Programming is not Algebra

A friend discovered a small interest in learning to program computers. She tried an online course but she didn’t get far before losing interest. She may have had other reasons for giving it up but by watching her and asking questions I did locate one significant hurdle: she was trying to read code through the lens of algebra.

I have seen this before. A student encounters a word, symbol, or pattern they recognize from some other context. Believing they have sufficient information to understand it in the new context, they push ahead. Soon their mental model fills with contradictions and the entire subject becomes intractable. This state of affairs causes people to quit their studies.

I’ve been there. Fortunately I learned the solution:

  1. Find what word or symbol was misunderstood.
  2. Learn the correct meaning.
  3. Re-study the material from the first occurrence.

The hardest part is completing the first step. This is especially true of students who already know a great deal and who are confident in their knowledge. Preconceptions hide themselves well but they surrender easily once found. Most people will be eager to complete the remaining steps after they have identified a real misunderstanding.

In this article I will expose some common preconceptions which can cause students of programming to quit. Teachers of beginner programming classes and writers of books would do well to treat these handicaps before setting students to code.


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