and there is a lot of information to cover— especially if you’re like me and not from a computer science background; you have a lot to learn. And not just learn, but master! The syntax of a language can be relatively easy (one reason why Launch School focuses more on the process rather than just teaching a specific language and sending you on your way). Be patient with Launch School’s education model and be patient with yourself.
It took me a little while to deprogram myself from the traditional mindset of learning. It’s a big deal to dedicate to yourself to something like this, but it is worth it in the end. I long for the day when I can impress software engineers at a cool company with my understanding of software engineering concepts and show them my ability to solve complex problems. Not so much as a boost in confidence or ego, but to illustrate the validity of Launch School’s education method and my having actually mastered a skill of worth.
I hope you found these tips useful and that they help you on your journey of mastery. I’m sure there is something that I forgot to mention…seriously, I was going to add something but I forgot what it was! Anyway, embrace the Launch School ethos. Tons of students have changed their lives with Launch School, and you can too. Just stay with it. Did I mention be consistent? Don’t place constraints on yourself. It’ll lessen the anxiety and help you stay the course.
Best of luck!