Memorization: useful when learning to code?

I’ve been reading a lot recently, mostly about JavaScript, and every time I do open a book, I have the reflex to get into memorization mode. After high school, I attended college and university for a total of eight years. I’m used to reading informational texts and not only novels. And what says informational also says memorization. I’ve been drilled to do it, so I should do it… Right? Or not?

The purpose of memorization as a scholar

I can already hear you: “But as a kid, we were required to learn things by heart, what’s the difference?”

As a high school student, you’re given textbooks to read or lectures to attend. Usually, you’ll be required to take notes and memorize those for an exam. But why do you need to learn all this material by heart? In lower grades, it is information you will need to somehow know in your everyday life. You might will need to quickly multiply and subtract numbers. This will allow you to get the score of your test in percentage or to find out how old is your nephew. Biology will come handy when you’ll need to tell 911 that your humerus looks broken (versus your tibia).

Towards the end of your high school adventures, you might take fun classes such as calculus. And I have to agree, I very rarely use my calculus skills when I’m about to bake a cake. But when I started physics, I was happy to know my calc formulas, and only had to work on learning the physics concepts and to apply them. I liked not having to go back to my calculus formulas to solve every exercise I was given.

Learning to learn

Also, during all that time, you actually learn to learn. Yup! You learn strategies, you apply them. In university, I took a class about the history of the French language. It was awesome, probably one of my favorite classes. But like any history class, it involved a lot of dates and facts. I started using flash cards as a memorization technique and realized it was a good way for me to learn the material. I would discard the ones I had gotten right, check the ones I didn’t, put them at the bottom of the pile, and kept going. When I was done, I would redo the ones I got wrong. When I decided to learn stenography/shorthand, I decided to use flashcards, and it really helped me to learn every symbol.

For another class, I used a technique sometimes called hexagonal learning (here‘s a good and simple video about it). It really helped me make connexions between concepts, and I am still using that method not to learn things by heart, but to see how they are linked, which allows me to remember them easily. I was recently reading about nutrition, and I could connect the info between different articles, so everything made sense to me.

Hexagonal learning for quicker memorization

(I’d love to say that I acquired all those learning techniques in high school, but it was not the case. I had some learning disabilities due to my epilepsy, so it took a while.)

Learning a job

At some point, you might enroll into a program to do a specific job. Let’s say you want to work in a bank. You’ll need to know what is the current interest rate, as well as if it is a good rate compared to the last few years, and compared to the previous generation. Knowing what are the different placements and their risk vs. rates. This is information you will be using on a daily basis.

Let’s say you are hiring someone to build your new garage. You expect that person to know which tools to bring, which nails and materials will be required, and how to assemble everything together. Building a garage is something fairly common for them, so they should know “by heart” how to do it. They cannot pull out their books each time they need to know whether this screw is a Phillips or a hexagon. They should remember that drywall doesn’t react too good with the rain. (Ok, the says it all, but that’s about how much I know about construction.)

But it doesn’t mean memorization is the key

Last time I went to see my neurologist, I asked her about the side effects I was experiencing with some of my meds. She first gave me some basic information. Then, she pulled out her iPhone, and checked an app and told me that I had a 4% chance to get those effects. She suggested I changed to another one, with which there was only a 1% chance.

This is the kind of information that changes now and then. New medicine, new studies, this is prone to change. And it is okay for that kind of information to be checked when needed only.

How it translates to coding

When you code, there are a few things you need to know without having to check references.

  • The basic elements of an HTML page, such as the body, div, img, title, h1-6, a, link tags. Also know their main specificities (img and link are self-closing, for example)
  • Some loops/statements in Javascript, such as for, while, if and break
  • Understand the concept of the box model in CSS

I’m not saying you cannot google those if you need to use them. But as they are very frequently used, it helps to know how to use them!

And let’s face it: as devs, we’re pretty lucky as Google is only a few clicks away, and you can simply copy and paste from StackOverflow! You’ll soon find that learning how to search is almost as important as learning how to code. (Disclaimer: I’m still new in the dev world, but as a former French teacher, I can tell you that knowing how to search in a dictionary is almost as important as knowing how to write!)

My advice: annotate

Whenever I’m reading a text or a tutorial found on a blog, I’ll save it as a pdf. I would then annotate it with my iPad. (I love Notability!) This way, it is easy to go back to the info if I need it. I also take a few notes, but not too many. I find that I usually use the search function rather than go back to the notes I took. A technique I want to try is to make cue cards with new info I learn. In France, students make cue cards in order to study for their finals. I want to put them in a small binder so I can be concise and have them on hands.

Annotation example in Notability app rather than memorization

Whether you decide to go into full blown memorization or if you do not take notes at all and only rely on StackOverflow, remember that what matters is how effective you are at your job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *