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Lessons From the First Half of Core

Courses in the Core program at Launch School are divided into a back-end section (which is either Ruby or JavaScript, depending on each student’s track), and a front-end section (all JavaScript). Beginning at Launch School, the benchmark of completing the back-end portion feels incredibly significant. Yet, now that I have officially “crossed over” into the front-end portion of Core, the transition was remarkably anti-climatic, especially compared to the arduous (and somewhat terrifying) accomplishment of completing 109 — the very first interview and exam in Launch School. Still, I feel inclined to take a beat before diving too far into JavaScript, to reflect on what I have learned, and what wisdom I would impart to my just-starting-at-Launch-School-self, if I had the opportunity.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far — apart from programming, of course — is how inaccurate my previous assumptions about learning were. Prior to Launch School, I thought the learning process basically had two phases:

  • Learning: this is essentially what happens in the classroom, while going through the coursework, etc.
  • Reviewing and practicing: this is what happens at the conclusion of a class or lesson, and is merely a way to keep the things you learned earlier “fresh,” and maybe focus on a few things you didn’t quite learn in the learning phase

Now, to be clear, everyone’s learning process is different, and perhaps this model or something similar does mirror others’ experiences. But for me, I realized this is skipping an extremely crucial step — and is perhaps one of the reasons a lot of the things I learned in more conventional educational settings didn’t really stick. For me, at least, learning really has three key phases:

  • Exposure: This is what is actually happening in the classroom or the first time I go through a lesson, when my brain is primarily taking in information, rather than genuinely understanding it
  • Learning and internalization: This is what begins in the phase that I used to consider pure reviewing — this is when I start to truly understand the material, and develop accurate mental models
  • Practice and externalization: This is the period when I identify and correct minor errors in my mental model, and develop the skills to execute and clearly communicate the things I have learned

This might seem like a purely pedantic distinction, however I actually think it is quite significant, not only in terms of my actual studying habits, but also in terms of the way that I assess my own progress, and my morale and psychology as I progress through each course. But before I delve into that, I’d like to illustrate this distinction in the learning process with another (I think) relatable learning experience: learning a new song (assuming you aren’t a musician!).

The first time you hear a new song, it’s unpredictable, sometimes it might not even sound very good (even though you might later grow to love it), the lyrics can be hard to catch and there is so much new information flowing through your ears, that you can’t do much more than just take it all in. This is the exposure phase. Hearing a song once — even if you retained as much as you could, in no way constitutes learning the song.

But let’s say you like the song and want to try to learn it. You’ll play it again — hearing it again, knowing what to listen for, already having an idea about it’s structure and chorus, allows you to hear it differently. So you keep listening until you can “hear” it in your head, even when it is not playing — this is what I think of as the learning and internalizing phase.

But then you need to practice, to make your voice make the right sounds at the right times — which is actually kind of tricky, even though it sounds perfect when you “play” it in your head. This is what I think of as the practice and externalizing phase.

Now of course in reality these phases overlap — we practice and sing along, even before the song is solidified in our memory. But functionally, those are the distinct processes that are happening. So, why is this significant? Thinking about learning a song makes it clearer: if you just heard a song once, would you expect to be able to sing it correctly? Would you think you were stupid or bad at singing if you couldn’t? Of course not — hearing a song once isn’t learning a song. And you wouldn’t judge anyone else for not knowing a song they only heard once — that would be silly.

I’ve learned that my first pass-through of a course is a lot more like hearing a song for the first time, than it is like the other phases. Not knowing what is coming next, not seeing the “big picture” and how it all comes together means, for me at least, that it’s all just washing over me, much like that first listen to a new song. Of course that is not to say I don’t do my best to understand and retain what I’m reading, and of course I do all of the exercises and practice problems. But I now realize that the expectation that I have deeply learned those things on the first pass-through is just as silly as expecting to be able to perfectly sing a song I have only heard only once.

The clarity that comes with that distinction has been really freeing. When I thought that real learning happened on the first pass-through of new material and the review was just a superfluous once-over of the things I should have already learned, it meant I must be doing something wrong when it didn’t all make sense right away. But realizing now that my first experience of a course is really just my first exposure, not the primary learning phase, has allowed me to stop beating myself up over things that don’t quite make sense right off the bat. I still take vigorous notes as I go — but almost exclusively to be sure I’m really engaging with the material. I refer to these as my “throwaway notes” because they wind up being pretty useless — they are initial impressions of the material, not at all an accurate summation of it. And instead of being too scared to ask a “dumb” question, or worry that I will seem stupid in a study session, I feel comfortable accepting that some of it is going to take a little more time, and require a better understanding of the big picture to really sink in.

So back to the song. Once you decide to learn the song and start listening to it again, even after having only heard it once before, your brain is primed, ready to start making sense of it. You’ll notice, it actually sounds different! It starts to organize itself in your mind, and this changes the very experience of it. You notice little flourishes you missed at first, hear patterns and harmonies that weren’t clear initially. The more you listen to it, the more “sense” it makes in your head and you begin to actually learn the song.

Similarly, I’ve found that once I begin the process that I used to think of as “review,” I have an entirely different experience of the material. Portions of the reading that were baffling suddenly make more sense, quizzes no longer seem unthinkably challenging, and even in the parts I thought I understood well on the first pass-through I notice subtle nuances that I missed. I’ve started the habit of immediately re-reading an entire course as soon as I finish, and it has been a game-changer — because I’m finally really ready for all of the information, I really start to learn it. I honestly don’t even consider this “review” anymore, because it feels like the phase where most of the work is really beginning. I start a brand new set of notes, and these wind up being essential — it is immeasurably easier to distill the key facts out of the material on that second pass-through, as well as to identify the areas with which I still struggle and need more thorough documentation. I start to feel more confident that I’m actually understanding the material.

But of course understanding how something works is an entirely different task than actually making that thing work in the real world. Just because you can “hear” a tricky line from a song in your mind absolutely does not mean you can successfully reproduce it. So you have to start practicing out loud. And while you are doing this, you are going to sound pretty terrible. But, again, no one would think you were bad at singing if you couldn’t sing a song right the first time you tried! We’ve all had the experience of knowing how we want something to sound, and absolutely not being able to make our voice cooperate.

Similarly, even when you intellectually understand the mechanisms of your code, actually writing it is an entirely different skill, as is communicating clearly about it. But just as you wouldn’t judge a friend for singing a song imperfectly at karaoke — where the expectation is that you aren’t an expert — others aren’t going to judge you for getting things wrong while you practice. On the contrary, that’s precisely what practice and study sessions are for. To spot your weaknesses so you can work on them. So instead of being embarrassed when you make a mistake during a study session, or suddenly realize your understanding of something was off, try to feel relief — if you’re going to make a mistake or discover an error in your mental model, that is absolutely the ideal time — when someone is there to help, to nudge you in the right direction, and when you are still in a paradigm where imperfection is the expectation.

Back to the song. Eventually, you practice it enough, that you can sing it perfectly without even thinking. You might even go months — years — without hearing it, but it comes right back. This is how you know you have truly deeply learned the song, and it is a very different experience than rushing to memorize it, and quickly forgetting. I’ve found that the material I’ve learned in Launch School feels similar. I frequently study with students in earlier courses, and I am surprised at how well I have retained the information, even if I haven’t thought about specific components of a lesson in months. It’s such a different experience from most of the “learning” I did in other educational endeavors, where half of it left my mind immediately after the final exam.

Of course there are plenty of other takeaways from my time here so far, but that is probably the single biggest piece of wisdom I’d impart to my past self if I could. There is plenty of other information about circular learning (including some in the Launch School prep courses), but somehow it took a while for me to really internalize it. For me, thinking through the process of learning a song — a very casual example of intuitive deep-learning — really helped illuminate the silliness of some of my previous assumptions about how learning works, and ultimately that helped me reshape my approach to Launch School curriculum…hopefully it was of some use to you as well!

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Chelsea Saunders

Chelsea Saunders

Launch School Student

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