What my top students had in common: they asked questions.

First in a series about successfully learning to program.

When I say, “they ask questions”, I mean literally, truly, a string of words followed by a question mark. Not implied questions like, “I don’t know what to do here!”

I realized this after mentoring dozens of students, online and in person, at many code schools and online platforms.

Scientifically speaking, this is a flawed bit of information, because it’s only my personal experience with students I happened to be assigned at places I happened to work or volunteer.

The pattern was unbroken: My top students all asked questions. They asked a few deep but many simple questions, about everything from why their code wasn’t working to questions about general programming concepts.

In contrast, my lowest performing students never asked any questions at all. These are the unfortunate people who spent thousands of dollars only to drop out of the programs. Sure, they’d communicate with me about their assignments, sometimes a whole lot, and they’d spend a lot of effort trying to get things to work. But: their messages to me were entirely devoid of question marks.

My take-away: forming a question causes something special to happen in the human brain.

And this something special really helps when learning difficult new subjects. When you ask a question, you’ve got to actually engage with the subject. In contrast, if you throw up your hands and say, “I don’t get it”, your brain takes a little break. It does less work in some way.

But I wish I could say…

That asking questions helps cause success; that a student could begin asking questions and radically improve their performance. This might be true! But all I can say is I see a pattern — I can’t say what causes what.

I also wish I had recognized this pattern while it was happening. At the time I tried to help the failing by students by asking them questions, and guiding them to figuring out their problems. In hindsight, it might have been better to have them prepare questions for me instead.

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