The Benefits of Immersive Learning: From the Eyes of a Coding Bootcamp Student

The Benefits of Immersive Learning: From the Eyes of a Coding Bootcamp Student

Mary Jo Madda

I went to a selective liberal arts college and studied economics. Over the course of four years, I spent about 1,000 hours to get an economics degree. Four years after graduating, doing work I found unfulfilling, I went to a coding bootcamp where I spent 1,000 hours learning to code in around 14 weeks.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wow, 1,000 hours in 4 years versus 1,000 hours in 14 weeks—that’s a big difference.” You also might be wondering about the utility of each of these programs. Am I more of an expert in economics—or coding?

Becoming an expert in something isn’t easy. It takes work—a lot of work, in fact. Writer Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours. But just doing anything for 10,000 hours isn’t enough. It has to be rigorous, self-reinforcing learning that continually challenges you. While most coding bootcamps fall quite short of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, these programs will get you 1,000 hours of some of the most rigorous, self-reinforcing learning that you could ever imagine in an incredibly short period of time.

How are bootcamp students able to learn so much, so quickly, you may ask? It’s simple—for 14 weeks, you don’t do anything else. You immerse yourself in coding as deeply as possible.

How Immersion Supports the Learning Process

Immersion is nothing new. We’ve known for years that it’s an incredibly effective way to learn. Consider, for example, learning a foreign language in that language’s country of origin. Learning coding at a bootcamp is similar to studying abroad when you want to learn a language; it’s immersive, it’s exciting, and there are tons of people surrounding you and supporting your learning every hour of every day.

Sure, you could study a language in a classroom. Six years of Spanish at school, and you might think you’re fluent until you try talking to a native instead of your teacher. But why wait six years in the first place? Why not start having those conversations immediately—even if you have a limited vocabulary or a terrible accent?

That’s what learning at a bootcamp is like. Your first week in, you see those graduating students present their final projects, and listen while they talk about ideas and processes you don’t even begin to understand. And then, BOOM—in a matter of weeks, you’re standing where they are. In some ways, you’re not even qualified to start the curriculum, and you have no idea what computer science is. But that doesn’t matter. It’s exhilarating, with the constant sensation that you barely grasp the material at hand as deeply as you should, that you couldn’t ever know all the concepts there are to know.

That is the power of immersive learning. It can get you programming and using code in ways that you didn’t believe you’d ever be able to—in a matter of weeks.

Hold Up, Wait a Minute: Where Immersive Learning Can Fall Short

Immersive learning is a great tool, but it’s not everything. Remember, even after 1,000 hours, you’re only 10% of the way to true expertise, according to Malcolm Gladwell. So, what’s the answer? Do another nine bootcamps? Absolutely not.

Immersive learning is unsustainable. You simply can’t do bootcamp style learning for more than around 14 weeks. It’s all-consuming, and you burn out.

I wish that universities would incorporate more immersive learning components into four-year degree programs, but four years of immersive learning would be hell. There comes a point when a learner needs to step back and take ownership of their own learning—to reflect on what’s interesting to them and continue on their own.

Fortunately, the best bootcamps provide their students with the tools to do just that—to continue learning long after they’ve graduated.

The Other 9,000 Hours: Intrinsic Motivation + Growth Mindset

Realistically, the only way someone is going to do anything for 10,000 hours is if they want to. In other words, to reach true expertise while immersed in the learning process, you need intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset.

Let’s start with intrinsic motivation, and why it’s the key to being a successful bootcamp student.

When it comes to learning a language in the classroom, you learn what something is before you experience firsthand why it is relevant. But if you live abroad, you constantly encounter situations where you are unable to express yourself—and you push yourself to learn. You might not realize that the reason you can’t express yourself is because you don’t know what the “passive periphrastic” is, but when someone explains it to you, a lightbulb goes off. You knew it was relevant before you knew what it was.

Similarly, at the end of a bootcamp, you’re still in the dark about certain concepts; you certainly don’t know everything there is to know about data structures, algorithms, software architecture. But, when someone says “some generic programming term”, a lightbulb goes off and you want to understand because you’ve a burning desire to know. That is intrinsic motivation.

Even intrinsic motivation, however, can burn out quickly if not bolstered with what learning researcher Carol Dweck call a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset is the belief that “intelligence can be developed.” It’s not about how smart you are; it’s about how hard you work.

Let’s revisit what it’s like to watch graduates present their final projects on one’s first day of bootcamp. If someone tells you that you will capable of doing everything the graduates are presenting in their final project, you might believe them intellectually. But the impact of believing it intellectually pales in comparison to experiencing it firsthand. Fourteen weeks later, when you present your final project, you know what hard work can accomplish—you’ve experience utter confusion more times that you can count, but you persevered and accomplished something hard.

Someone doesn’t have to tell you about the power of a growth mindset—you’ve experienced it. And when you immerse yourself in the learning with that mentality, your process continues long after you’ve graduated from bootcamp. This, my friends, is the great secret of why bootcamps work. It’s immersive learning that is rigorous, self-reinforcing and social, cramming a tremendous amount of material into a short period of time.

So, if you’re thinking about doing a bootcamp, go for it. It’s not easy, and you won’t become an expert in just 14 weeks—but it’s one hell of a start.  

Rex Salisbury (@rexsalisbury) is a full-stack developer and bootcamp graduate. He's a former ibanker, and is passionate about building and improving products that address meaningful problems for consumers' financial lives.

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