5 tips for learning to code (or any other skill)

Written by Belle Beth Cooper on October 5, 2012

Learning to code is all the rage these days. In fact, it seems like it’s such an important skill to have that it will become part of the curriculum in elementary schools before long.

Luckily, if you want to teach yourself to code there are some tricks you can employ to make the process easier. And if you’re not jumping on the learn-to-code bandwagon, you can just as easily apply these tips to knitting, or cooking, or whichever skill you like.

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1. Participate

Learning is an active process – for your mind, and sometimes your body as well. By jumping in and doing something, you’ll snap out of that passive observation habit and into active learning mode. Even if you’re learning a mostly mental skill like programming, your body will still take part if you actively participate in the process.

In the case of learning to code, your hands will be on the keyboard, your fingers will be typing in code. These kind of activities build up your muscle memory and make your whole body part of the learning process.

Unlike passive observation, active participation engages more of your senses, making it easier to remember the things you learn later on.

2. Engage in deliberate practice

Cal Newport explains his theory of deliberate practice on his blog, Study Hacks. He uses a great example of the practice habits of highly-skilled chess players, or grandmasters, and how they differ from those with intermediate chess skills. The key, he says, is deliberate practice.

Unlike rote, mindless repetition, deliberate practice is hard work. It’s the painful, mindful practice that pushes those select few players into that exclusive top tier of being a grandmaster.

If you truly want to learn to code (or any other skill) – prepare for the pain of putting in effort, and work on the areas that really challenge you. These will help you to improve more quickly, and will be the most rewarding.

3. Split your study into chunks

Learning a new skill with a lofty goal in mind can be great inspiration. It’s not always the best motivation for learning the foundations, or completing basic tasks along the way, though.

Breaking down your study into smaller, achievable goals will give you small rewards to enjoy along the way.

This is something that sites like Codecademy do well – the visual representation of lessons you’ve completed and the virtual badges you receive show that you’re making progress, even though your main goal of ‘learn JavaScript’ may be a long way off.

4. Make studying a habit

Habits are powerful.

Making your learning process into a habit can really help, as habits are automatic – you do them without putting in conscious effort. They just kind of ‘happen’. They also happen regularly – often on a daily basis. Because learning works so much better when you attempt a small section every day, habitual study is exactly what you want.

To develop a regular study habit, try these tips:

  • Set aside a particular time each day to practice
  • Aim for a consistent environment to learn in (this will give your body reminders to get into learning mode):
    • use the same workspace
    • in the same room
    • play the same music
    • use the same equipment
  • Implement a first step (this helps you to build the habit of getting started, even if you don’t go any further):
    • get out your equipment
    • open your IDE
    • change into your ‘study’ outfit
  • Use reminders:
    • set an alarm on your phone
    • stick a Post-it note to your mirror

Once you get used to starting your learning process each day, it will be easier to actually put in the time to work on your skill. And the closer it becomes to a habit, the more learning you’ll get done, since you won’t be putting in so much effort to get into ‘study mode’.

5. Reinforce what you learn

This is an easy one to overlook because you don’t know what you’ve forgotten until you try to remember it. Reinforcement is the best way to make new principles and ideas stick in your mind, so they’ll be there when you need them.

If you’re actively participating as you study, this is a great first step. Taking what you learn and applying it through deliberate practice is how you can change a theoretical principle into part of your new skill that’s ingrained in your memory.

Implementing new skills or methods in as many ways as possible is helpful, as well. This will help you to understand the root of what you’re doing, as opposed to just blindly copying examples or following instructions.

What other tips do you use when you’re learning a new skill? Let us know in the comments.

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About the Author

Belle Beth Cooper

Belle has spent the past four years as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She has written for The Next Web, Desktop Magazine and Social Media Examiner. Belle now spends her days wielding a pencil as Attendly's Head of Content.

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