Mental Models Matter

TIP 5 :  Focus on mental models.

Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

To get the best out of practice, when learning a skill, you need to have the right mental models. That is where knowledge and skill can work together in tandem. The right sort of knowledge can be used both to base skills on, and to hone them. Practicing the right skills can develop the right kind of knowledge. What you need are good mental models, good understanding, of what you are trying to do.

You must focus on developing the right knowledge, the right mental models, if you are to get the most out of practice.

As a novice programmer, the first and most important mental models are those of the different programming constructs.  How does a variable work? What does a while loop do?

People often think syntax (spelling, punctuation) is what you have to learn first to program and they focus on that and worry most about missing semicolons or whether things should be in capitals or not. Actually far more important to get right first is semantics (what the constructs do) and structure (how programs are organised). Worrying about trying to remember the words and symbols turns programming in to a rote learning task with no real understanding – and nothing to base the right sort of practice on. That’s the wrong thing to do.

It is vital to avoid this trap. Instead practice should be based on understanding the concepts. This has to be the big, early focus to learn the deep skills of programmers. If you do not understand what a programming construct does, you won’t be able to write programs using it…and it is really, really easy to misunderstand if all you have is a basic technical explanation.

Luckily, there are a series of ways to build the right mental models. The first step is to have good explanations, and then make sure you can explain those things in your own words. Explaining is a skill too. As a learner you can practice explaining yourself either in writing or to others. If in a group everyone can then benefit. We will talk about more good explanations in a later blog. You can also draw concept maps that show the way concepts link. More on that later too. For now though actively read explanations. Make notes of some kind as you go, then take a blank sheet and without the original try and write your own explanation.

Another important way to build accurate mental models is to practice reading programs and fragments of programs based on what understanding you do have, and try and predict what they do (then see if you are right). Treat programs as a mini-scientific experiment. Closely related to this is to trace (or dry run) programs. Here you act like a computer stepping through the program. More on this later too.

Notice these are skills too – the sub-skills we identified earlier – so you can practice them.

When you are stuck and do not understand a construct, when you cant write a program, can’t do the dry run and can’t predict what a program will do, it is easy to be dispirited. It doesn’t mean you can’t program though … it means you have just learnt something important – you have learn’t something you do not understand (yet). You’ve found something to work on. It just means you need to get a little bit of help. That might be from a teacher, from a good book or video, or another student (needing to practice their ability to explain), or possibly even the right, simpler exercise to try. You can understand and when you do you will have made another big step forward.

With the right mental models in place then you are in a much stronger position to practice all the programming sub-skills (including writing programs). You are also much more able to learn from your future mistakes.

It is absolutely vital you do focus on getting a clear understanding of the semantics. Then all your other practice will be so much more effective.

If you are a:

  • student
    • Focus on making sure you understand what each new construct does, then do lots of practice of all the sub-skills around until until you have mastered it.
  • teacher:
    • Make sure you make it clear to your students that understanding meaning matters, not memorising syntax.

More on Learning to Learn (to program)

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