On Launch School Written Assessments

I dread assessments.

Every time one is coming up, I start to get anxious. I’ll study 6 or more hours each day, re-read the course material 5 or more times, and I still feel as though I’m inevitably going to fail. All of this is brought on by myself; my wife has likely tired of having to remind me to relax, my dad points out that I’ve done well on every assessment thus far, and if my toddler had the cognitive development of an adult, I’m sure she’d still just ask me to get her more cheese from the fridge.

Yet, assessments are perhaps one of the greatest tools at Launch School as they force me to master the material in order to move on. Without the need to review the material to such a level of proficiency, it’s likely that I’d never force myself to really integrate it into my long term knowledge, and instead I’d keep moving on to the next unit so I could finish the program faster. Sure I’d be done, but I would never really have mastered what I had studied.

CAT scan of my head before an assessment. My wife said it looked about right.

That said, they can get to me; there are many times where I wish I could just move on to the next unit to be learning something new, rather than re-read the current material yet again, not to mention then have to take a 3–4 hour long exam (in other words, the length of an undergraduate or graduate final exam) and score a minimum of a 90 to pass.

As such, below are some study habits that I have personally found useful. Not all of these are limited for taking the exam as you need to have a firm foundation about how to go about the course work and learning the material before you can hope to pass the assessment. Lastly, note that these tips are for the written assessment, not the interview. Another Launch School student, Gooi Ying Chyi, has written about his experiences and gives advice on how to pass those.

Mea culpa, but this article also won’t go into how to pass any of the coding challenges on the assessments. I hope to get around to writing about that in the future, though in brief: practice coding.


Notes

Notes are an effective tool both while you’re going through the course as well as when you need to review for the assessment. Taking notes helps you to discern the key material from the rest, and they are far quicker to review than the material since they “get right to the point.”

Notes are particularly useful when the material in question is a video as opposed to text. Re-reading text isn’t too difficult, especially since you can skim if necessary. Re-watching a video can be laborious though, because even if you turn the playback speed to 1.5x or 2x, there’s likely only a few key moments that you really need to memorize and jot down in your notes. When reviewing for an assessment, I may watch the videos from a course one more time (with an accelerated playback), but I will review my notes on them far more often.

I’d suggest that you make sure to download a note taking program that supports the use of code snippets and markdown. Personally, I like to use Boostnote, but I’m sure there are many of options out there. You may also want to consider printing your notes and putting them into a binder so you can review without having to stare at your computer screen (which you do enough of already).

Flashcards

This, perhaps more than anything else, is going to be a boon in your studies. Get a spaced repetition flashcard program such as Anki (it’s free, unless you want to download the app onto an Apple product, in which case you have to pay a one time cost — which it’s worth). After you read material for the first time and take your notes, go over it again and make flash cards, making sure to capture key concepts and anything else you may find important.

When you review your cards, make sure to take advantage of the fact that it’s spaced repetition, meaning the easier you find the card to remember, the longer it will be before you have to review it. I tend to be stricter here, forcing myself to review the card as frequently as possible until the minimum spacing option is a week, at which point I will space it depending on how comfortable I feel with the card at hand.

Furthermore, make sure to download an extension for whichever program you use so that you can use code blocks and markdown. Flash cards are a great way for memorizing small code snippets, or for remembering what certain methods do.

Repetitio est mater studiorum

“Repetition is the mother of study.”

In my experience, there’s no way around this: if you want to effectively master the material, you are going to have to review it many times. While it’s true you should review your notes, there’s always the possibility that there is some key information that you missed, and so it is always worth re-reading the source material. You will likely find that on each review, your grasp on the information will be stronger, and concepts that were confusing are far clearer now.

I generally re-read all the material that was associated with the course at least 5 times before taking the exam. This is especially true of any of the Open Book Shelf resources as they tend to set the foundation for the rest of the material in the course.

Use the Study Guide

Before every written assessment, Launch School will provide you with a study guide for what is going to be on the assessment. Use them. Launch School wants you to pass; they aren’t going to try and pull a fast one and question you on material that wasn’t listed on the study guide. If you can clearly articulate the material, you will likely do well. Especially if you’ve made sure to memorize the concepts thus far using your flash cards.

However…

The Assessment is Open Book

Repeat that to yourself. What this doesn’t mean is you don’t have to study the material. If you rely off of trying to look up the answer for each question on the test you’re going to run out of time. Furthermore, many questions are based upon the concepts covered in the course and require you to apply your knowledge, not recite it. If you haven’t mastered the material, you won’t be able to answer these quickly enough, even if you have the material before you.

What this does mean is you should use the nature of the assessment to your advantage. There are a number of things I like to do before every assessment that have helped me immensely, such as:

Make sure to have another browser open that is logged into Launch School. I usually then have a tab open for every lesson within the course so I can quickly access any page, as well as a tab that has the book from the Open Book Shelf that was used for the course. This is especially useful when I review my answers before the final submission, in case I had any nagging thoughts about an answer. Lastly, I also have the assessments page open so that I can quickly get to any of the quizzes I need to double check material.

Have your answers written out ahead of time. Launch School wants to make sure you have mastered the material, so simply copy and pasting straight from the resources isn’t a good way to answer a question. Instead, use the study guide and try to answer any questions ahead of time, especially any definitions. Use the material and craft definitions in your own words, and then save it to a file that is open during the assessment (for me this is in one of my notes in Boostnote). Doing this can save you much needed time for more difficult questions or coding challenges. I would also recommend to make answers for any other possible questions you think you may encounter on the assessment (even if they don’t appear on the exam, you’re still reviewing material and solidifying your understanding of it).

Have a snack. The written assessments are long. Have a snack nearby so that partway through you can give yourself an energy boost. Oh, and make sure to go to the bathroom before you start the test.

Keep Track of Time. I usually will set an alarm to go off when there is an hour of time left. I’ll then have another alarm go off when there’s 30 minutes left, and then 10. At the 10 minute mark, I make any last changes and submit my final answers. Make sure to get your answers in on time. Frankly, if you don’t it means you probably haven’t mastered the material yet, which means you won’t ace the exam, which means you’ll get less than a 90, which means you’ll have to take it again anyways. Better to leave something blank or partially incomplete than suffer the 10%.


One morning, I was talking to my priest about Launch School, and how I was currently preparing for an assessment. After detailing the guidelines to pass, he remarked, in his usual deadpan way, that wasn’t it funny that I had found an online program that required me to show mastery in the material I was learning in order to graduate, while paying a fraction of what we pay for our university degrees in which mastery is (at least at the undergraduate level) usually not necessary.

The longer I’m in Launch School, the more I trust in the method. Assessments can stress you out, but just remember, they are also going to be the key to your success. Good studies!