Tips for coaching a programming study group

Rails Girls beginners workshops are great at sparking a lot of enthusiasm, and motivating newcomers to dive deeper, and start learning how to program.

Often times participants of these workshops form Ruby study groups. Here are some recommendations about how to run such a group as a coach, based on our experiences running our group Ruby Monsters.

Happiness and fun

Whatever previous experiences and skills they bring, your job as a coach is to make learning programming as interesting and your group’s meetings as fun as possible. You want your students to be happy when they leave after the meeting: A little tired, maybe slightly overwhelmed, but always happy.

This can be tough, and you might find yourself stuck. Keep learning, try to come up with better ways, and improve.

Create a safe space

At our study groups we have found it best to simply make them women-only for students (“women” meaning everyone who identifies as a woman).

While we wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to allow men participate as students, too, we want these groups to be a great place for women to learn programming, at their own pace and in their own ways. However, as soon as there’s a single male student dynamics change drastically, and we’ve found ourselves struggling at fighting these dynamics and making sure everyone has the best experience possible.

We’ve therefore decided to simply not allow men to join the group as students. They are invited to visit, tag along, or wait for their partners, but they are asked to find a separate place, and remain silent in order to not disturb the group.

We recommend to pick up the same policy for your groups, or at least have a clear policy about who’s allowed to join.

Never call participants girls

Despite the name and branding of the movement that is Rails Girls, as coaches we never call participants girls.

They may call themselves whatever they like, that’s up to them, but as coaches we call them participants, students, members (of our group), programmers, or women, depending on the context.

This is should be a no-brainer to you. If it’s not, or if have any issues with this simple rule, we recommend taking a step back, and learn about gender related issues in our society in general, and tech in particular. A few great starting points are here, here, and here, and you can find more resources at the end of this page. If studying these still does not convince you, then you might not be the right person to run a study group for women.

Be humble: it’s not about you

Whatever you do, put the focus on your students. It’s about them, not you.

Your job is to help them learn, and end up being thrilled, motivated, enthusiastic and happy.

Be humble. Put the focus on them, not you.

Take breaks

However you run the group meetings, take breaks often enough.

Your students will be exhausted much sooner than you are, most of the time, even though coaching can be extremely exhausting, too.

Make sure to keep an eye on the time that you use for explaing a new concept, or letting them solve a certain exercise, and take a break early enough.

During the breaks encourage everyone to close their laptops, walk around, chat, and have some snacks.

Ask about previous experiences

Often times students who show up at our beginners groups have zero previous experience with programming. Sometimes they know a little bit of HTML/CSS, made some modifications to a Wordpress blog, or hacked on a mod for a game. Sometimes they are or were studying computer science, but find their introductional Java or Haskell classes suck so much that they’re looking for an alternative.

At your very first meeting, and whenever someone joins the group, ask about their experiences and skills first, as well as their motivation to join the group. This will give you a few clues about good starting points, and things they might already be familiar with.

Keep it as simple as possible

If you are considering coaching a beginners group then you probably are an experienced developer.

Keep in mind that being a great developer, and being a great teacher and coach are two very different things, and they require different skills.

Whatever you personally deem interesting, your favorite set of tools, whatever kind of programming style you prefer: these are conclusions that you have drawn after years and years of trying, failing, learning, and starting over. None of this is relevant to a beginner.

Pick the simplest tools that can be used by everyone in the group in order to learn about a certain topic. Even if there’s a more modern, or more widely used way to achieve something, consider starting out with teaching the most basic and simplistic solution.

For example:

Break things down

Do not try to teach too much at once. Reduce things. Once you think they’re simple enough, reduce further.

Think hard about what’s the least minimum piece of knowledge that does not require any additional knowledge that hasn’t been tought, yet.

Instead of starting out with an entire, fresh Rails application, consider breaking things down. For example:

Make sure people understand Ruby basics: What are methods, blocks, classes, objects? Learning what a method is, how to write your own methods, how arguments are passed, and mapped to local variables inside the method’s scope, what a scope is, … all of this might take quite a while for a newcomer.

Make sure to break down all of this into small, digestible steps.

Keep in mind that, as a programmer, you not only know all of this. You breathe these concepts. You know them so well that you might not even know how to best explain them. Think about this hard, and try to take the smallest possible steps, one at a time.

So, simplify, simplify again, then simplify more. If you think what you have is too simple, simplify more.

Also, read the chapter “Learning to program” from our book Ruby For Beginners.

Repeat yourself

Learning to program only works through repetition. It is a process of brainwashing yourself into the ability to recognize patterns, such as a method definition, and immediately know what it means.

Repeat yourself over and over again. Often times it helps to actually say the same thing three times, in different ways.

Try to establish memorizable catch phrases, that everyone on the group memorizes over time. Sentences like: In Ruby every method always returns exactly one thing. Make sure to repeat this often enough, and ask your students to repeat it. Other examples might be:

Use metaphors

Different people tend to soak up new concepts in different ways.

Try to give precise definitions, but also use metaphors, analogies and images as much as possible. Try to be playful, but also keep repeating precise phrases, and show how things work.

For example, explain that A route maps an HTTP verb and a path to a controller action. An action is a method on an instance of a controller class that a route maps to. Then also come up with a metaphor, e.g. A route is like the receptionist in a hotel: The browser’s request walks up to them, and is being sent to a particluar floor and room number. Or: A route is like the waiter in a restaurant. They take your order, and bring it to the right chef, depending on the dish you ordered.

Also consider trying more creative learning methods:

As part of their homework, ask them to come up with a little comic that turns a metaphor into a story. Conduct a little role playing game or play where different people play roles of two or three classes, passing around data in the form of pieces of paper. Ask the group to come up with good ideas to represent some simple piece of code that you’ve been working on together. Let them look around and identify things that could be implemented as classes: pretty sure there’s a Lamp that could have a method toggle to be switched on and off. We’ve once implemented a couple classes WaffleIron, Dough and Waffle, then conducted a role playing game with these.

Observe and listen, be flexible

Since everyone’s different there won’t ever be two classes or groups where everything works well the same way. You’ll need to continuously adapt to your students and the group’s dynamics.

No matter how extrovert you normally are, try to observe and listen as much as possible. Your students’ body language gives you clues about how they feel, how well an explanation worked for them, and how to proceed.

Try to be flexible and adjust to the group, and every student individually.

Experiment with, and mix different styles of teaching, like

You may want to do more lecture style classes in the very beginning, explaining basic programming concepts, while the group is still very new. Make sure to add in more and more longer sessions where they do exercises, ideally in pairs, but also, sometimes, on their own. Make sure to add in sessions where the group works on something on their own, and completely walk away for a little while.

Be patient

Especially when this is your first group you’ll need to be extra careful to be patient. Super extra patient.

You have completely internalised all the knowledge that makes up entire books about learning programming. All of this sits in your mind, ready for you to be used without thinking about it further.

Students who never learned any programming on the other hand will be overwhelmed in no time when you try to explain too much at once. Also, it simply takes a little while, and quite some repetition, in order for a certain concept to trickle in, and to be known well enough to be used while thinking about something else (like, thinking about the next concept, or how to solve a certain exercise using that concept).

Make zero assumptions

Even though impossible, try to make zero assumptions.

When someone has a hard time figuring out a certain error raised in their code then do not assume they’ve read the error message carefully, or had a look at the backtrace. Instead ask. If the error has to do with an array, do not assume they understand what an array is, instead ask.

Do not assume that, once you’ve given a definition for a certain concept, like MVC, and they can repeat it, they also are able to properly use it. Instead ask where they think a piece of code should fit in, and try to come up with helpful answers.

Summarize, give the bigger picture

Try drilling down into the details often enough so your students understand every little step that happens when an object is instantiated, a method is called, arguments passed and assigned to local variables, and eventually a return value is returned.

However, also try to always embed things into a bigger picture. Have a big picture roadmap for your group curriculum. After each week’s meeting summarize what they’ve learned, and how far they’ve come in the overall roadmap.

When doing their first steps in a Rails app, trying to figure out a certain feature, don’t forget to always also summarize things, and talk about the end-to-end process that a request/response cycle goes through.

Be positive, praise progress

Everyone is always doing the best they can. Whatever progress your students make, be sure to give positive feedback, and compliment the progress they’ve made.

Maybe things are going a little bit slower than you expected, or maybe they take a different route. That’s still progress, and it’s great they’ve made it this far. Be sure to give positive feedback.

Also, oftentimes students aren’t really aware about the progress they’re actually making:

For example, after introducing what a method is, and explaining how they are defined, and used, your students might feel overwhelmed and confused. Just a few weeks later they’ll define and use their own methods as if they always knew them. However, because the exercises they’re now working on also might feel a little overwhelming, they feel they haven’t made any progress whatsoever.

Be sure to point out how much progress they’ve already made, and how proud they should feel.

Have weak opinions

Let’s face it, the Ruby community values “strong opinions” a lot, and everyone has their own. This is probably beneficial to the community as a whole: lots of discussions ensue, and everyone hopefully comes out wiser than before.

However, as a beginner, you’re usually better off not limiting yourself to any such opinion exclusively. Instead you would ideally look at many different solutions, hear lots of different opinions, and try to make up your mind, basically catching up on a decades of evolutionary learning process that the community has gone through as a whole.

Since your students will look at you, and value your guidance, you should try and take a step back: Have weak opinions.

Even if you very much prefer one tool over another, one editor over another, one whatever thing over another one, remain silent about your opinions. Instead give a list of possible solutions, mention some of the benefits and drawbacks, and explain the choice you’ve potentially made for the current group or curriculum. Ideally, if possible, let them decide and pick the solution they want to go with, and ask for their reasons.

You want your students to remain curious and open-minded. For example, even if you happen to really dislike Cucumber for whatever reasons: if your group or single students happens to be excited about it, then you want to fuel their curiosity, instead of discouraging it. If they want to use Bootstrap, maybe because a friend has used it before, encourage them to try it out, even if you feel there are better solutions.

Never cancel a group meeting

Try as hard as possible to never cancel a group meeting. Make sure someone else can take over if you’re travelling, or sick. And run the meeting even if there’s only a single attendee.

It helps to grow the group big enough, and have enough coaches, so that there’s always a group of at least 3-4 people attending.

This gives stability, predictability, and builds trust, which in turn helps your students stay motivated. If you cancel meetings too often you might eventually blast your group.

Build an identity

Once the group is somewhat established, people got to know each other, and had a bunch of great meetings, having lots of fun, ask them to come up with a name for the group.

Let them set up a mailinglist, maybe a Twitter account, or Facebook page. Set up a GitHub organization with them, and add everyone as an admin. Use repositories for discussions, documents and code examples. Should someone be uncomfortable committing in public then ask GitHub for a free organizational account with private repositories.

Give long term perspectives

Give your group long term perspectives.

Explain that they’ll very soon be able to write Ruby scripts which might be simple, but very useful. E.g. if they’re working with CSV files a lot at work, they’ll now be able to write a simple script in order to extract certain things, instead of doing painful, repetitive manual work.

Tell them when they can expect to be able to build their first web applications, when you think they’ll be ready to apply for a job as a junior programer.

Also be sure to tell them about Rails Girls Summer of Code, a project that dedicately aims at providing a longer term goal for study groups to aim at.

Come up with a curriculum

When we ran our first beginners group we simply came up with an order of topics on a week by week basis. There weren’t too many good online resources targeted at beginners at that time. We quickly found out that this was a mistake.

Instead, it is a much better idea to recommend an introductional book for everyone to read at home. Encourage your students to read other books and do tutorials, but make sure everyone at least reads the same book that you’ve agreed on.

Then, in your weekly meetings, go over the same topics, roughly in the same order as the book does. Explain things, answer questions, and do exercises. Then have everyone read the next few chapters as homework, and maybe give additional exercises for homework.

We have used Chris Pine’s Learn to Program in two groups. While this worked a few things about this book aren’t ideal.

We have therefore come up with our own beginner group curriculum, and published it as a book: Ruby For Beginners. Feel free to use it. Of course, any and all feedback or improvements will be welcome.

Focus on your goal

We recommend designing your curriculum, and individual sessions around the goal to get them to feel enabled to write “real” code as soon as possible.

This requires to omit lots of language features, lots of potential excurses, and really focussing on this one goal.

In our groups we focus on getting them to the point where they can write a simple Sinatra application, and understand every single language feature that they are using. Along the way we have smaller goals such as being able to read a CSV file, and filter it.

Get to this point as quickly as possible (obviously still as slowly as required for them to understand things). It will take a few weeks, or months, but getting there will make them feel like a “real” programmer for the first time: They’ve built a web application, and they completely understand what they’re doing.

This can be an amazing, and very motivating experience.

So, don’t bother introducing language features that you may like to talk about, but just aren’t required for this goal. You’ll be surprised how much one can cut down Ruby, and still be productive writing Sinatra applications.

Encourage them to join other events

Even for beginners it often is a great experience to join a local Ruby meetup once in a while, join a hackday (ask the whole group to participate and work on their shared learning project for a day), or visit a local conference (ask the conference organizers about free tickets, student discounts, or whether you could join with them for a just few talks for free).

Even if they don’t fully understand every technical talk, it can be inspiring to them to listen to the talks, talk to developers about their experiences, or just enjoy the nice atmosphere and have fun.

Invite guest stars and experts

When well know programmers visit your city invite them to visit your group, and maybe give a short lecture on a certain topic. Should your group be interested in a certain topic that you don’t excell in, invite an expert to give a training session or two.

Having Konstantin Haase visit and do an introductional session about HTTP can be priceless. Not only will they get a great introduction, feel honored about being given this opportunity, and get to know a brilliant programmer. They’ll also be able to enjoy watching everyone’s jawbones drop when mentioning it casually at their first conference … which can help boost self-esteem, too (not even kidding).

Educate yourself

Coaches often are seasoned developers, often male, and priviledged enough to be able to spend their time coaching a group regularly.

If you fall into this group make sure to spend enough time educating yourself about some of the issues you’ll want to pay attention towards. Some starting points: