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Learn-to-code bootcamps: Social-emotional considerations

October 11, 2022

On day one, learn-to-code participants arrive at class in a swirl of emotions—excited about the opportunity for a new career in tech, nervous about their ability to succeed, and uncertain what the days will look like. Studying a syllabus doesn’t prepare students for the emotional roller coaster of coding bootcamps. In this interview, Pluralsight Senior Instructor Dana Wyatt describes the social-emotional aspects of Opportunity Academies and how to help students thrive.

What’s the emotional journey like in a coding bootcamp?

Dana Wyatt (DW): As I mentioned in a previous interview, learn-to-code programs are inherently stressful. Students arrive with energy and enthusiasm, but that often morphs into fatigue as the bootcamp progresses. Some may become overwhelmed and emotional. Self-doubt can creep in. Imposter syndrome is real. Life can get in the way, particularly for participants with caregiving responsibilities and employment outside the bootcamp. All these factors affect learning. If you feel tired or overwhelmed, it’s harder to focus on the subject matter, absorb new concepts, and do your best problem-solving.

How can you tell if a coding bootcamp student is overwhelmed? Do they speak up?

DW: Sometimes they speak up, but I also watch for other indicators, such as inattention to detail. When overwhelmed, someone may become confused when doing an easy task they’ve done successfully in the past. If I know they can do something and suddenly they’re struggling with it, that’s a signal I pay attention to.

Similarly, I watch for:

  • A group laughing and talking in a breakout room instead of doing an assigned lab
  • Multiple people becoming consistently late, leaving early, or keeping their camera off
  • Whining (yes, adults do it, too)
  • Meltdowns, such as tears, showing anger, or lashing out at the instructor

A coding bootcamp typically involves a firehose level of learning in a compressed time period, which can become stressful for participants. Whether it’s a group cry or cameras suddenly off, there are telltale signs that students have reached a breaking point and need a way to release the emotions and re-center.

What kinds of cognitive errors do participants make when they’re tired?

DW: With exhaustion comes poor decision making and difficulty spotting mistakes. Imagine a student is looking at the wrong example in a book—an example that has nothing to do with the lab, yet they’re attempting to use it for the lab. They don’t notice the error and become frustrated.

Or suppose you have a participant who meticulously follows written instructions and then suddenly doesn’t. They try to get something done without reading the directions, when that’s not their normal way of operating.

When tired, people sometimes run on autopilot, not really thinking about what they’re doing. As an instructor, I need to acknowledge their exhaustion and pull up a little bit on the accelerator. I know they can do better if they have time to rest and regroup.

You mentioned that self-doubt or imposter syndrome can creep in. What does that look like?

DW: As the assignments and projects become more complex, some participants become internally panicked and begin to doubt their abilities. Even if they’ve previously demonstrated they know how to do something, they might come to the instructor to confirm the smallest of steps—to get affirmation they’re doing something correctly. In these situations, I might say, “You know how to do this, because you just did it yesterday in project x.” But that assurance doesn’t quell their anxiety.

Instead of just going for it and seeing what happens, they become afraid to try. If, for example, participants have already learned how to debug, taking a stab at a solution should be their default response. Self-doubt or imposter syndrome—and the accompanying fear—can short-circuit development of that default response. They feel that nothing they’re doing is right.

This self-doubt also affects knowledge acquisition. They may miss obvious connections between two topics, for example. Or, if something is easy, they may assume they’ve missed a step and need to add something. They end up making things more difficult than they are, which can fuel anxiety and frustration.

What other social/emotional factors come up in a coding bootcamp?

DW: Adult learners have had mixed experiences with formal schooling. Some gained great study and research habits. Others didn’t connect with academics, resulting in a range of emotions and outcomes. Insecurity and negative self-talk follow some participants into the learn-to-code program.

Students may be developing study skills for the very first time as they progress through the bootcamp and need guidance on how to learn. For example, they may need instruction on how to:

  • Formulate a question, then look up tutorials and video content to help answer the question

  • Refine internet searches to zero in on what the actual problem is

  • Tell which information is reliable (the internet is full of crap, including wrong and out-of-date answers)

  • Prevent getting sidetracked and distracted while searching for accurate information

It’s important to set realistic expectations about the learning process. Many people need multiple exposures to a topic before they truly understand and retain it. If they become disillusioned because they don’t grasp a concept after one read, they may throw in the towel prematurely and conclude they’re not cut out for a tech job. They need to build their tolerance for frustration, believe that mistakes are part of the learning process, and that “failing” at a task doesn’t mean failure as a human.

I love the quote from Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

What strategies do you use to help students navigate mental blocks and meltdowns?

Prevention is the best strategy, and here’s a rule of thumb:

  • Community provides a buffer against stress. 

  • Isolation fuels stress.

To avert stress in a coding bootcamp, program designers need to foster a strong sense of community, not just impart technical knowledge. I like to use daily standups to help students get to know each other and realize that everyone’s in the same boat. We start with an icebreaker. For example: “Would you rather backpack in Europe or go on a cruise?” As participants answer, they learn about each other, which builds camaraderie.

Next, we ask two very important questions: “What was one success from yesterday?” and “What is something you’re still struggling with today?” Students have to speak about one success (no matter how tiny) and then describe any struggles they’re having. As they do this, they hear from others with similar struggles. They realize they’re not alone.

This camaraderie continues to grow as they work together in small groups or breakout rooms.  Conversations easily flow back and forth. They strategize, problem solve, offer technical help, discuss last weekend, and talk about dinner. They become friends, support each other, provide encouragement, and celebrate successes together.

Even with a strong community, however, mental blocks and meltdowns can still occur. If students are showing signs of stress, a good instructor will spot this and adjust accordingly. That could involve reviewing a topic that participants already know well and demonstrating how it’s similar to the new material they’re struggling with. An unexpected break or long lunch can help participants recharge.

Because social-emotional factors affect learning and retention, it’s imperative to plan proactively for managing the stress of a steep learning curve.

What sparked your interest in the social-emotional aspects of learning?

DW: When I was in college, Dr. Denis Hyams, one of the best professors we had at Stephen F. Austin State University, seemed easily distracted. In the middle of class, someone would ask a random question and the next thing we knew, he was telling us about taking his kids camping or some other tale unrelated to our syllabus.

Before heading off to pursue my PhD, he and I had a long conversation, and we talked about teaching. He told me he knew we were trying to distract him and that he sometimes played along. He explained, “When the topics were hard and I could see the class was struggling to manage information overload, I would stop teaching and start talking about random things. After a while, I could feel the ‘pressure’ in the room dissipate, and I would resume teaching the ‘hard stuff.’”

Somehow, those momentary breaks gave our brains time to catch up and process the earlier learning. Dr. Hyam’s approach helped us move beyond the overwhelmed feeling so that we could build understanding, confidence, and mastery.

What advice do you have for employers who haven’t explicitly planned for social-emotional considerations in previous learning programs?

If this is a non-tech to tech program, be patient with your participants and talk openly about the social-emotional journey. When they graduate and you place them in tech roles, continue to support them by providing compassionate mentors who understand their tech journey is just starting. They’ll move a little slower than four-year college STEM graduates at the beginning. But they’ll catch up. And they’ll have a strong loyalty toward your organization because you helped them make a life-changing career transition. You create a true win-win with this type of learning program.

Do you want to increase diversity in your software development teams?