Beating learn-to-program anxiety with good gamification and courses
I have anxiety about learning technical skills. I wrote about this a little while back. But now I know more about how I learn, and, in bits and snatches, I am gaining proficiency and confidence. Here’s a summary of my journey over the last several months with learning more programming skills (in this case, mostly in Python), with links to some resources in case you’re like me.
I get anxious when learning skills that I think I should already know; I feel behind and guilty. Structure, little rewards, friendly sociability, and encouragement from other women help tremendously. Tedra Osell writes about this in the context of writer’s block, and FlyLady and Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts speak to that problem in learning to keep a comfortable home; the people and resources I mention (CodeLesson, OpenHatch’s Boston Python Workshop for women and their friends, CodingBat, and the Python Challenge) provide many of the stimuli I need. Also, my anxiety spikes if I think I am supposed to compare my speed or quality of work with others (hence my post’s title), but cools down if I see evidence that someone else wants to patiently help me. These resources helped me learn without pushing my “argh everyone’s better than me” buttons.
Thanks to Etsy for the free class. And I liked the CodeLesson interface and infrastructure enough that I may pay for additional CodeLesson classes, or get my organization to follow Etsy’s lead and offer classes through them to increase our users’ skills.
A couple months later, I had a chance to attend OpenHatch’s intro-to-Python workshop specifically meant for women and their friends. I’d read about these before, on GeekFeminism and elsewhere, and it sounded like it would fit how I learn as well as help me plan to hold similar events in my community. So, on a Friday in December, I took the bus from New York City to Boston.
An instructor looks at a student's laptop at the Boston Python Workshop
It’s a good thing that the Friday night prep part was three hours and that I already knew a bunch of stuff that other people were new to (familiarity with the command line & the Python prompt, etc.) since I was an hour late! It was good to fix the syntax-y bits in my mind. The CodingBat exercises were great practice and I got a big triumphant fist-raised feeling when all those unit tests passed.
In between sessions, I chatted with some of the people who run the program. It sounds like each individual run of it costs about $300 for lunch for everyone and that’s practically it, since they use volunteers and the venue time is donated (and then like $10 total for pens/sticky nametags/laser-printed “here’s the workshop” signs/etc.). That’s practically out-of-pocket for a tech community, and they get grants. So it’s totally replicable. I’ve been reminded that it’s important to treat these kinds of workshops more like a community introduction than as standalone events; local user groups and communities should be the teachers, and email blasts and encouragement should integrate participants into their local hobbyist groups.
Saturday morning’s lecture included some review of stuff I knew, but it went fast enough that I was still learning most of the time — like, how to ask for the nth character in a string, or how for-loops quite work, some subtleties of scope, etc.
Then the project bits — the teachers and their presentations weren’t quite as polished as Jessica McKellar, who had led the earlier parts of the workshop. But I still learned a lot and got to make cool things happen using, say, the Twitter API, and that was very neat. As designed, the workshop led me through small, basic exercises first (the equivalent of finger exercises in piano), then showed off visually satisfying things we could do with Python and its ecosystem.
Aside from tiny minor delays, the workshop basically ran like a Swiss watch the whole time. I was impressed. It takes a lot of preparation, skill, and practice to make an event like that go so smoothly and teach so many people; congrats to the workshop volunteers! And I’m glad I went, learned and remembered Python, and got more confidence to attempt projects. On a community management level, I’m also massively grateful that I’ve seen firsthand an example of how we can construct and maintain these parts of the pipeline, to help more girls and women get into STEM.
The workshop so excited me that I then did all the Python exercises on CodingBat, and started Python Challenge (I’m at step 4 or 5 right now). They’re complementary. They both gamify learning, and you don’t have to look at how other people are doing, and they both have somewhat granular ways of kindly telling you when you’ve done something slightly wrong. With CodingBat it’s the unit tests, which go from red to green when you cover another edge case. In Python Challenge, for example, at one point I went to a URL where I had transformed the filename from the previous URL per a transformation hinted at in the challenge. The URL had ended in .html, and after the decryption, it ended in the extension (making this up to avoid spoilers) “.ywnb”. At that address was a text file that the server signalled you should download. I downloaded and opened it and it just said, “have you ever heard of .ywnb files?!” or something like that, implying basically that I shouldn’t have transformed the file extension, just the filename. So, it didn’t just fail, it gave me a nicely furnished dead end, signalling kindly but playfully that I had done something understandably wrong.
Progress graphs from CodingBat, showing my attempts to solve two problems; the green portions are unit tests that passed, and the red and pink portions are unit tests failing. The exercise "String-2 end_other" took me a while, but I got it.
There’s probably some game design term for this kind of compassionate railroading, but it makes me think of the caring side of the caring-to-combative community spectrum. And in both cases I got that feeling of being nurtured by someone who cared, even if that someone else is Nick Parlante (CodingBat’s author), years ago and a continent away.
Also, CodingBat is pretty clear about how you solve any given problem (declaring that this set of problems is about lists and only 1 layer of for-loops, or what have you), whereas in the Python Challenge you have a puzzle that you know you can solve with Python but that you can hit a bunch of different ways. If you want an experience with arguably more realistic exercises, the author of CodingBat also made the Google intro to Python, which includes exercises along the lines of “munge the semistructured data in this file with these guidelines.” I intend on doing that this year.
Python Challenge is mysterious, yet friendly.
It was good to have my spouse Leonard nearby to help me when I was working on the Python Challenge, to (for example) help see that I had called a variable inconsistently, to notice that I couldn’t import a file as a module because I’d named it “1” instead of something starting with a letter, to remind me how to learn of (“dir(filename)”) and then use (“filename.function”) the functions within it, to tell me about string.replace, and to tell me how to use the interactive prompt properly to investigate how you call a method on an object of whatever type. But I did nearly all the work myself. And as of today I feel a lot more comfortable using for-loops, knowing what data structures to use for a problem (I decided to use a dictionary datatype the other day! And it worked! So exciting!), getting stuff in and out of dictionaries, and generally thinking “I can learn this!” Data structures and algorithms had felt mystifying to me. Now data structures no longer do. I remember the moment in Python challenge when I thought, “I’ll use a dictionary!” and I was right! It’s great.
CodeLesson, CodingBat, the Python Challenge, Leonard available for occasional consultation, and the Boston workshop are the dance partners I needed.