Learning styles for programmers: active/reflective

August 12, 2014 – 6:48 pm

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on my Hacker School workshop series, “Learning Styles For Programmers,” which is in turn a software-focused adaptation of Rich Felder’s work on engineering learning styles. (As you read, it will become obvious this post started as a transcript of a workshop.)

Learning styles are like personality tests… for education. There are a few different spectrums — active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, global/sequential — that are helpful for understanding how you operate as a programmer, both in a learning and a teaching role (we tend to teach the way we like to learn). We’ll go through them one at a time, starting with active/reflective.

(Note: if you are a global learner — that is to say, you like seeing the “big picture” first — you may benefit from reading this short blog post on learning styles first to get an overview before diving into the entire series.)

Spectrum #1: Active vs. Reflective

Every mature learner acts, and every good learner reflects… just not in the same order. “Active vs reflective” styles refers to which one you do first: active learners act, then reflect. Reflective learners reflect, then act. An active learner will frequently say things like, “How are you going to know unless we just try it and start messing around?” or “Just start typing. We don’t need to read any more, just go!”  Active people tend to jump in, and then they reflect after they act. They do things, and then they look up and they go, “What the heck have I just done? What did I learn? I need to process this.” And then they process; the processing comes later.

A reflective learner, on the other hand, processes first. They are more likely to say, “Okay, hang on. Before we start this, let’s make sure that we have the pseudocode written. Have we read the language specification? And three textbooks? And maybe we should go talk with an expert, and…” (laughter from the room)

Ok, maybe that’s an extreme example. But reflective learners are at their best after they’ve had some processing time. That is one of the reasons I scheduled my Learning Styles workshop in the afternoon, after I gave a morning talk that briefly introduced the idea of learning styles (along with lots of other ideas).I wanted to give reflective learners a 2-hour break after my first presentation so they could digest the material before they came here. Reflective people don’t usually have questions right on the spot, but if I give them time to think about it, they come back with wonderfully thoughtful questions.

Reflective example: Stacey

A good example of a reflective learner is Stacey Sern, who is a Hacker School alumna. I talked with Stacey on a Monday once — early on Monday, talking about working together on a presentation. We chatted a little while, and then she said “Okay, that sounds great. I can think about that. Tomorrow.”

It wasn’t because Stacey was booked that day. Hacker Schoolers have extremely open schedules. But Stacey will need — honestly need — 24 hours to prepare herself to pair with you. It’s not a question of skills or confidence, because she has both; she just knows that she needs that time to get her mind in the right place. And once she shows up, she is so prepared. She has thought about the problem, scoped it out. But before that time, she will not be ready to pair.

Without knowing about active/reflective learners, it’s easy to stereotype Stacey as being a little slow, when in fact you would be missing out — she is a brilliant programmer. The code that she starts writing after 24 hours of pondering is clear, it’s crisp, elegant, it has lovely architecture, it’s way better than the stuff I start banging out on my keyboard immediately, because I’m an active learner, and so that’s what I naturally do.

Active example: Tom

Hacker School facilitator Tom Ballinger is also an active learner; show him some code, and he’ll immediately start pointing at it and thinking out loud. A lot of you (at Hacker School) have probably experienced Tom’s Instantaneous Code Reviews. Pretty incredible. But that also comes with the dynamic of “I have an idea, whee! Let’s try this path! Uh, okay, that didn’t work. Let’s try that one! Ok, that didn’t work. How about…” Tom shows you everything he’s thinking, including the dead-ends he’s running into, as he runs into them. In contrast, by the time Stacey gets to you, she’s already pruned the dead ends and figured out most of a pathway that will probably work.

Audience question: I can’t fit myself perfectly into this model. I do both active and reflective things. What am I?

That is a great point to bring up. These aren’t binaries, they’re spectrums. You can be 100% active, 100% reflective, and anywhere in between. So you could just be in between.

Also, this “learning styles” stuff is a framework — like all frameworks, it is not a perfect model of reality. (The only perfect model of reality is reality itself.) Rather, it is a tool that you can use for introspection. Do what’s helpful to you.

Audience question: But sometimes I act really active, and sometimes I act really reflective. Is that possible?

It is absolutely possible. If it’s helpful for you to understand yourself as switching back and forth between active/reflective — for instance noticing that you present as more active when you’re coding in language A and reflective in language B — then that’s what helpful to you.

Programming culture favors active learners

What might be happening — my guess, in fact — is that you are on one side of the spectrum, but you’ve learned to function on the other side. Our culture usually favors one side of a spectrum over the other. In the case of mainstream coding culture, the favored side is active learning. Think about programming interviews, where you’re given coding problems and asked to solve them on the spot. That’s incredibly biased towards active learners.

You can pretend to be a style you’re not, but it takes more energy

This means that many reflective programmers — especially the smart, successful ones — have forced themselves to act as if they’re active learners. It’s kind of like how introverts can pretend to be extroverted at parties — and then they go home and completely crash, because they’re drained. And active learners can learn how to act reflective — for instance, when they’re in school and get in trouble for not following instructions, or checking their work, or otherwise making careless mistakes because they skip things in their excitement.

Either way, it takes a lot more energy to operate outside your “native file format,” so to speak. But sometimes there are good reasons to do it. I personally find it helpful to acknowledge that it does take more effort to act like what you’re not, because then it’s a conscious choice you know the cost of, and you don’t end up feeling guilty that something easy for other people — raising your hand and speaking on the spot, for instance — seems so much harder for you.

Sometimes deliberately working outside your style is a useful learning experience

As a learning exercise, you can deliberately try working in a style that’s not your normal style. Again, it’ll take more energy — we all have our preferred modes — but sometimes you’ll learn something new.

For instance, Stacey, the reflective learner I mentioned earlier, found it valuable to pair with people who were very, very active, because she wanted to stretch herself towards more active ways of being. She knew that it would be hard, and that she would not be at her best. And maybe what she learns from that experience is that being more active is difficult, but useful. Or maybe what she learns is that trying to act more active makes her so frustrated that she just doesn’t learn anything, and she had better stick with being reflective. But then she knows something new about herself, and she can choose what she wants to do in the future.

It’s like… I learned the hard way that I’m unhappy when I code in assembly. I can do it, but it makes me a very sad Mel. So now I program exclusively in higher-level languages. Nothing below C or C++, unless I have a really, really good reason to do it. Before, in college, I thought, “There’s something wrong with me. I can’t code in assembly.” So I forced myself, masochistically, to code primarily in assembly for an entire semester and the summer after that, because I thought I should be able to, because I’m an electrical engineer. And I was miserable! (laughter) Now I think “I can program in assembly, but I’m happier when I don’t, and there is nothing wrong with choosing to be happy.”

That’s the point of all these learning styles things, for me. Learning about who you are, what your ideal environment is, how you’re happiest working, so you can find and choose that happiness.

Spanning the spectrum: what does that feel like when you pair?

When I talk about learning styles, I often ask workshop participants to plot themselves across the active/reflective spectrum. Every Hacker School batch I’ve asked to do this has ended up with somebody at every single possible point on the spectrum. This means that at some point during your learning experiences, you’ll probably pair with someone more active than you, and you’ll probably pair with someone more reflective than you.

In fact, I would encourage that. It feels very different to pair with someone who is on one side of you versus the other. Try pairing with someone that is on either side of you to see what that feels like and what kind of dynamic that creates. What’s it like to be the more active one? The more reflective one? See whether you like it, and whether that might be a dynamic that you might look to have — or avoid — in your future programming life.

Pairing active with reflective learners can be a blessing or a curse. If you have an active person and a reflective person pairing, they can either balance each other out — the active person’s diving in and trying out code, while the reflective person keeps an eye out for longer-term, big-picture things — or they can clash horribly. Active people can seem reckless and careless to reflective people, and reflective people can seem slow and resistant to change through an active person’s eyes.

I fall into that trap too. When I paired with Stacey, and she said, “I need time, I need until tomorrow to think,” my instinctive active-learner reaction was “but, but… we could work on it, together, RIGHT NOW!” I had to catch myself and go “wait, she’s reflective… and if I can wait a day, she’ll have this beautiful thing that I can then be super-enthusiastic and active-learnery about with her, instead of trying to drag her along with my half-baked ideas now.” And that’s what we did, and it was great — it was the first Test Driven Learning workshop.

Audience question: I understand the descriptions, but I’m still struggling to identify myself. Is there a test for whether you’re an active or reflective person?

There isn’t a perfect test, but here’s one: take two minutes in silence, right now, to think about a learning experience you’ve had, that helps you form a hypothesis for where on the active/reflective spectrum you are.

(No, really. Do it. Set a timer. In the live workshop, I paused everything and had everyone sit and think for two minutes while I watched a clock.)

(Are you back now? Good.)

Now: this isn’t an absolute test, but the 2-minute wait tends to be a pretty decent litmus test for active/reflective learners. If you felt very, very uncomfortable with this — bored, even — you are probably an active learner. After the first couple of seconds, active learners generally start shifting around, thinking, “Ah, okay. When can we start again? Can I ask you a question?” (In fact, one active learner stood up 30 seconds into the “silent time” and quietly started whispering questions to me. I had to try very hard to keep from laughing.)

Reflective learners, on the other hand, started to smile these blissful smiles. They physically relax. They exhale. Afterwards, they go “Oh, thank you. Thank you! You have stopped for a moment. I can process.” And it’s the reflective learners at my workshops who are always stunned — “wait, other people feel this way?” Because, like I said, our programming culture favors active learners… so we have all these reflective learners pretending to be active, walking around exhausted all the time, thinking they’re the only one and that something is wrong with them.

Audience question: are reflective people better at planning?

That is a pretty common way for it to manifest, but “active” and “bad at planning” are not quite the same thing — although I’m both active and ADHD, so that’s how it sometimes shows up for me! (laughter) Reflective does not mean the same thing as organized. I have meet reflective people who are not organized, as well as active people who are very organized.

However, active and reflective people do look different when they plan and organize. Active people will prepare to improvise — they’ll fill their pockets with the tools they need to parachute in and be reactive — whereas reflective people will tend to plan in the sense of thinking everything through before they do it.

Blogging at the end of a day, for instance, tends to work better for active people. Reflective people, if they blog, will blog at the beginning of the day to think about how they’re going to set it up. So they think about it and then they do it, and then they don’t have to really reflect on it anymore, because they did that beforehand. They know what they did because they’ve set that up, and they’re done, and they walk out the door and they go home.

Audience question: “Do time constraints make you behave more like an active learner?”

Great question. Time constraints can really bring some clarity to the situation and make both kinds of folks feel more stressed, but reflective people will get especially stressed out. They are not at their best when they’re asked to slam up things on whiteboards and type out code right on the spot in front of the interviewer, and they can feel that. It’s painful.

Dealing with active/reflective styles during a job interview

Now, if you’re an active learner and that’s your strength, then awesome. Play to it when you go interview. If you know you are reflective and that’s not how you’re going to function well, think about what you can do. Reflective people often have lovely products, portfolios, and polished deliverables. Think about ways that you can use those strengths to your advantage. How can you steer the conversation so it goes toward the portfolio you prepared? Can you talk with your interviewer and say, “Hey, this is the kind of programmer I am. This is the sort of environment that I excel in. You’re not seeing my best work in a rapid fire algorithm generation task, but let me show you what I can really do.”

That sort of insight is actually attractive and valuable, because it’s rare to see that in folks you’re trying to hire. If you think about it, your manager’s job is to figure out how to make you the most effective programmer you can be. If you tell them how you can be most effective, then you’ve done a lot of the job for them. If you know some the stuff about yourself and the implications that that has for your optimal work environment, tell them. It’s rare and impressive, especially for more entry-level programmers, to have that type of insight.

Learning strategies for active and reflective learners

Let’s talk for a moment about things that active learners and reflective learners can do. If you’re an active learner and you’re forced to sit through a lecture, you’re probably going to get really bored. So recognize that and give yourself permission to take really weird notes or mess around on your computer or to otherwise do something while you’re listening.

Similarly, reflective folks. If you need more processing time, you need more processing time, and you should take it. Be okay with not asking questions right at the end of a lecture or talk. Maybe have a strategy of asking for the speaker’s contact information: “That was a great talk, and I think my brain needs a little time to process it, because there were so many good ideas! May I email you with notes and questions once I write them up?” Also, tell your teammates! You can ask your teammates to pause and say, “Can we stop and think about this, take a coffee break, and come back in 15 minutes?” You’ll make other people function better because you’re forcing some of them to take breaks they don’t realize they need.

If you want more, Rich Felder has a funny case study and more tips for active and reflective learners, and my earlier blog post on learning styles had programming-specific tips.

Ironically, Rich’s says that it’s the reflective learners who have an advantage, because he’s a professor writing from within the context of school — where we are expected to sit still and think! So I think we have an interesting dynamic here in the programming world, because there are so many talented programmers who are very active. They did not do well in school because it was such a reflective-biased environment… so what do they do? While their reflective classmates got A’s and became CS professors, some of these active people dropped out of school and created a work environment that swings in exactly the opposite direction, and voila, we have an active-biased non-school programming culture. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course. But it’s interesting to think about it that way.

Teaching strategies for active and reflective learners

As I mentioned earlier, we tend to teach the way that we ourselves prefer to learn. The corollary to this is that we often find it easier to teach people with similar styles, and we tend to to be… less good, shall we say — at teaching people with styles different than our own, unless we pay attention to adapting to them.

I myself am an active learner. Hacker Schooler Bert Muthalaly is also an active learner, and during the workshop I called on him, unprepared, to give some anecdotes about his Hacker School experience. Active learners (if they’re not shy) tend to do better at this than reflective learners — improvisational audience participation keeps them on their toes. Active learners tend to be a lot more comfortable and good at saying things on the spot, asking questions right away.

As a teacher, my probes of active learners are designed to get them started. Sumana Harihareswara (also a Hacker School alumna) knows I’m super-active, so she will nudge me — “hey Mel, how’s the Hacker School book project going?” and BOOM! That’s the best way to get me working on that book again.

As a teacher, I also need to make sure my reflective students are learning. I would never, ever put a reflective person like Stacey on the spot like that. Instead, my probes of reflective learners are designed to encourage them to ship and share what they already have. “Hey, that’s a wonderful blog post. Could you summarize that in the middle of my talk tonight?” I also build thinking times into what I do, and make space for my reflective students to reflect. For instance, the 2-minute “think silently about a learning experience” litmus test from earlier in this post was an attempt to make some thinking time for reflective learners in the live workshop.

I’ll also frequently pose questions in my talks, then prompt people to think about them silently for 1-2 minutes. This is helpful for reflective learners, and awkward for speakers because it means you’re standing in front of everyone twiddling your thumbs for 120 seconds. But your audience is thinking, and they can’t think unless you shut up!

Sometimes I’ll do that silent thinking prompt for the reflective learners, then ask everyone to turn to their neighbor and share answers — that one’s for the active learners. And then sometimes I’ll ask if any pairs want to volunteer their answers for the whole group. This is a teaching technique called think-pair-share, and it’s a technique a lot of teachers learn, because when we’ve done education research, we’ve found that combination is effective. There’s something for everyone.

Another way I tried to get both styles into my workshop was the way I asked people to indicate where they were in the spectrum — there was a period of 5-10 minutes where I was not talking, because people were filing up and putting a sticker with their name on the wall to show where they were on the spectrum. The active people got to do something: write on a sticker, gather happily around the wall, help others put their stuff up, debate whether someone ought to be here or there — and the reflective people plopped their stickers on the wall and sat and pondered. Micro-breaks are good.

Pairing with active and reflective learners

This also applies to one-on-one things like pair programming, when you may not formally be teaching someone, but are mentoring or otherwise working with them. Give reflective learners the material to process beforehand — let them read your code in advance. If you’re reviewing their code, write notes on their code first, and send them those notes before you sit down to discuss it. Give them a list of questions to consider before you meet. Build in breaks and breathing spaces into your work time. Let them stop, go off by themselves, and read a book about your project until they’re ready to come back. And reflective learners, educate your partner to recognize and honor that you need these things.

In a way, it’s similar to extroverts learning to work with introverts. Your introverted friends love you, extroverts! They just need to recharge so they can be near you! Well… your reflective colleagues love you, active people! You just change direction so fast sometimes that they lose track of where you’re going, and how they can accompany you!

And when you’re working with active learners — let them run around! Give them things to respond to. Spit out answers fast, think out loud — they’ll often prefer something immediate and half-baked to something slow and totally baked, because they may not like the totally-baked thing you finish up, whereas if it’s half-baked they can jump in and help you shape it. It’s like the open source mantra of “release early and often.” Don’t worry about going down dead ends; they want to wander through that maze with you!

Next up:

That was active/reflective. We’re going to go through the other learning styles a bit more swiftly. I’m taking more time to unpack this first spectrum so you get the idea of how to play with these ideas. The next post in this series will be about sensing/intuitive programmers.

This blog post series would not exist without the persuasion and gracious editing of Hacker Schooler (S’14) Maia McCormick, who convinced me to do better than “let’s just dump transcripts on the intarwebz!” Thanks, Maia — and everyone at Hacker School who exhorted me for the past year to record this talk! Further edits/questions/suggestions are very, very welcome; comment away!

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  1. 3 Responses to “Learning styles for programmers: active/reflective”

  2. I am a little of both at different times. When I code, I’m often an active learner and I force my pair to be active too :( I’m going to have to try to be more aware of the styles when I pair and not force my style onto the person. Thank you for writing this and making me aware of my mistakes :)

    By Nhu on Aug 30, 2014

  3. I love this article! It’s helped me view how I think and act a lot :) I feel like I have traits of active and reflective strongly, but at different times and contexts. I will need to reflect (heh!) on this more to try to understand myself better. Thank you for writing this!

    By Nikki B on Sep 13, 2014

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