Getting the most out of programming tutorials

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Let’s talk about tutorials. Love them, hate them, they are everywhere and here to stay. From newbie developers to seasoned veterans, we all use tutorials from time to time.

In my experience, tutorials can be an excellent place to start when you’re learning an unfamiliar language, framework, or technique. Often they are one of the fastest ways to get a basic understanding of any material and to get something up and running quickly. However, they aren’t necessarily built for maximum learning. Like most things, you’ll get out what you put in.

The question then becomes, how can you get the most out of a single tutorial? Are there any tips and tricks? How can we be efficient about it all?

As an avid tutorial taker, here are some tried and tested methods to getting the most out of any single programming tutorial:

  1. Type everything out manually – No copy and paste, in other words. Take the time to actually type out every single line of code that you need. The reason being is that you’ll learn better the more time you spend with the material. And the more that you’re able to commit to memory, the faster you’ll be at it all. 
  2. Create a glossary – Highlight any unknown terms and then make a point to google them later. Summarize your findings in your own words in a sentence or two. Keep a record of what you learned. Update it as you go. 
  3. Do a line by line analysis of the code – Make sure you understand every step and that the syntax makes sense to you. Or if something is confusing to you, make a note to come back to it after. If at the end of the tutorial you’re still confused, try looking up the topic using other resources. Still stuck? Ask someone! You may even be able to reach out to the author of the tutorial for help. Other people are usually happy to clear up points of confusion for you!
  4. Keep a log of your progress – It doesn’t have to be super detailed. You could use Twitter, a blog, or even GitHub for this. I’ve even heard of people that write entire novels with GitHub, for instance. 🙂 But the important part is just to spend a few minutes recording what you did. If nothing else, it’s a great way to see how far you’ve come.
  5. Preview the martial – Before beginning a tutorial, spend some time previewing all that you will be covering. Skim the article, look at any pictures or diagrams, and consider what you already know about the topic. This helps to prime your brain so that when you actually do the tutorial, you’ve already laid the tracks for it (and you know what’s next!). Win, win!
  6. Work ahead of the tutorial – This one is more applicable the more advanced of a student and developer you become, but to the best of your ability, try to plan out or work out a solution to the problem before reading through the answers. Read the next topic headline and spend 10-15 minutes seeing if you can plan an approach. Or better yet, see if you can preemptively come up with an entire solution. At worst you end up getting stuck (see Tip #8). You now know where your knowledge limits are and what topics to review. And at best, you either have one or two outcomes. 1) You will have discovered another way to solve the problem that the author didn’t show. Very cool and empowering! Or 2) you will have solved it in a similar manner to the author and have thus taught it to yourself in a more engaging way. You’ll come away not only with the additional knowledge but a nice confidence boost to go with it. Whatever the case, you will have learned a lot in the process. Give it a go next time!
  7. Quiz yourself – this is something you can do throughout the tutorial or lesson, but do your best to commit concepts to memory. Research has shown time and time again that active recall is a key step in efficient learning. It will help you develop mastery of any new material. Bonus: Test yourself using your newly created glossary by creating flashcards. Lots of options here.
  8. Get stuck – Okay, hear me out. This one’s a hard sell but honestly, when I’m trying to learn new material, one of the greatest gifts I can have is getting stuck. I’ve learned to appreciate it even if it’s frustrating. Here’s why: Getting stuck forces you to really think. One of the major issues with tutorials is that they allow certain parts of your brain to shut off. You are simply following directions, like with a recipe. Getting stuck, on the other hand, is a surefire way of snapping yourself out of that. Use these moments to your advantage to really go deep on a topic.
  9. Take breaks when you need them – Completely stuck? Take a 20-minute break. Nap, eat, stretch, walk, shower, whatever you like. You’ll be surprised at how your brain may supply solutions and help you get unstuck. 
  10. Create a personalized cheat sheet – Make a summary of the tutorial once you’re done with it and fill it with the information you’ve learned. Include some code snippets and some high level concepts. If you can, also add in a 3-4 bullet point overview. Thanks to the Practicing Developer for this tip! 

That’s all for now!


Questions for discussion:

  1. What are your thoughts on the value of tutorials? Do you find them helpful? Why or why not?
  2. What study tips have worked for you, especially when covering new materials?
  3. What do you do when you get stuck on a tutorial? How do you get yourself unstuck?

I welcome your feedback. If you enjoyed this article or if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me on Twitter or write to me in the comments section below. Thanks for reading! 🙂