Need for Exercises

For many years, I have learned various subjects (mostly programming related, like languages and frameworks) purely by reading a book, blog posts or tutorials on the subjects, and maybe doing a few samples.

In recent years, I "learned" new programming languages by reading books on the subject. And I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: when having a choice between using these languages in a day-to-day basis or using another language I am already comfortable with, I go for the language I am comfortable with. This, despite my inner desire to use the hot new thing, or try out new ways of solving problems.

I believe the reason this is happening is that most of the texts I have read that introduce these languages are written by hackers and not by teachers.

What I mean by this is that these books are great at describing and exposing every feature of the language and have some clever examples shown to you, but none of these actually force you to write code in the language.

Compare this to Scheme and the book "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs". That book is designed with teaching in mind, so at the end of every section where a new concept has been introduced, the authors have a series of exercises specifically tailored to use the knowledge that you just gained and put it to use. Anyone that reads that book and does the exercises is going to be a guaranteed solid Scheme programmer, and will know more about computing than from reading any other book.

In contrast, the experience of reading a modern computing book from most of the high-tech publishers is very different. Most of the books being published do not have an educator reviewing the material, at best they have an editor that will fix your English and reorder some material and make sure the proper text is italicized and your samples are monospaced.

When you finish a chapter in a modern computing book, there are no exercises to try. When you finish it, your choices are to either take a break by checking some blogs or keep marching in a quest to collect more facts on the next chapter.

During this process, while you amass a bunch of information, at some neurological level, you have not really mastered the subject, nor gained the skills that you wanted. You have merely collected a bunch of trivia which most likely you will only put to use in an internet discussion forum.

What books involving an educator will do is include exercises that have been tailored to use the concepts that you just learned. When you come to this break, instead of drifting to the internet you can sit down and try to put your new knowledge to use.

Well developed exercises are an application of the psychology of Flow ensuring that the exercise matches the skills that you have developed and they guide you through a path that keeps you in an emotional state ranging that includes control, arousement and joy (flow).

Anecdote Time

Back in 1988 when I first got the first edition of the "C++ Language", there were a couple of very simple exercises in the first chapter that took me a long time to get right and they both proved very educational.

The first exercises was "Compile Hello World". You might think, that is an easy one, I am going to skip that. But I had decided that I was going to do each and every single of one of the exercises in the book, no matter how simple. So if the exercise said "Build Hello World", I would build Hello World, even if I was already seasoned assembly language programmer.

It turned out that getting "Hello World" to build and run was very educational. I was using the Zortech C++ compiler on DOS back, and getting a build turned out to be almost impossible. I could not get the application to build, I got some obscure error and no way to fix it.

It took me days to figure out that I had the Microsoft linker in my path before the Zortech Linker, which caused the build to fail with the obscure error. An important lesson right there.

On Error Messages

The second exercise that I struggled with was a simple class. The simple class was missing a semicolon at the end. But unlike modern compilers, the Zortech C++ compiler at the time error message was less than useful. It took a long time to spot the missing semicolon, because I was not paying close enough attention.

Doing these exercises trains your mind to recognize that "useless error message gobble gobble" actually means "you are missing a semicolon at the end of your class".

More recently, I learned in this same hard way that the F# error message "The value or constructor 'foo' is not defined" really means "You forgot to use 'rec' in your let", as in:

let foo x =
   if x == 1
     1
   else
     foo (x-1)

That is a subject for another post, but the F# error message should tell me what I did wrong at a language level, as opposed to explaining to me why the compiler is unable to figure things out in its internal processing of the matter.

Plea to book authors

Nowadays we are cranking books left and right to explain new technologies, but rarely do these books get the input from teachers and professional pedagogues. So we end up accumulating a lot of information, we sound lucid at cocktail parties and might even engage in a pointless engineering debate over features we barely master. But we have not learned.

Coming up with the ideas to try out what you have just learned is difficult. As you think of things that you could do, you quickly find that you are missing knowledge (discussed in further chapters) or your ideas are not that interesting. In my case, my mind drifts into solving other problems, and I go back to what I know best.

Please, build exercises into your books. Work with teachers to find the exercises that match the material just exposed and help us get in the zone of Flow.

Posted on 25 Apr 2013 by Miguel de Icaza
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