I Failed Programming 101 Three Times

Zachary DuBow
May 28 · 11 min read
At Launch School a ‘B’ is a failing grade

That was hard for me, a low point. Launch School’s 101 course is both broad and thorough and I was unprepared for the rigorousness of the exams.

The carefully selected questions demand complete comprehension and precision. If you fall short in either area it will show and you will be called out for it. Launch School’s written exams are three-hours long (one of them was four hours — that’s basically an SAT!) and ask open-ended questions about coding concepts, syntax, readability, and common errors. Some students struggle with the time constraint and are unable to complete all 20 questions in time.

On that first test, after needing over an hour to answer the first 5 of 20 total questions, I knew I was overmatched. But I’m a pretty good test taker and Googler and I didn’t embarrass myself. I finished just in the nick of time, clicked submit, and waited for my results.

Officially the exams are graded within 24 hours, though it could be anywhere from six to 12. That might sound slow in 2021-speed, and I did obsessively check my email about 200 times in the interim, but when I got my result it was immediately obvious that the wait was well worth the detailed feedback I received— it took me an hour just to work through and understand all the grader’s comments.

Unbeknownst to me I had entered the revisions stage of the Launch School assessment process. The process is documented and (supposed to be) reviewed by the student before starting the exam but I didn’t yet appreciate what Launch School was about at that point, just like I breezed through the 101 course material without internalizing much of the content.

I was already midway through a coding bootcamp and had (thought I) learned JavaScript basics there and knew enough to easily handle any 101 course. Ha! How little I knew. How little I knew of JavaScript’s depth and how little I knew of what it takes to succeed at Launch School. My score was a respectable 87/100, but I saw ‘incomplete’s on nearly half the questions.

As part of Launch School’s pedagogy, a student cannot continue their journey before mastering the more fundamental levels. Any knowledge gaps must be corrected or they’ll only get worse as the concepts accumulate in breadth and complexity. So, a B+may be a good score in the institutionalized, factory-assembly-model education system our society has grown accustomed to, Launch School reasons, but it is not sufficient if one seeks complete fluency. At Launch School, a 90/A- is considered passing. Any score under 100 means mistakes and any mistakes means the revisions stage. If you’re at a B+ it’s a borderline decision and the final verdict depends on how well you do on the revisions. Less than a B+ and you’re brandished with a ‘Not Yet,’ a wonderful euphemism for a big fat F. Still, anything less than 100/100 means revisions stage before you are given the ‘Pass’ and permission to move on with the curriculum. Total mastery. “In your previous studies you may have been satisfied with a B,” Launch School tells its students. “Aim higher.”

So I was sitting at a B+ with my 87, a borderline passing/failing grade.

I may be a good test taker (at least in my previous, institutionalized education) but Launch School knows how to test for true mastery. My good answers were left alone and the rest torn apart. Every uncertain line I wrote was parsed, analyzed, and found wanting. Any mistake was neatly laid bare. For each not-100%-true answer — of which there were many — I was challenged to fix it. Wow. Talk about thoroughness! I was rather surprised by how demanding it all was. If I didn’t get it right earlier, I thought lazily, why would I know any better now?

But I tried, did more Googling and combing through the curriculum material, arrived at some better answers, asked for more clarity on one question, and resubmitted. That took me around three more hours. Then I waited, knowing it could again take up to 24 hours for the response. By that point I understood the wait, though, seeing as how thorough the grading is.

“This is not the time to be asking questions,” the grader wrote to me as part of his critical but professional and matter-of-fact response.

Ouch! I grit my teeth and read through his other comments. He made quite clear that there were issues with some of my answers and apparent gaps in my knowledge of fundamental concepts. He pointed to my still-incomplete question and imprecise explanations and directed me to try again.

So I did, which entailed another couple hours of work and research, on top of the waiting time between responses. Each revisions round means at least one more day until you can move forward. It added days to my career transition plan but helped me understand just how much is required by Launch School’s standards.

Finally, two emails arrived in my inbox. ‘Your graded results’ and ‘Your assessment has been reviewed by an instructor.’ The first was the grader’s response — an email title I had quickly grown wary of — and the second was new. I opened that one first.

The result for your exam is: Not Yet.

Hi, Zach. After going over your initial answers and revisions with [Launch School TA graderPerson], we agreed that it would be beneficial for you to have another attempt at the assessment. You started off strong with most of your answers by only missing full marks by a few points. However, there were several answers that this occurred. As such, your grade got pulled down by this. Unfortunately, during the revision rounds, it became increasingly apparent that there are still gaps in your mastery of the concepts. Specifically, you need to do a better job of explaining things with clarity and precision. You also need some work in your technical mastery.

…followed by a long, quite accurate accounting of the revisions history, detailing the accompanying mistakes and back-and-forth progress between the grader and me…

Individually, almost all of these issues on this exam may be due to communication issues, particularly a lack of precision and clarity. However, communication issues often stem from gaps in understanding. In your case, the quantity of answers that lacked precision and clarity is a concern. Additionally, many required two rounds of revisions, and for some, you did not arrive at an adequate final answer. If you have not done so already, you will benefit from attending a study group to get a better handle on how to explain things. You may also benefit from a beginner-level study group if you have trouble understanding technical concepts and vocabulary.

Burn.

Oh, but I was so close! My biggest offense, grading-wise at least (not conceptual-understanding-wise — that was really the issue, in hindsight), was misdefining a certain concept in particular. I knew how to use it in my code but I couldn’t nail down its definition and fundamental components. I didn’t think that warranted my subpar grade. And not only was I being forced to retake the three-hour test, but I was told I had to wait one week before I could try again! Not only is time money, as they say, but it’s pay-as-you-go at Launch School so time really was money.

[The fees are a totally reasonable $200/month, and pay-as-you-go — which also means leave-when-you-want — is actually such a big perk when you consider the large ($15k+) upfront, oftentimes non-refundable costs charged by conventional coding bootcamps.]

Bottom line: I failed the test. The first time that’s happened to me. Worse, I couldn’t move forward with my studies for at least a week, and that hurt more because I saw how much I had already learned at Launch School. I was able to explain concepts I didn’t even know existed before — no thanks to that bootcamp I tried — and I felt I grasped much of the material. It was apparent how different Launch School was compared to that original bootcamp. Most importantly, it was apparent how much more I would learn. So, I buckled down, spent more time reviewing the official Launch School study guide, and waited anxiously for one week to elapse. I had no intention of waiting more than that before I tried again.

Well, maybe I should’ve waited longer and studied more carefully because on my second go-round, even though I recognized some questions from the first exam which were repeated and barely altered for the second, I still got some things wrong. Then, following two more rounds of revisions, I received the dreaded ‘Not Yet.’

This time, it was explained to me, I failed to fully explain some points and had imprecise answers for others. There was a concern I still didn’t fully understand some fundamental concepts and I even made mistakes I should’ve known from my first attempt — most alarmingly, I got that same darn definition question wrong again. I did better than my first attempt but not well enough. On a student’s second attempt their score is automatically reduced by a full letter grade. So, if you initially need to do very well (90+/A-) to pass on your first attempt, if you’re on your second attempt you need to nearly ace it.

After my second consecutive ‘Not Yet’ I discovered (but should’ve already known from the documentation) that a student must wait two weeks before reattempting. Further, the Launch School assessment rules state, a student may be asked to leave the program if they receive three consecutive ‘Not Yet’s or six total.

I felt dejected. I knew the material, just made a silly mistake here and maybe choked a bit there. And the pedantic demands of that definition question! How many different ways can I explain it until they are satisfied? Not only did I have to go through this again but now I had to wait two whole weeks. Worse still, I was on pace to fail out of Launch School — not yet through the first exam on the first course and I already lost two of my six lives.

I was quite nervous about failing out and being barred from continuing my Launch School studies — no longer for a month but forever. By then I was convinced of Launch School’s efficacy and had all but stopped investing time in that first bootcamp (though I had already paid in full for it and it continued whether I kept up with the material or not…unlike Launch School’s pay-as-you-go, self-paced program) so that was terribly worrying. It was Launch School or bust for me. Doubt started to creep in.

And some frustration, naturally. I considered writing them a letter and pleading my case, whether to bump me up to a pass or to let me retake the test sooner — I would’ve even offered to pay, assuming part of their rationale for the waiting time between retakes is staff resources. But then I realized that if I still got things wrong the second time then maybe I really wasn’t ready to proceed. Also, in addition to the shaky grounds of my appeal case, I was scared of rocking the boat so early on in my Launch School journey. So, I decided to drop any potential dramatics and take those two weeks on the chin.

It was August without daycare so my next two weeks were consumed with our baby boy anyway. I didn’t study much as I really did know the material by then and planned to take the retest as soon as two weeks were up. I did and passed — mercifully, finally — but I had already admittedly seen pretty much every type of question they were going to throw at me. So my confidence wasn’t in the greatest shape at that point and confidence is critical for the next stage of the Launch School 101 assessment.

The second half of the 101 assessment consists of a 1:1 coding interview, where the interviewee is tasked to code answers to two questions in under an hour, with the expectation that each question should really only need 20 minutes. This serves as practice for real job interviews where they do likewise.

Studying for the interview is totally different than studying for the written exam. For the written I needed to be able to write clearly and demonstrate mastery of foundational concepts, whereas the interview demanded problem solving, writing clean code under pressure, thinking aloud and explaining one’s thought processes to the interviewer, and preparing an algorithm (AKA steps to get something done). Launch School provides over 100 practice problems and I made sure to do them all before I allowed myself to schedule the interview two weeks later.

I was nervous for several reasons: I had never done 1:1 coding problem solving before, I didn’t want to wait another week if a retake was required, and I was frightened by the possibility of failing out of the program.

Well, I found myself 45 minutes in to the interview and still hadn’t solved the first of two questions. I had been stuck on a trickier part of the problem for 20 minutes when the time stood at 50 minutes, and the interviewer informed me there was now no way I could complete the second question as well and so the interview was to be terminated.

Failure again, only this time I knew it on the spot without needing to wait for the emailed verdict.

That made three Not Yets and I still hadn’t cleared the 101 hurdle. I knew that by the end of the program, a student must have passed seven written exams and five interviews. I was now more worried about the possibility of failing out and that bothered me far more than my slowed progress. I couldn’t bear the thought of being denied Launch School’s carefully curated curriculum and mastery-level assessments. I felt it was crucial as the foundation of my career in software. I was hooked.

So I dug in my heels, again. I worked and sweated at it. I studied with fellow students, attended Launch School-sponsored study groups, reviewed the 100 practice problems and found more elsewhere, and got to the point where I couldn’t look at any more of those classic interview coding questions. By then, it had been three weeks since the first failed interview attempt and I knew I was ready for the retake. I took it again and, though I still stumbled a bit, fortunately I did well enough to pass.

Course 101 was in the books and it took me 2.5 months, including three weeks spent on my (too quick) review of the course materials followed by nearly two months of test-studying, test-taking and test-waiting. Not the best start, but I knew I had found something special in Launch School. I knew that if I kept going with their program I would be giving myself the best chance to succeed long-term. I felt grateful that I found them and couldn’t think of a better way to prepare for my new career.

I also felt relieved and excited to finally get past 101, and anxious that my career transition was progressing at a slower pace than I had anticipated. But most of all I couldn’t wait to dive in to the next course and learn new material. I was hungry to level-up my skills and hungry for Launch School’s content, designed and tested (I now knew firsthand!) for mastery-level proficiency. I was ready to embrace learning how to code the Launch School way.

In all, I discovered Launch School is like the Navy SEALs of coding schools — if you make it to graduation you are one serious soldier.

P.S. I completed Launch School in May 2021, didn’t get any more Not Yets after 101, and graduated with an A average.

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