A deeply exciting day for this blogger today, as I’m excited to put up my first guest post. After writing my earlier piece on why (psychology) students should learn to code I was interested in getting a current student’s perspective on the topic, and the delightful Hayley Thair was kind enough to write me a piece about her experience. I first met Hayley while she was working at the Science Museum on this project and she subsequently moved to Bangor to pursue a MSc in Clinical Neuropsychology. I hope this will help to further convince any other students who might be reading that it really is worthwhile putting a bit of time into learning a bit of coding. Here then is Hayley’s experiences of learning to program and what she feels she’s gained from it:
Something else to do with your PC…
Programming – yet another excuse I now have to spend even more time at my computer. Something that initially sounded rather scary, in a “I have no idea what I’m doing” kind of way, has become something incredibly useful that I am now confident in.I am currently completing my Masters in Clinical Neuropsychology and opted for a module called “practical programming.” Knowing that I have a huge research thesis to run and write up I figured knowing something about how to program would be invaluable! Unfortunately my thesis requires the use of Matlab, and the module taught me Visual Basic. However, I soon realised the fundamentals are the same and even if I couldn’t write Matlab code alone, I could certainly understand what was going on with the assistance of my supervisor.
I saw recently on the news that even primary school children are learning to code… this makes me hesitant to admit it was tricky to start with! However, once I learnt the basics I could design anything I wanted. Being short on ideas and running out of time to complete my mini-project I only managed to come up with a times-table game. It’s actually pretty cool, in a nerdy sort of way! I had two numbers being randomly generated to create the questions; a timer to make it more interesting; a scoring system so you can improve; and a fat robin as the loveable character to save!
Although what I made was simple, I felt a great sense of accomplishment in that I made and coded something from scratch without any help. This was a much greater feeling than anything I had at school in IT lessons. These, as far as I recall, were essentially “today let’s open Word.” I honestly can’t recall where I learnt my basic PC knowledge from, but it certainly wasn’t IT lessons at school. I think these lessons would be more engaging and fun if you were making something, like with programming. Being able to create something that’s yours and personalised would be far more entertaining than just being shown how to use something.
Either way, I’m glad I took the module as so many research assistant jobs ask that you be able to program. I think this puts me ahead of other applicants just because I’ll be able to design experiments and run them independently without needing someone else to come in and build my behavioural task for me.
What surprised me about programming, was that even though at first it was tricky, it suddenly became easy once you got the basics. Even if a piece of code doesn’t run (any programmer will be all too familiar with error messages!) you can continue to try to fix it and think of another way to word it. Essentially it’s all logic. You think what you want a button to do, and about how to break that down into simple step-by-step instructions, and weyhey it works! (Sometimes…) I like to think all those years of playing logic based games like Myst have finally proved useful! For people who enjoy learning something new, and constructing things it’s definitely worth a go. I didn’t find a textbook useful at all, but rather preferred viewing online YouTube tutorials for ideas once you have the basics. Visual Basic is free to download online and it easy to have a play around with as everything is clearly labelled, so I would suggest VB is a good starting point.
If you need another incentive, I’ve learnt to code to a confident level in just 10 lessons. It doesn’t take long to pick it up, and it’s now an invaluable skill that I can mention at interviews that (luckily for me) not everyone has!
Dearest readers, I have a request. In order to carry on delivering the finest tidbits of technical/psychological knowledge to your jaded eyeballs, I need you to complete a little survey. It’s very quick and not at all taxing, I promise. The answers to the questions will be used by me to plan future posts on this blog, and also to inform some other educational materials I’m working on.
I’m particularly interested in hearing from psychology/neuroscience undergraduates/Masters/PhD students, however if you’re a post-doctoral researcher or even a faculty member, please feel free to complete it too. If you feel like sending it on to any of your friends then that would be terrific too. Please answer as many questions as you feel apply to you, and then click the ‘end’ button at the bottom of the page to save/send the results.
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Why should you, as a psychology student, or indeed any other kind of student, need to learn computer programming? My position on this is that the basics of computer programming should be taught to everyone, preferably in schools, at a young age. I think the benefits of this could be enormous – programming (just like learning any other language) expands the mind, and teaches you to think in new ways. In particular programming languages force the user to think algorithmically, and by their very nature instantiate the basics of formal logic. Unfortunately, a recent report by the Royal Society (Guardian write-up here) has highlighted the deficiencies in the UK’s teaching of IT in schools; despite the best computer:student ratio in primary schools in Europe, there is a massive lack of well-qualified and competent teachers. This is somewhat understandable; a competent programmer can easily make much more money actually being a programmer than teaching kids. It’s difficult to know how to effectively address this issue, but it would definitely be a shame if the UK starts to fall behind in its computer industry because of a lack of quality teaching staff.
So, assuming you didn’t learn to program at school, and you’re now a university student, why should you learn now? Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time learning the material you need to know for whatever course you’re doing, than learning some kind of esoteric skill that you might not ever need? The answer, is, emphatically, no. Programming is about as essential a skill as it’s possible to conceive of. As the world moves towards a knowledge and tech-based economy a lot of traditional skills are becoming more and more automated. Vast industries have been created in the last 20 years, focussed around building the systems which make this transition possible – and that means coding. Read the rest of this entry
I’ve written before about how to effectively search for information on the internet, however I just found a fantastic infographic from a site called Hack College. There’s some other useful-looking stuff on the site too – it’s tips/resource site for (American) college students. Anyway, the infographic is reproduced below (click for full-size version) and if you don’t already know everything in it, then consider yourself duly chastised, you young scamp.
Another quickie link-out type post (yes, alright, I’ll sit down and write a proper post sometime soon – it’s been a busy few weeks, OK?), this time to a… let’s say, a spirited discussion over on DrugMonkey’s blog on my very favourite topic – reference management. Well, it’s actually about writing and citing at the same time, but there’s loads of good work-flow related tips related to referencing and reference-management software.
Once again, for those of you at the back – if you’re a student and you’re not using something like Mendeley, then you are a) making your life much harder than it needs to be, and b) a massive idiot.
A very small update just to point interested readers to a few things I’ve found recently.
Firstly, you may recall me blogging about e-textbooks for students previously, here and here. Wired.com have just published a couple of articles relevant to this topic. Firstly, they have an opinion piece here which unfortunately comes to the conclusion that publishers are failing to drive along the adoption of e-textbooks at the moment. Interestingly it mentions that many students are already pirating textbooks (downloading them from torrent sites, etc.). Yet another example of how traditional media companies are always behind the curve when it comes to new technology, which forces users to seek illegal routes for what they want to do. The other piece (here) is a run-down of the major pieces of e-reader (e.g. the Amazon Kindle) and tablet (e.g. Apple’s iPad) hardware available at the moment – a nice piece as it compares both classes of device side-by-side.
The other tender morsel which I shall try and tempt your jaded mouse-finger with today is a site called Cognopedia, which is essentially a wiki-like site, but entirely focussed on the brain. Seems to have a lot of good information, and a lot of good embedded videos and multimedia on various topics. Worth checking out. Credit for bringing this to my attention goes to the never-less-than-excellent Mo Costandi (follow him on Twitter: @mocost) and also the relentlessly sublime BPS research digest (here). If you’re a psychology student or a psychologist and you don’t already subscribe to the BPS research digest blog, then you are definitely, definitely missing out.
I decided to put together a computer skills checklist. A lot of the things on this list are not specific to psychology and should be part of the training of every student. I would advise students to work through the list and note down any entries that you’re not comfortable with – finding out how to do these things and ticking off every item on the list will definitely advance your knowledge and help you out in future. Some of the things on the list have already been covered on this blog, and some I’m planning to cover in the future. Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything!
Green text denotes a basic/essential skill, orange means intermediate, red means it’s an advanced skill. Most students should be able to tick off all the green ones straight away – if you can’t you’ve got some work to do! Read the rest of this entry