Tag: Learn

Learning to Learn

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether or not you need a degree to be in tech (spoiler: you don’t). But please don’t take this to mean you don’t need any kind of education to be in tech, because by not getting a degree, you’re opting to replace the imposed learning structure of an academy with learning on your own.

Academic background or not, technical education doesn’t stop once you get a job. On the contrary: nothing in tech stays in one place, and the single most valuable skill you can possess to remain employable over time is learning how to learn.

Identifying holes

You’re all ready to go, ready to challenge yourself, learn what you can, and grow. But where do you start? Sometimes people rely on a more formal education simply because someone is there, guiding your path.

When you’re learning on your own, this part can sometimes be tough — you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re starting from scratch, learning web development or computer science, here are some resources that might help:

There are also times when you know what you need to learn, but you have to level up. In this case, I have some strategies on how to organize yourself in the next section.

Possible strategies

You absolutely do not to be as formal in your approach to learning as I am. I used to be a college professor, and so I still organize my own learning as though I’m teaching. I even still use a paper planner designed for teachers. I’ll show you how I do it in case it’s helpful. A few years back I taught myself ES2015/ES6, so I’ll use that as an example. Structure like this is good for some and not good for others, so do what works for you.

If there’s an API I’m trying to learn, I’ll go to the main documentation page (if there is one), and list each of the things I’m trying to learn. Then I’ll divide the sections into what I think are manageable chunks, and spread the sections over my schedule, usually shooting for about a half hour a day. I do this with the understanding that some days I won’t find the time, and others, I’ll dig in for longer. Typically I aim for at least 2.5 hours of learning a week, because that pace seems reasonable to me.

ES2015 main
The list of ES2015 features I used when I was learning

Then I take all of those features, write them out, and estimate how much time I’ll need for each one. Here’s an example where I wrote out all the things I needed to learn. The yellow numbers on the side are my time estimates in half hour units.

checklist of ES6 features

You can also do this with course materials from an online workshop, writing down the sections and breaking them into chunks to go over every day. I really enjoy Frontend Masters for long form learning like this, as well as Egghead and courses by Wes Bos.

At this point, I’ll break those pieces down and schedule them. The teacher planner allows me to divide my days into the different themes I’m focusing on and put a little in each day. You can see in the first screenshot that I was learning a bit, mentoring a bit, and writing and building what I was learning each day. This kind of input/output really helped me solidify the concepts as I was digging into ES2015/ES6.

example of scheduling by theme, subjects broken down by day
example of scheduling by theme, subjects broken down by day

I try not to schedule too far out because I’m bound to drop something here and there, or I might dive further one day than I was planning to. I keep the schedules flexible enough to adjust for these inevitable inconsistencies. This also allows me to not get too demotivated. If I feel I’m off-track, the next week is another opportunity to get back on.

Again, you don’t have to be as formal as I am, and there are so many ways to be effective. Find what works for you. I would make a small suggestion that you’re taking a look at the table of contents for those API docs now and again, mostly because then you’re aware of any gaps in your knowledge that you’re not filling.

Setting aside time

Setting aside time can be challenging with all of our busy schedules, but it’s critical. If you look at your week, how much time do you have? Learning won’t happen unless you purposefully devote time for it. It needn’t be a ton of time. If you’re a more habit-driven kind of person, you can set up a daily schedule. If you’re the kind of person who learns better head down and you have an existing job, then you might have to give up some Sunday afternoons, or possibly some time after work now and again. Most of us need a bit of both. ☺️

If you’re socially motivated, you might want to find a study buddy. Is there someone at work who has similar goals? Maybe going to coding meetups can help keep you on track. Emma Wedekind also builds Coding Coach, where you can have guided mentorship sessions.

Practice

At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to practice. If you read about Cognitive Load Theory (I highly recommend the book Cognitive Load Theory if you want to learn about this), you’ll see that the old “practice makes perfect” adage has some bite to it.

diagram showing that practice helps us store long term ideas
Information Processing Model (how we learn) – Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin’s cognitive load theory, 1968.

I also really like this quote from Zed Shaw’s Learn Python the Hard Way.

Do Not Copy-Paste
You must type each of these exercises in, manually. If you copy and paste, you might as well just not even do them. The point of these exercises is to train your hands, your brain, and your mind in how to read, write, and see code. If you copy-paste, you are cheating yourself out of the effectiveness of the lessons.

I also love this quote from Art and Fear, and bring it up frequently as it’s been a guiding light for me:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot —albeit a perfect one —to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes —the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Learning modalities

Truly there are many different learning modalities, and combining them can even be helpful. Sometimes I will sit and practice refactoring code from other languages into JavaScript (this is a pretty old project now), or reverse engineer things to learn. I like reverse engineering because people tend to problem-solve in different ways. This allows me to peek inside other people’s heads and see how they approach things. I even have a private collection on CodePen where I collect other people’s work that I think can benefit me and my learning.

Personally, I think there’s nothing more motivating than building. You can actually learn a metric ton just by building things.

Storytime: Many years ago, I was at a conference with a few people who worked on the SVG spec, including the inventor of SVG himself. I was completely unknown at the time, but had been churning out tons of SVG animations that were wildly unpopular for a few years. We got on the subject of a certain behavior that was in the spec. I mentioned, that yes, it should work that way but unfortunately Firefox had x behavior and Chrome had y.

No one in the group knew this, and it was the first time I realized that all those silly playful things I was building were actually educating me; that I knew practical, real-life edge cases even though I hadn’t sought them out in a formal manner. I was so excited! I didn’t plan to become an SVG expert — it snuck up on me as I enjoyed myself, building things to relieve stress and play.

This is good news! You can learn so much by creating things you think are fun. I like to learn for a bit, and then practice what I learned by making something, just to make sure I solidify the concepts.

You may find you learn the most by teaching. If you do have a person you can mentor, it can actually benefit you, too. Writing technical posts or helping with documentation can help you learn something concretely as well.

Cognitive Load Theory

The book I cited earlier, Cognitive Load Theory, has this great section breaking down learning modalities and what they require. A central theme to the book is discussing moving information from a source into our own minds, and that there are certain capabilities and limitations affected by design characteristics of the learning structure and our own cognition.

  • Intrinsic load is created by the difficulty of the materials.
  • Extraneous load is created by the design characteristics of the type of education and materials.
  • Germane load is the amount of invested mental effort.

The chart below explores effects of different ways that we learn, and what the primary cognitive load would be of the three listed above.

table of human cognition and learning modalities
From Cognitive Load Theory

This kind of meta-understanding of what it takes to learn might be helpful to you in that you might find you have less cognitive load in one learning modality versus another. You may also find that you can cut yourself some slack when one topic with more germane load takes you longer to understand than another that’s mostly memorization.

Know that learning styles do affect our ability to comprehend things, and reducing barriers for yourself is key. Do you keep studying at a cafe where there’s a lot of noise and distraction? Consider that your lack of focus might have more to do with the setting than your ability to process the materials.

One more note on this: learning is hard, and it’s humbling. It’s exciting too, but please don’t feel alone if you struggle, or if you need to repeat something multiple times to really get it. Even after taking care of cognitive leaks, expanding knowledge is not necessarily easy, but does pay off in dividends.

Lifelong learners

By choosing to be a developer, you are choosing to learn. This is amazing. Our field not only values our knowledge, but we can stave off boredom because it doesn’t stagnate. My suggestion is to consider these tips a buffet table. There’s so much you can do, so many tools you can use. You don’t need to learn everything and no one knows absolutely everything. It can feel overwhelming, but try to view it less like a race to the finish and more like a continuous journey.

Remember: no one was born knowing any of this. Even the experts you know started at zero. There’s nothing stopping you from becoming their peer if that’s your goal. Or simply learning enough to get the job done if that’s what you need.

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Where Do You Learn HTML & CSS in 2019?

The topic of how accessible it is for newbies and seasoned developers alike to learn CSS has been gaining steam as the complexity of the tools around it has become skewed more toward traditional programming. Rachel Andrew has much more to say about this in her post, HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points. Robin also has thoughts on where and how to learn CSS in the modern age.

The question of how and where to learn CSS is a highly reasonable thing to ask. The answer depends on all sorts of things: how serious you are, your current foundation, what other resources are available to you, what you hope to do with what you learn, and how much time you have, among probably a zillion other things.

Let me dump a bunch of possible answers here and you can apply all those “well, that depends” caveats as you see fit.


You could read a book.

There are a ton of books out there that cover HTML and CSS (and often together). They probably all do a fine job. There’s no need to chronicle all the choices here. These two are my personal recommendations. You probably don’t even need both.

Jon Duckett’s is incredibly well-designed and approachable:

Jennifer Robin’s covers a bit more ground and is designed to be useful for either personal reading or classroom learning.

You could read through all the posts in our Beginner’s Guide.

We have a guide (a collection of articles, videos, and links) called Just Starting Out with CSS & HTML. I hope there is stuff in there that can help kickstart or augment your early learning because that’s the intent.

You could go through other free online guides.

Oliver James has a wonderful online course called Internetting is Hard (But it doesn’t have to be).

We designed HTML & CSS Is Hard to be the only introduction to HTML and CSS that you’ll ever need. If you put in the effort to read every section and write every code snippet, this tutorial has the potential to replace hundreds or even thousand of dollars worth of online courses and live training.

A screenshot of a webpage with a white background and large heading that says Basic Web Pages.

Prefer video? Jessica Hische and Russ Maschmeyer’s Don’t Fear the Internet is a super eight-part series that gets you going with HTML & CSS — it even delves into the all-important topic of typography.

A screenshot of the Don’t Fear the Internet webpage, which is sage green, has a large heading with the course title, two columns of text and a video player.

Khan Academy has an Intro to HTML/CSS: Making webpages course that’s packaged in a super cool format. It’s like video in that you get to hear the instructor talk you through the learning, but what you see is a real live text editor and real live output. Sometimes the teacher is controlling the code, and then sometimes it breaks for challenges in which you take over and edit the code yourself.

A screenshot of the Khan Academy course. It has a white background, blue navigation bar across the top, sidebar containing the course contents, and a video player in the main area.

Eric Tirado has an Intro to HTML course on Scrimba, which is also a neat platform in that Eric’s voice guides you through the course, but visually it’s a combination of slides with a real code editor and preview.

A screenshot of the Scrimba course. It resembles a code editor with a dark gray background, sidebar outlining web assets, and an editor with code in the main area.

You could find and take a paid online course.

I often join gyms because the accountability of paying for something gets me to do it. I know I can do situps, pushups, and go for a jog for free, but the gym membership makes a thing of it. Well, same could be said about paying for a course on HTML and CSS.

These are broad generalizations, but good places to start:

You could go to a code school or coding bootcamp

If you wanna put even more skin in the game, you could consider literally going to school. If you don’t have a college degree, that’s an option, although you’ll be looking at a broad education rather than a ticket to leveling up your web design and development skills alone. I’m a fan of that just for the general mind-broadening it involves.

But assuming you’re going to go to a coding-specific school…

There are probably dozens — if not hundreds — more, so this is more to inform you of the possibility of schooling. You don’t even have to go to a physical school since plenty of these offer online courses, too (but with the advantage of live instruction and cohorts). For example, LambdaSchool has the novelty of being free to start and paid later in the form of letting them take a portion of your salary after you get a job in the industry.

You could practice on CodePen.

Not every second of your learning should be strictly following some course laid out by a book, class, or teacher. It wouldn’t even be that way if you tried. You might as well embrace that. If something tickles your muse, go play! I hope CodePen is a rewarding place to do that, making it both easy and useful, while providing a place to connect with other folks in the field.

You could build a personal site and learn what you need to get it done.

That’s how absolutely countless developers have cut their teeth, including me. I wanted a personal website years ago, and I struggled through getting a self-hosted WordPress site online so I could have full control over everything and bend it to my will. Once you have an actual website online, and you know at least some people are seeing it, it gives you all the motivation in the world to keep going and evolve further.

The way you actually learn is going to be a combination of all this stuff.

People are obsessed with asking musicians if they’re self-taught. Like, if they are, their amazingness triples because it means their creative genius was delivered by a lightning bolt at birth. They don’t need anyone else to learn; they merely look at those guitar strings and know what to do.

And if they were taught be a teacher, then, well, that’s all out the door. If they are good at all, then it’s because the teacher delivered that to them.

Total nonsense.

People learn anything — music and web development included — inside a hurricane of influences. Let’s stick with music for a second. Learning to play comes in many forms. You learn by listening to music an awful lot. You can do fundamental practice, like finger exercises and going up and down scales. You can learn to transpose chords on a chalkboard. You can watch YouTube all day and night. You can sign up for online courses. You can go to local jams to watch and play along. You can join a band. You can take lessons from someone advertising on Craigslist. You can go to a local music school. You can read books about music.

You get the idea.

You can and probably will do all of that. With learning web design and development, getting anywhere will involve all sorts of ways. There’s no silver bullet. It takes bashing on it lots of different ways. There’s no requirement to sprinkle money on it, but you do need multiple angles, time, and motivation.

Go forth and build websites!

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How To Learn CSS

Outside of my extreme envy of the SEO they are going to get out of this, Rachel is spot on here. Learning CSS has some pillars, like language syntax, selectors, layout, and flow that, once learned, unlock your CSS merit badge.

What I would add is that if you really want to learn CSS, give yourself a project that has real-world stakes (like a personal website), so what you are doing with CSS feels important and gives you the incentive to do interesting things and get it right.

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