Is learning how to program like learning a foreign language?

Is learning how to program like learning a foreign language? Well, it’s a definite “yes and no” from me. I think many people oversimplify this. And then they say that their programmer friends think the same way to ‘prove the point’. Mostly I bite back the question of how many ‘real languages’ the programmer friends have learned or even learned to a native-like level. Because I think that there are some quite important differences.

Since I just read this brilliant article The Ancient Case Against Programming “Languages”
by Patrick J. Burns on Eidolon (Apr 24, 2017), I thought I could contribute some of my thoughts on the topic as well. They stem less from the interest in not losing funding for second language education, but rather from some of my own experiences in “second language programming education” or whatever one might call it – the act of learning programming (in your 20ies at earliest) after having learned multiple natural languages as a Humanist.

Elegant code reads like a human language

Of course, some elements in programming are like learning a real language. For instance, good code should ‘read’ like spoken language. If it sounds too ‘unnatural’, something’s wrong with your code. Or, at least, it’s not very elegant. Elegant code reads like a human language. Ok. But this is only at the surface. To a human. Not to the machine beneath it. After all, in the end the thing about programming is that it’s not a natural language. The ‘natural language looking part’ is only the face your code shows to you as a human. And it is a common opinion amongst programmers that you can’t write good code without understanding the machine. Well, maybe in web programming you can get away with it. But for anything and everything else, you don’t actually.

“It’s like learning a natural language in the way that you need to use it.”

Some people say “It’s like learning a natural language in the way that you need to use it. You can’t learn it theoretically.” Ok, agreed. In that respect, yes. You need a good reason for wanting to communicate and use the language (and actually end up doing it), if you ever want to get good. But this is true of any skill. Of course, you need practice. So is this really a criterion valid for the comparison between learning programming and learning a natural language? They’re both skills. And I think in this case, it’s more about both being a skill to be learned than the ‘language part’ which is their commonality.

A human language requires skills a computer language doesn’t and the other way round

In this discussion, it often happens that people mix up the general skill of programming and the programming language. Like I have mentioned multiple times before.

But the point is that, in my opinion, it’s the ‘algorithmic thinking’ and the specific skill in programming which is difficult with learning to program. The complexity doesn’t come from the language. After all, compared to a human language, computer languages are blatantly simplicistic. The difficult part is understanding algorithmic thinking, algorithms, data structures, having a genereal knowledge of how things work behind the scenes. This skill is not required in human language, I think. You can master you mother tongue (and a foreign language too, by the way) without ever looking up the grammar. You get a feeling for it. When have you ever mastered a (sufficiently complex) function from a library without looking up its arguments?!

No listening or spoken part about programming – communication functions differently

You only read programming languages. There is no spoken or listening part. This makes for a huge difference since this is the part lots of people have difficulty with, especially in attaining native-like level. Getting rid of accents is a never-ending endeavour. What does this compare to in programming?

You never stop learning a living language

Also, with a human language, you can never fully master it. Which is possible for a programming language, I would say. Of course, there always is room for improvement in general problem solving skills. But, for example, John Sonmez mentions in his book The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide that after a solid amount of time of being a good full-time programmer, you do reach a ‘glass ceiling’ where he says that, essentially, all who have reached this point are virtually at the same skill level. This suggests to me that a natural language is more complex than programming even with the whole other skill set involved (other than the language itself which is quite obviously less complex). But of course in programming, you can get into many surrounding fields or topics which make sure it doesn’t get boring. Yet here, I really can’t see how natural languages and computer langauges are very much alike.

They are similar, however, in the way that they constantly evolve and you need to learn the new stuff regularly if you want to keep up. This development is maybe even a little bit faster and more challenging with programming languages.

It’s both easier and harder

In programming, you (can) get away with very little vocabulary and grammar. Bad style still compiles most times whereas in real-world situations, really bad style might cause you to not be understood by fellow humans. While it’s noted, of course, that humans usually try to interpret your utterings in a way to understand you when a compiler will just stop and complain something’s wrong. Hopefully with a helpful error message attached.

When judging people’s skills, always take into account (and don’t underestimate) the amount of hours they’ve invested getting to their current level

I feel that it’s quite common when talking about skills that we want to identify some people as geniuses. While I don’t say that there are no geniuses, my experience shows that you need to break down the information very carefully before you judge someone a genius. There are a lot less geniuses around than people want to make you think, especially in the land of Academica where everybody like to think of themselves as a genius.  A genius is someone who gets very good at multiple (!) very different skills with hardly any effort. This is, as far as I remember, a common (scientific) definition of highly intelligent people. Yet in everyday talk, we often assume high IQs in people who are extremly good in their field. But acutally, your general intelligence only gets proven by the ability of easily reaching this level of competence, very fast, in practically any given field (or at least multiple). Often, people hide the fact that they actually put in a lot of effort.

If somebody has spent 10x the hours you spent to learn something and is a bit better than you, is this really a sign for a genius? For perseverence and discipline maybe, but putting in more time and thus ending up being better is not a sign of extraordinary talent. By which I don’t want to minimize anything, I just think we should abstain from jumping to conclusions and generate an inflation of geniuses along the way. Because this actually destrocys what ‘excellence’ means: It’s the one who stands out from the crowd. Yes, the one. There can only be one best at anything. Excellence initiatives therefore really are quite a ridiculous concept, operating on the assumption you could have armies of excellent people. Not in the strict sense of the word, you can’t. Rant over.

What has this got to do with the subject of this blog?

Well, it appears to me that nowadays, we often think people with good programming skills are geniuses. And maybe they are. I’m not saying they can’t be. But I think that especially us in the Humanities should pay very careful attention that we don’t over-value programming skills and under-value our own. But saying programming languages and real languages are the same skill can easily end up in “real languages are inferior” or “skills in living languages are inferior to programming skills”. So I think it’s important to keep the distinction. After all, to a real programmer who understands the machine, it will be quite clear that, in fact, a programming language is really not like a natural language at all.

While this may appear to be simply splitting hairs over the word “language,” I would point out that the stakes over this distinction in educational policy are high. These policies, founded on the false equivalency that “(natural) language = (programming) language,” could result in reduced funding for secondary language programs and further chipping away at their already tenuous curricular footholds. Under this specious rhetoric of substitution, coding courses would be built on time, money, and students siphoned from traditional language programs. This is exactly against the spirit of the trivium. Grammar and logic are not mutually exclusive, but mutually beneficial. (Burns on Eidolon)

Another problem this lack of distinction might entail is, as Burns stresses, the potential loss of funding for language education, with argumentations along the lines of “learning programming and learning natural languages teach the same skill” which is absolutely not true. But in our tech-loving world today, I think there is a real danger of something like this happening in the future.

The term has clear roots in the the formal languages of mathematically minded logicians from Leibniz to Frege. Yet, in the earliest stages of what we would now call computer science, these instructions were referred to by a matrix of words such as calculus, system, assembly, scheme, plan, formula, and, sure enough, code. “Machine language” appears early, but widespread adoption of the word would take time. Certainly, by 1959, the development of COBOL, or Common Business-oriented Language by the Committee on Data Systems Languages (note the plural) suggests that this was the default term. The exact process of its popularization is difficult to trace. Noam Chomsky’s algorithmic “descriptions of language” clearly exerted influence, but it may also have been spurred on by Grace Hopper’s introduction of English keywords and syntax to computer programming as she sought to replace math-heavy commands. Hopper’s instincts were correct and coding has moved increasingly towards human-readable “languages.” ALGOLSNOBOLSQLTclHTML, and perhaps Perl— they all hide the victory of “language” in their acronymic ells, and it is this victory that has given policymakers license to exploit semantic slippage for their own curricular ends. (Burns on Eidolon)

Humanists’ special talent for living languages?

Another thing I’ve come to observe when teaching which is maybe a relief to Humanists trying to learn programming even though it’s a slow process for them. My friend the Noob always calls it ‘an adventure’. Which is a better way of putting it, I think. Learning something new is beautiful. Even when it hurts at times. So back to the argument:

Sometimes in my DH classes, I teach those brilliant programmers who are in their very early semesters and I’m awestruck. Until I hear them speak English that is. Then I’m awestruck too, but in a bad way. I often see this with people who went to Austrian HTL (Höhere Technische Lehranstalt). They leave this institution with an impressive knowledge in technology; if they were good students. So good, in fact, that I’m usually quite blown away as a self-taught programming Humanist.

But then I observe that the Humanist students who seemed quite untalented with programming are really good at English. And then I remember that learning a living language to a certain level of mastery just takes years. These are years they did not invest in learning how to program. But the programmer did. Yet they often aren’t as good with living language in general (punctuation, grammar, spelling, etc – let alone foreign languages). Many have difficulty expressing themselves in ways which serve to communicate with humans. Of course, there are exceptions. But the rule fits quite well for most. And this suggests to me, very strongly so, that programming and natural languages are in fact very different.

Also, another comforting thought for Humanists. Yes, I know it’s hard to acquire programming skills if you’ve never done anything of the like before you were 20 (or even older). And doing so beside your real work in the form of life-long learning. It’s just not the same thing as having all the time in the world to intensively learn a new skill at school. Learning completely new skills just gets more difficult with age. But you can learn new skills. Whereas it becomes less and less likely you’ll master a foreign (natural) language if you haven’t acquired one to a high level before you’re 20 where ‘language-learning window’ is still open. So this might be a consoling thought to end with 😉

So really, my point is that we should avoid subconsciously shifting our view of what ‘intelligence’ is to a completely digital and non-Humanist perspective. We should also avoid getting sucked into the idea that all programmers are geniuses or intellectually superior (thanks to popculture for that). Not at all to begrudge them the success but because #HumanitiesMatter too 😉 And also, if you’re feeling bad about yourself compared to a programmer, be sure to check if they still look as genius-y as they would like when you go check for certain flaws. So if you’re a Humanist and can’t program – don’t let people tell you you don’t have valuable skills.

I would be happy to hear your opinion on this matter,

until then,

best,

the Ninja

References

John Sonmez, The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide, 2017.

The Ancient Case Against Programming “Languages” by Patrick J. Burns on Eidolon (Apr 24, 2017).

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I need a training progression for academia and programming

As some of you might know, I am currently a fellow, aka at my personal writing retreat at Wolfenbüttel. And I decided to combine this with some sort of a training camp for my bouldering progress because you do need to have some breaks from writing during the day anyway and I can’t always watch Bones or create CV templates. You might have been following some of my bouldering on epigrammetry, the blog, or epigrammetry, the Twitter.

 

Training progressions in sports

Also very few of you might know as well, I used to train a lot for long-distance running (10k) during my teens. So I know what training progressions are. I used to have detailled training plans, eating regimes, supplements to take and all that jazz. I stopped at some point because my immune system kept bullshitting me and as an ambitious person, I couldn’t take the idea of having to start from scratch after a half-year of being very sick and weak. I’d had it with having to arrange my whole life around my training. Yet the principles I’d learned over the course of the years, plus the high level of discipline required in those persuits, have helped me a lot during my early university studies.

 

Systematic progress needs training goals

Looking back now, I used to approach studying and my ‘university progress’ just like I would have had planned my training progression. And it worked. I was really productive, things were going well. For me, at the time, this consisted mostly of getting all the translation homework done, reading a lot of Latin and Greek (at least an hour every early morning before starting my day) and getting through all the classics. Because I was fucking motivated.

This might have been due to there being actual goals to be achieved daily which I could measure my progress on. Like the speed, and thus number of pages, I would get through during my early morning reading practice. Back then, by the way, I also used to combine physical exercise with mental workouts like I have taken up again for this summer’s ‘training camp’. It works quite well. I should probably continue with it back home.

 

How do you create a training progression for programming?

My problem is now: Over the years, I seem to have gotten out of the habit of approaching progress systematically. Or, well not exactly, but – let’s say – I follow academic learning goals with a lot less zeal ever since I got my degree. Which probably is the case for mostly everyone else. Because it’s quite a bit harder to find time and motivation for non-goal oriented learning after a hard day at work than when you had all the time in the world to study. I really envy my youger self for having all this time for learning. I love learning. But life-long learning isn’t exactly the same and doesn’t end after your degree, espeically not if you’re an early career scholar. Now I have a vague idea of some skills I want to improve in. But I am very good with training progressions and thus I know that the common advice ‘just program a lot’ or ‘do a private programming project’ just really is crap advice. Of course, it’s true. You just need a lot of practice. But there still are ways of approaching this effectively or ineffectively.

There are some good books out there which actually provide some learning progression. There is John Sonmez’s Software Dev Career Guide which is the single only thing close to a book providing a progression to systematically get better at programming. And, who would have thought, he is an athlete too. I always thought I was the only one who wanted a systematic training plan. But apparently, he felt that need, too. And for good reason. I have already complained many times about why people don’t approach learning like training and still expect to get reliable, constant results. With learning, this systematic training approach is called ‘curriculum’. In the post linked above, I mentioned that I thought online programming platforms were the answer.

 

Which tools or medium can actually provide curriculum?

At the moment, I am at the point where I have let those online trainings slip again, a long while ago already. As it has happened to me multiple times over the years. If I can deduce from experience, I am likely or restart eventually and go crazy at online programming workouts for a while, then drop it completely again. But what you really need is consistency and daily workout. Plus, I can’t just do the apps. I always have a lot of books to read as well, which is quite important to me so they can’t be neglected either. But then I often end up only spending half of the time I would want to spend, read the book or, if you want to call it that, finish my ‘reading time’ and get tired after that. Also, I should already be at work, so I skip the programing workout.

While something surely is better than nothing, I should probably focus more on the practial work if I want to make faster progress. But in programming, that’s different from bouldering. In bouldering, it’s easy to see which routes I am capable of doing or whether I nailed a particular route. Or count how many pushups and pullups I can do (not enough, I have to admit). So I can measure progress easily. But with programming, this just isn’t the case. And in addition to that, for bouldering, there are tons of youtube gurus with mulitple videos each on how to get over plateaus and make progress, what you can work on, etc.

 

Willpower alone isn’t enough

For programming, most of the advice isn’t too good in my opinion because it’s often too generic (“get a project”). Bouldering tips are concrete like “Perfect your flagging technique”. It’s easy to look up how you do that. It’s easy to notice when you’ve got it, physical feedback makes sure of that. So I decided I’ll have to look at my programming workouts the way I approach my pushups for now (they need to get done no matter what and no whining around). But it’s not really a solution to the problem to rely on willpower alone. Willpower alone will ultimately fail once you get stressed or anything comes up. And when that happens, I have a really hard time getting back into the routine. Which I hate. And then I hate myself for not managing to and then the vicious circle goes on. It’s really annoying.

 

We need curriculum for systematic and swift progress

Of course, even with a good curriculum or a training plan, there will still be plateaus. You will still get stuck. But a good curriculum can help you over that last edge of the boulder. It can help you re-gather yourself after a failure or after you’ve let it all slack for a few weeks.

So this subject also makes me think with regard to this blog, it’s all the more important that curriculum gets developped for learning advanced LaTeX, so a willing user can make rapid progress. Rapid progress is good. It keeps you motivated. Plateaus are really dangerous because the can make you lose motivation and give on up the goal alltogether. So let’s find ways of measuring progress and collecting tips of what you can do to actively and systematically improve if you’re willing to.

Step one probably is to get the people to shut up who sneer at systematic approaches like this one. “Learning to program just doesn’t work this way”, they repeat time and time again. Yet I think this is not true. Getting better at programming is like learning any other skill. There is a systematic approach to it and when we have a systematic progression and training goals, we can figure out the steps we need to take.

That was it for now,

best,

the Ninja

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Cheat Sheets and Study Summaries

This is a quite long post about cheatsheets and also about effective studying. When you need a cheatsheet, chances are you’re trying to learn something (or use something or not yet very familiar with). Because if you already were and experiened expert, you wouldn’t need a cheatsheet, right?

First, I only wanted to share this cheatsheet template I made and explain why I did what I did. I ended up explaining the concept of the “survival summary” for effective studying and exam preparation, rant about what I think people do wrong when making cheatsheets and why I think the theory of effective learning should ultimately reflect in your cheatsheets. By the way, I hardly ever stick to my own rules when making cheatsheets… 😉

If you only care about the cheatsheet, please just scroll down and go get the template or skip to the section on the ‘design principles’ for my template 😉 . Everything else is a (prolonged) explanation of what I did and why I did it on a more theoretical level but I think (hope?) it might be a beneficial read 😉

colorful-cheatsheet
Also, as always, you can find the template on Overleaf.

Cheatsheet philosophy

Space

If you google how to create a cheatsheet, people will recommend you redefine all the section headings etc. as to remove as much unnecessary space as possible. But space is what gives you overview, it’s what guides your eves. If you remove it, you will lose a tremendous amout of time looking for information and not finding it straightaway. It would make more sense to actually reflect what you’re doing and try to save space by reducing unnecessary contents.

Content

But apart from squeezing too much info on cheatsheets per page, another problem is the content itself. I checked out some cheatsheets to research this post and obviously with LaTeX-based cheatsheet templates, many take LaTeX itself as the subject. With what I found, the results often contain pretty superfluous information. That is to say that, for example, in many cases, almost the whole first page is made up of information with a way too short half-life. The starting out info will become obsolete once you’ve used LaTeX 3 times. Do you really want to add that to your cheatsheet? Maybe you could leave it out or create another resource (a getting started manual) or just reduce it to a bare minimum with a small font size.

Font

Chose an easy-to-read font. Especially one which is easy to read from a little bit further away. Information which is very easily readable will be remembered more than some serify font. Resetting this might actually benefit your cheatsheet more than removing space because an easy to read font will make sure your document is readable from further away. Meaning you can reduce the font size. LaTeX’s standard font, Computer Modern, is very beautiful but it’s (modern) serif. Serif fonts are not good for study summaries or cheatsheets since the require a “closer reading”. Ever wondered why advertisements hardly use serif fonts? Sans-serif fonts are easier to read even when you’re not really looking. I would, by the way, also suggest you write your handwritten summaries in print type rather than in cursive writing for better overview.

Cramming in more

If you have to, downsize the font size but don’t get rid of the spacing. Of course that’s going to save you time and allow you to cram in as much information as possible. But is that really the most effective thing to do? Don’t you want the cheatsheet in the first place to reduce the complexity of the topic? If you’re going to just copy it in from any source, you might as well not make a summary but always use the internet so you can find the information you need quickly. Thus, wouldn’t getting rid of all the structuring elements amount to the opposite result of what you intially wanted?

A good cheatsheet (or study summary, which is probably more accurate), in my opinion, will contain shockingly little information but all the information included will be highly relevant. Also, instead of listing all the possible commands, why not mention or introduce them, while explaining something actionable? You could group your cheatsheet not into types of commands but into topics or problems one might want solved. An actionable and task-oriented cheatsheet is more effective than a reference style one.

The “survival summary”

When I write about cheatsheets, I can’t help but mix it up with the concept of the “survival summary” somehow. I got to know the concept in Krengel 2012 (see references) where he writes about how to study best. I am aware they’re not the same but thought you might be interested to learn about them anyway. In his book, after demonstrating effecitve note-taking (very visual and structured), Krengel explains his concept of the “survival summary” where you condensate all the material to be learned in one single page, in a late stage of studying for an exam when you already have the overview (also this method forces you to get yourself an overview…).

The idea behind this is that you can’t remember one hundred pages. But you can sure as hell remember one. So make sure everything which is absolutely necessary (what you need “to survive”) is on this page and act like your survival depended on it. Only add key concepts, not detail facts. Except maybe one or two indispensable, central ones which help to make it more visual. Using examples is always good as it induces some kind of “storytelling” which is good for memory.

Of course, if your exam consists in knowing detail facts by heart, this is just a good guideline for your memory. This summary is not meant to replace everything else. It just serves as the “memory hook” where you can localize your detailed knowledge. But I will exclusively reveal here that I have passed many exams by just knowing this most important info and having prepared a really good “survival summary” (without studying anything else before). You can definitely get by like this because the survival summary is basically the definition of a “pass grade”, embodied in an object in the form of a piece of paper. It contains all the info you need to succeed. Of course, you’ll really need to know its contents well, but if the summary is visual enough, it will be quite easy to remember. Hardly anyone will have problems remembering just one page if they really try.

Note taking and ‘reducing’ information to the most imporant bits

Reducing is probably not the right word. It’s more like condensing lots of bla into the info behind it. Once you start doing this that the bla-to-info ratio is quite scary. In most kinds of schooling, there is tons of bla and, usually, very little info. So reduce complexity, introduce clarity and overview. Be visual. Focus on the bigger picture. Unnecessary detail will only cloud your mind. Don’t try to remember everything. It’s a recipe for disaster and, if anything, will ensure you remember nothing at all.

This overview, this summary is your security. Think of it as insurance. If done well, it will ensure you pass the exam. If you aim higher, it will be a sound base to ground your details on and give you a sense of security which will make you more confident. You can remember one single page, right? This page contains everything you need to pass, so what could really go wrong?

I personally started even taking my lecture notes like “survival summaries” rightaway, to save even more time. You end up with 10-12 survival summaries which you can reduce into the final study summary just before the exam. This will save you lots of time. So rather than just mindlessly noting down everything the professor says, only note down important stuff or information which is likely difficult to find outside of the lecture notes. If the information is on Wikipedia, only write down the keyword. Or make a glossary rightaway where you put all the ‘difficult words’ and their definitions.

These words alone often can go as a survival summary. If you know what they all mean and the concepts they’re related to, you already have the gist of what’s going on. When in class, always make three columns on your paper.

  1. Left column: Leave empty to fill in the summary / keyword / heading of the current topic.
  2. Middle column: Your actual notes.
  3. Right column:  Anything you need to remember, be it historical dates in history, vocabulary in a language class or a glossary of difficult words.

In the middle column, highlight the important words as you write, so you don’t have to re-read everything to remember what paragraphs were about. You need this info to fill in the topic heading in the left column. The left and right columns are the prep work for your study summary. When preparing for the final summary, cut out everything repeating itself or not strictly necessary. Sum it all up in one final survival summary.

Reduction and reflection >  mindless note-taking

Dare to only note the most important stuff. Most people want to note down everything because it makes them feel safe. Leaving things out, they fear to end up not understanding their notes anymore. This is not an issue if you take good notes and give thought to how you write things down. Often you don’t need to write a whole sentence to unambiguously understand the content. Or, if you have the keyword and the context, it takes 5 seconds to look it up on the internet should you really not remember what it meant. It is way more time-consuming to have to work through extensive notes. That’s why lots of people fail exams despite lots of work taking excessive notes. Every single word you note down you will have to work through again. Do yourself a favour and note down only what’s actually important.

Not noting down everything is beneficial for many reasons:

  1. It’s the first stage of reduction of the material, if done right.
  2. Taking good notes makes creating summaries so much faster.
  3. Having condensed visual notes from the last lessons allows you to have the overview and keep you from noting down things multiple times.
  4. If you never take more than one page of notes per lesson, reviewing the content before the next lesson will be really easy. You can learn things straightaway rather than waiting until the exam. Learn things as they come up! This advice from Steve Pavlina is probably the best studying advice ever.
  5. Not writing complete sentences, using visual boxes with no more than 3-5 concepts per block, you actively make the information easy to grasp for your brain. Also, you find things more quickly.

8. Learn material the very first time it’s presented.

One of the biggest time wasters in school is having to relearn something you didn’t learn properly the first time. When students say they’re studying, most of the time they’re making up for a previous failure to learn the material.

In software development it’s well known that bugs should be fixed as soon as possible after they’re introduced. Waiting to fix a bug near the end of a project can take 50x as much effort as it would take to fix the bug the first time it was noticed. Failing to learn what you’re supposedly taught each day is a serious bug. Don’t try to pile new material on top of an unstable foundation, since it will take even more time to rebuild it later.

If you don’t understand something you were taught in class today, treat it as a bug that must be fixed ASAP. Do not put it off. Do not pile new material on top of it. If you don’t understand a word, a concept, or a lesson, then drop everything and do whatever it takes to learn it before you continue on. Ask questions in class, get a fellow student to explain it to you, read and re-read the textbook, and/or visit the professor during office hours, but learn it no matter what.

10 Tips for College Students, Steve Pavlina

Once you’re not new anymore at university and know your way around, you will quickly know where the lecturer has gotten his or her information on. (Hint: it’s probably somewhere in the literature list you never cared to notice). This is why my survival summaries and notes only contain insights or information so condensed you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. If your summary is supposed to be a go-to resource alongside the omniscience of Google, it has to be really good and give you access to information Google (or the library) couldn’t give you.

If it can be looked up quickly, is a detail and not extremly central to the point, don’t bother writing it down. You won’t be able to read your own handwriting in a few weeks anyway. If you type your notes on a computer and have decent typing skills, chances are you’ll procude so much text you’ll never be able to go through when studying.

I used to be quite religious about lecture notes and summaries. I wanted to make perfect notes, grasp all the information, constantly improve my note-taking skills until I realized the true art of good summaries lies in leaving things out.

Good notes glow with simplicity. If you’re notes are digital (written in LaTeX like my cheatsheets of course), use \href{http://link.com}{Name} to hide reference links in the texts. This will stop ugly links from ruining the overview but calm your fear of “forgetting or leaving out important information”.

Of course, since you’re not the one teaching the class, you can never quite know exactly what is most important, or completely unimportanty respectively, to the teacher. This is why, perfectly simplicistic survival summaries will remain a theoretical ideal you can never fully achieve. But that’s not a reason not to try. Don’t think this is the lazy way out either. It is actually quite hard, challenging work and requires a very good overview about the subject in question. I have created many bad survival summaries because I didn’t bother take enough time to understand the material at hand. These bad summaries will not get you very far.

Ideally there should be no need to study outside of class, at least in the sense of relearning material you didn’t learn the first time. You can review old material to refresh your memory, but you shouldn’t have to devote a minute of your time to learning something that was taught a month or two earlier.

[…]

During each semester ask yourself this question: Am I ready to be tested right now on everything that has been taught up to this point? If your answer is ever “no,” then you know you’re falling behind, and you need to catch up immediately. Ideally you should be able to answer “yes” to this question at least once a week for every subject.

[…] Put in the effort to learn your material well enough to get As in all your classes. It will pay off. Much of the material you learn will build on earlier material. If you get As in your freshman courses, you’ll be well prepared to pile on new material in your sophomore year. But if you get Cs that first year, you’re already going into your second year with an unstable foundation, making it that much harder to bring your grades up and really master the material. Make straight As your goal every semester. In the long run, it’s much easier. I found that C students tended to work a lot harder than I did, especially in their junior and senior years, because they were always playing catch up. Despite my packed schedule, it wasn’t stressful for me because I kept on top of every subject. Consequently, I had plenty of time for fun while other students experienced lots of stress because they constantly felt unprepared.

Steve Pavlina, Do it now

How to know if a summary is good?

How do you know the summary is good? Well, you’ll never be able to guarantee. But usually, you’ll have a good feeling about it. If it doesn’t contain all the topics, for example, that’s a good indicator of a bad one. Or, when you went into a lot of detail in subject one and left out subject two because you spent all your energy on subject one, this is a classical example of the “unbalanced survival summary”. This happens, but shouldn’t. Thankfully, seeing as these summaries are quite visual, it will be quite apparent to you.

A summary or part of summary with tons of detail also mostly is an indicator you should deepen your knowledge about the subject first. A lot of detail usually means you lack the general understanding of the bigger picture and are very unfamiliar with the topic. See my comments about how an advanced person’s cheatsheet is not the same thing as beginner’s intro. This is exactly what I’m talking about here. A beginner will add detail which is necessary only for the very limited amount of time you’re a beginner. It might even be very relevant then. But it will turn to completely irrelevant once you’ve moved on to advanced user. An advanced user will add very little detail unless there is a good reason for it. The result will visibly be more balanced, topic-oriented, containin key concepts and an overview of the bigger picture.

You will learn a lot trying to condense information into a survival summary like this. In fact, this had turned out to be the most effective study strategy for me as you’re not complelely passive in this kind of revision.

So make sure to:

  • use the methods of chunking (2-4 chunks) or storytelling (I mostly use chunking only though)
  • Garbage In, Garbage Out –> if you don’t do some serious “editing” with your learning materials, this is what you’ll get…
  • Condensate: “zoom out”
  • Reduce: get rid of anything redundant or trivial
  • get visual
  • Facts versus skills: Operationalize

What is a cheat sheet? Theory and practice

What it should be

A memory aid which stores information you might need quick access to and need fairly frequently but not frequently enough so you would recall it without the cheatsheet.

What it shouldn’t be
A crib

The thing you used in school to cheat (ok, yes I did too. I fact, quite masterfully so^^). I used to have these really full cribs which contained EVERYTHING and I printed them out, using the 16 pages or 32 pages on one page mode. Used to work pretty well.

A beginner’s guide

Beginner’s guides are totally legitimate but please, if you want both a cheatsheet and a beginner’s guide, make sure to create two different documents.

The problem is: A beginner’s guide includes tons of information you totally do need when starting out. But once you’ve successfully gotten started, most of this information is 100% obsolete. You’ll either never need it again (because it was one time information, like how to install something) or you will have it memorized by heart because you use it too frequently. The information contained in the beginner’s guide can intersect with the one still relevant later on, but in part, certainly will be obsolete once you’re not a beginner anymore. And, believe it or not, once you actually get started, you will reach advanced status fairly quickly. So make sure to keep those documents seperate. Just take the time to make one sheet with basic info and another one with info which might still pass as “basic” but will remain at least somewhat relevant to an advanced user.

A lexicon or a reference

I see this with LaTeX cheatsheets a lot. People cram in all the information there is. Including a minimal working example of a LaTeX document. Please, people, you will need this information exactly once. If you’re using an editor which provides some setup support (like Overleaf or even TeXmaker etc.) you will never use this information again. Unless you’re one of those hardcore people who don’t use IDEs. And even then, you probaly won’t need it more than three times until you have memorized it.

The command graveyard

Or, instead of the minimal working example, they add in all the symbols you can possibly use in LaTeX. Even if you use LaTeX for math purposes, there is no way you’ll ever need all those symbols. Some you will need fairly frequently, some you won’t need at all. And, if you have some basic familiarity with the greek alphabet, you will know the names of the letters. And can just write them as commands. No need to print the whole alphabet, right? If you don’t know the Greek alphabet and need it regularly, learn it please?

Like I will elaborate in the “design” section below, every detail which is in the slightest bit  unnecessary will ruin the overview and undermine the purpose of your cheatsheet (quick access to relevant info).

If the overview is so poor and you’re faster Google-ing your wanted information, what the hell do you need a cheatsheet for? Unless you have no internet, of course. So when preparing a cheatsheet, don’t go thorugh all the beginner’s tutorials and add everything they have (unless you want to make a beginner’s guide, but if you do so, please do so explicitly).

Look for information which fits the criteria below:

  1. If you feel you absolutely need to add in some basic function, don’t waste a lot of space for it. Or demonstrate the basic thing while demonstrating something more advanced or rare.
  2. Don’t add things you might ever only need once, like infrequent symbols.
  3. Don’t add startup info unless you’ll need it more than once. Also, make this a “detail on demand” (see design principles below) if you feel you absolutely can’t go without it.
  4. Also, just generally avoid adding “extensive lists”. If your cheatsheet is supposed to be a memory aid, keep in mind that the brain can only process so many chunks at a time (3-5). Accordingly, one block of information should not include more than 3-5 elements at a time.
  5. Cut out anything unnecessary. Summarize, cut and shorten radically. Keep to the absolute minimum. Make it zen. Simplify. Really take the time to do this, it will maximize your benefits.
  6. Good cheatsheet design takes up a lot of time. But once the cheatsheet is done, it will be useful to you for a long time.
  7. Don’t just sit down and create a cheat sheet. A really good cheatsheet will need some design first. Brainstorm, see what information you want to include. Note down everything you feel you need, then shorten radically and find creative ways to make it more to the point.
  8. This creative process is what we might call editing. There is this quote: The first draft of everything is bullshit. What it means is that most people stop before the actual work starts and that’s why their results are bad. Outputs only get really good if you sit down to edit them and make them better, design them carefully, etc. When writing a paper, for example, putting the info on paper is only half of the work. Internal editing, peer review, etc. will make the final result take about twice as long as the inital step of “writing the paper”. Most seminar papers are bad because students just stop after they have sloppily collected and written down the information. The papers end up lacking detail in research but also lacking grammatical corrections, reformulating to make the outline and the sentences more clear, etc. The same goes for anything you produce.
  9. A good cheatsheet is something you might want to use for a long time or even share with others so they can profit from it too. If you make a good summary for studying, you can use this as a memory aid or refresher long after the exam. If, and only if, you did it well to begin with. Or imagine you want to take an advanced class. A good cheatsheet will make sure you master the basics, and if you don’t, have them at the ready whenever you need them. Or, when preparing for an exam, the extra time might seem a waste of time – but, on the plus side, you’ll be way further along in your studying if you have taken the time to make a high quality cheatsheet, and you also have a good point to start should you happen to fail the exam. Whoops.

Basic design principles

Data vizualization 101 also applies to effective learning and, thankfully, the most important principle can be summed up in one single sentence:

Overview first, zoom in, detail on demand. (Shneiderman’s Mantra)

  1. Overview first: means big headings about the subject of every block.
  2. Zoom in: you go from the “hook” which is the heading to the actual information, i.e. details (in this case).
  3. Detail on demand: this works well in responsive applications but how to implement this on an analogous piece of paper, you ask?

When I prepared class summary sheets for studying (and I used to be very religious and peculiar about this, believe me. In fact, I probably still am.), I made big headings (stage 1: overview first), then added the info below (stage 2: zoom in) and added details in such a small font size that you had to physically get close to the paper to be able to read it. As I wrote this by hand, the writing became almost impossible to read. And that was the brilliant part of it.

The point is, we mostly are so afraid to leave some less than important piece of information out, because we feel like we’re going to miss out (or something, I can’t even really explain why). We’re afraid this information is a crucial detail when mostly, you’ll never need it again. Also, by noting down all the information, we are lured into the false security of thinking we have it noted down anyway, so it’s not so important we actually memorize it.

While this is not exactly the goal of learning, it also makes us end up with pages and pages of notes which we will never get through when studying for the exam. Also, working like this, we will never ever actually have an overview what the class was about and since teachers mostly fail to mention which ones were the most important contents, we will probably remember the least important detail only. Congratulations.

The cheatsheet is not a universal reference and not the place where you “write down everything”. You only write down that which is important and choosing what is important always means you’ll have to discard certain items. The study cheatsheet does not need to include everything, that’s what books, Google or your notes are for. The cheatsheet sums up the most important stuff in an overview.

I don’t always follow my own advice, of course, and tend to want to include every little detail. But once the summary is done and I acutally use it, I always regret including too much detail, especially the absolute basics. I find the best way here is to include them but

a) keep it small and

b) include it combined with some other less important information you kind of want to include but wouldn’t be important enough otherwise.

I sometimes write my summaries while a class still goes on: I reserve a spot on the (analogous) paper for every session. My university classes are usually 12 to 14 sessions. This is more tricky, of course, since something which seemed new and important at the beginning might be obvious and unnecessary once you’re deeper into the topic. Avoid reserving too much space for the basics as they are likely to end up not being important anymore. Or write your cheatsheet in LaTeX (of course 😉 ). You’ll be able to modify it in the way that makes the most sense once the class is over, there is nothing more to be added and you’re doing revisions. So these are the key principles:

  1. Big headers: Overview first
  2. Boxes ( don’t add more than 3-5 chunks)
  3. White space: Unlike many other cheatsheets, don’t use every inch available to you. Don’t cram in every detail. Space it out, it will greatly benefit the overview (and thus, your learning).
  4. If you absolutely can’t go without some detail, make it so small you’re almost unable to read it. Force yourself to have to remember it. Don’t count on the fact that it’s all there and all available at one click.

The Cheatsheet – Template and explanation

The \mycommand command for displaying commands and their explanations uses \detokenize to display code. It functions as explained here . However, some problems remain, like you can’t use \maketitle or comments (%) in the command.

Also, don’t forget you can’t add any styling to the command part of \mycommand. This should be obvious but I catch myself trying to insert commands and wondering that they’re just displayed as text all the time. 😉 It usually takes me a few seconds before I realized this is a feature I actually knowlingly configured to work as such.

The subboxes are done using tcbraster (indicating the number of columns). There would be an option to indicate rows as well, but I couldn’t see why I would need that and if one ever should, one could just use 2 mulitboxes (works just fine, if you ask me…).

Playing around: Cheatsheet to beamer

After I created a cheatsheet using this template, I had the idea that I could ‘generate’ presentation slides from it. This was quite easy. I opened a beamer template and pasted the document body of the cheatsheet into it, replacing all the \begin{textbox} with \begin{frame}[allowframebreaks] and the \end{textbox} with \end{frame}.

This seemed like a quick and easy way to create slides from the cheatsheet. It turned out, however, that tcblisting has some issues with enumerate or itemize environments in the beamer documentclass. The co-presence of those two in one document will stop the whole thing from compiling due to a bug in the beamer class, apparently. It took me very long to find out why exactly, believe me.

Also, the resulting slides are not, like, suuuuper beautiful, if you know what I mean. The automatic framebreaks are not great but, at least, will give you working slides instantly, even if your boxes were very full (which probably they shouldn’t be in the first place…). The slides are nothing special, but they work as long as you never have code examples and lists in the same document. Or you’d have to rearrange your code exmaples from tcblisting to lstlistings. I do quite prefer tcblistings to be honest. And, in the concrete case, if you care to know, I had been late preparing my class which was supposed to happen in a few hours time, so I decided my students didn’t need the code on beamer 😉

So, that’s it for now.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

the LaTeX Ninja

References

  1. Martin Krengel, Bestnote. Lernerfolg verdoppeln, Prüfungsangst halbieren. Berlin 2012.
  2. 10 Tips for College Students, Steve Pavlina
  3. Steve Pavlina, Do it now

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The Simple Academic Resumé. A play in 3 acts

Dear all,

you might already know the Simple Academic Resumé/CV from Twitter or GitHub. It is available as a template on Overleaf now, so I wanted to take this occasion to formally introduce it to you again. It also has a new third style which you might not be familiar with yet.

simple-acad-cv
This new version is quite colourful with the rules. Or at least it can be. You can just choose black or grey as a colour. With all of this colour, it probably doesn’t really qualify as ‘academic’ anymore. 😉 Try it out here on Overleaf.

I don’t know if if love the name. Thinking back now, I might have called it something else but since has already been out there on Github quite a while, I didn’t want to change it anymore. My second thoughts now stem from the fact that I would like to make a template which really deserves the title ‘academic’. This one was named academic only because I published it the day after the Hipster CV and  somebody on Twitter noted that they would think it very bad style to use such a template in a academic context. That’s why I got inspired to make a more simple template and called this one ‘academic’. But there’s nothing especially academic about it really. 😉

Simple_Academic_Resume
The Simple Academic without picture. Try the template on Overleaf!

Aaaand the last available option:

Simple_Academic_Resume__with_picture
The Simple Academic with image. Try it out directly here on Overleaf.

Well, I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Best,

the Ninja

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If my content has helped you, donate 3€ to buy me coffee. Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

€3.00