How to Read a Programming Tutorial

Many of us seek to improve ourselves beyond what's required. Many CS students are not content to just make good grades in class; they want to get their hands dirty with real-world projects. Many employees read up on the latest languages and frameworks well beyond office hours, simply because they want to play with technology while learning to build a better product. It's important, however, to ensure our time spent studying new programming techniques does not go to waste.

!(confused) != knowledgeable

Understanding an article does not necessarily grant you the knowledge to apply it directly to your projects. I feel it's easy to mistake lack of confusion for thorough understanding. In other words, you can glaze over an article and not feel particularly puzzled by what you just read, yet still have no idea how to reproduce any examples the moment you close the browser window. I use the following techniques to help me determine if I've truly understood what I've read.

Ask Questions. Test Yourself!

if you come across something that doesn't sit right in your head, don't just think "Hmm, okay, I guess that makes sense." Try to figure out why, things work, even if that involves moving beyond the article and searching through Google. Attempt to make slight adjustments to provided examples. Change the problem requirements if you're reading a book with provided exercises. The goal is deep, applicable understanding of the subject, and changing examples and problems will expose you to more edge cases, exceptions, and greatly accelerate your understanding. Here are some examples:

  • A C tutorial teaches you how to sort an array with hard-coded elements. Can you alter the example to read inputs from the keyboard? How would you account for fewer/more inputs than the array size when sorting?

  • A git tutorial teaches you how to revert a commit. How could you revert multiple commits at the same time if needed?

  • A rails tutorial has you storing user passwords using a SHA variant. Can you alter the tutorial to implement bcrypt?

Complete the examples, and then attempt to differentiate minor details from the core concepts. Research the core concepts, and then apply the concepts by changing up the minor details.

Could you recreate what you just read?

I touched on this earlier, but I firmly believe one should have the ability to recreate examples from tutorials from memory. I would even go so far to claim entire projects/applications, such as the Twitter clone from Hartl's free Rails book, should be recreated from memory. Understanding code after glancing through it does not in any way guarantee you can replicate it, no matter how "trivial" you think it is. Replicating code from memory forces you to think of the problem requirements, the caveats, and it effectively exposes the concepts you didn't even know you were unsure of.

Be Thorough, Be Honest

Reading programming tutorials effectively can be summarized in two words: thoroughness and honesty. Ask questions, alter examples, and never let your ego pressure you to avoid topics you don't understand.

July 13, 2012
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Joseph is the lead developer of Vert Studios Follow Joseph on Twitter: @Joe_Query
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