De-Isolate Your Studying

Online learning can be lonely. But it doesn’t have to be.

Nathan Worden
Nov 24, 2019 · 8 min read
Launch School students are a delightful bunch. These are all students I have done multiple 1 on 1 study sessions with. Images used with permission.

When you commit to a program like Launch School, you do so because you are drawn to the pedagogy of Mastery Based Learning, the philosophy of starting with atomic concepts that don’t change, and the forward thinking goal of starting a long-lasting career, not just getting a job.

To me, those are exactly the areas to prioritize — and I am extremely happy with the program one year in even though I am not even halfway through the core curriculum. It’s a long journey for sure, and there are certainly tradeoffs when you decide to prioritize the long-term over the short-term. But Launch School is upfront about those trade-offs. The ‘Mastery-Based Learning’ page on Launch School’s site discusses the constraints of their approach:

  • Indefinite duration (This is probably going to take a lot longer than you think it will)
  • Self paced (self motivation over a long time-frame is required)
  • Assessment Driven (Anxiety, challenge, and some failures are going to be part of your journey)
  • There’s no peer group (There are going to be lonely days, months, and and if you don’t plan against it, years)

These constraints are no joke. You have to pay attention to them because they are where the punches come from that can knock you out of the program. In fact, I think each of these areas are worth some investment of time and mental energy to prepare against. It’s like the preparation you’d do if you were going on a day-long hike; you know you will get dehydrated, so bring a camel-back; you know you will get hungry, so bring trail-mix and sandwiches; you know you might get lost, so you bring a battery-pack to keep your phone charged and bring a physical map as a backup. It’s common sense preparation — you know where the challenges are, but if you come prepared your chances of having a good experience go up astronomically.

Today I want to talk about one of the more insidious challenges: No peer group.

Most people underestimate that bullet point because it comes with the territory when you’re looking at online programs. Having a cohort is something in-person programs do (and those are expensive!). If you’re interested in a self-paced, online program, you probably weren’t looking for a class of buddies anyway. But I think its time to talk about why this foe can pack a knock-out punch you weren’t expecting.

There is a sociological theory called Social Constructivism which highlights the importance of interaction with others in the construction of knowledge. A hallmark of this perspective is that developing skills happens in situations with integrated contexts — not in an isolated and hierarchical manner. By integrated contexts I mean that building a skill requires two places (contexts). The first place is where you initially become aware of some knowledge (like an online assignment). The second place is where information you consumed in the past must be mentally acted upon. When you link various parts of the past context and coordinate them with aspects of the new context, you build skills.

You could say that the ‘exercises’ area in Launch School is that “second place” where you must mentally act on information you learned. But I would argue that relying on exercises alone is inadequately preparing for your hike.

Social Constructivism stresses social interaction in the two “places” I described above. It identifies value in communicative, interpersonal experiences. When you are enrolled in an online program, your live interaction with other students can be sparse or non-existent. There are no other students present to provide naturally occurring opportunities to create that second space where you can integrate contexts. When you don’t have distinct spaces to integrate contexts, then all you’ve done is observe, and the experience hasn’t really affected you.

Over time, if your context doesn’t change, you become less and less engaged; less active in your own learning. There is less meaning-making going on as you sit in front of the computer day after day. Interaction with other students fuels a sustained response that encourages meaning-making through negotiating with the ideas of others. This type of learning promotes retention.

Initially, when you sign up for Launch School it may feel nice to study on your own. But as you push further into the program, if you do so in isolation, certain pitfalls go from inflicting minor scratches to delivering knock-out punches. The final blow could be a number of things- loneliness, cost, or a personal emergency. These are challenges that wouldn’t have been as big of a deal in the beginning, things you can come back from — but only if the place you come back to is meaningful.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Mastery Based learning is a sport you want to go far in, not fast.

What exactly are we missing out on by not having a peer group who we study with?

  • Deeper understanding of the material
  • A more developed ability to demonstrate skills
  • An increased ability to cope with anxiety
  • Faster recall of useful information
  • A future network of talented friends
  • Fulfillment from assisting other students
  • Getting unstuck quicker

A conversation with another learner creates that second space for you to integrate concepts. Learning involves building on background knowledge a student brings to the situation and restructuring initial knowledge. Since different learners have different background knowledge, experience, and interests, they make different connections in building their knowledge over time. When you interact with another student, their background knowledge creates a new space for you to test your initial knowledge and then revise as new questions arise based on the interaction of your prior contexts. This is something you don’t get as richly from just doing exercises on your own.

Just because there is no cohort doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create your own peer group. Like Launch School says “Your peers are learners of that topic at each stage.” And Launch School does a great job of providing TA-led study groups in preparation for the RB109 and RB129 assessments as well as investing in a vibrant Slack community. You should definitely participate in these. But a one-off study session or a 5-line thread on Slack isn’t what I mean by creating your own peer group. Here is what I’m talking about:

As you go though Launch School assignments, ask yourself questions like, “What would happen if I did this?…” For example, when learning about pass by reference vs. pass by value in Ruby, I asked myself this question:

What will this code output to the screen on line 9?

Answer: “Launch School”. The string that ‘str’ is pointing to is mutated on line 2, but after that the ‘param’ in ‘amethod’ is reassigned on line 3, so no further mutations affect the value str is pointing to.

Keep track of these questions in a document. And create your own versions of questions based off of important concepts. These questions can also just be flash cards that you make for yourself. But take the time to record them somewhere that you can access easily.

My favorite thing to do is look at answers posted by other students to the exercises provided by Launch School. For answers that I think are particularly readable I would reach out on Slack to the student who posted them and ask if they’d like to study.

You can also reach out to students who have posted blog articles, or just put out a general message on Slack asking if anyone would like to study. In general though, the more personalized the invitation, the better. When you reach out let them know that you’ve prepared some questions that you can feed them, and ask if they will do the same for you.

When you set up a Zoom meeting with another student, don’t rush directly into studying. Take the time to get to know them. This is honestly one of the greatest joys of de-isolating your studying. The meaning-making that I was talking about earlier isn’t just meaning surrounding coding concepts. It’s also meaning that grows from developing friendships with other driven learners like yourself. It’s extremely fun to hear about another student’s goals in a study session and then watch as they achieve them months down the line — or even better, contributing to their success.

When another student gives you a good practice problem, save it in your catalog and then give it to another student in a future study session. Pretty soon you will have an awesome study deck. Other students will love studying with you because you will have such great content to work with.

At the end of every study session, ask if the student would like to do another one in 2–3 weeks. Having a couple weeks in-between study sessions gives you both time to replenish your study questions.

Try and keep studying with this person over time. This is honestly such a hidden gem. I looked back on my calendar and realized that I have been doing consistent study sessions with a couple different students for over six months straight. I count these people as my friends now. These are people who live all over the world that I would never have met if I hadn’t done Launch School. Every time one of us passes an assessment we celebrate each other. Every time we get stuck, we have someone to reach out to who knows a bit more about our background understanding. I hope to keep studying with them all in the future and possibly work on coding projects with them. I’m excited to see where their careers go.

I am going to end by re-inserting the photo from the top because it brings me a lot of joy. I hope this article encourages you to de-isolate your studying . The constraint of “there is no peer group” is only true if you let it be. By investing some time into studying with other students, you will increase the likelihood that you stay consistent and make it through the whole program. Once you finish, the relationships you form will be something you will take with you. Happy studying!

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