Asking for help

Why ask for help?

Programming, like any other advanced skill, is very difficult to learn properly on your own. There are a number of reasons why even the brightest and most independent student should be asking for help:

  • It may take you many hours to solve a problem which could be solved by somebody else in minutes. This saves your energy for other problems.
  • Asking an expert means that you will be taught the right way of solving a problem, where you might arrive at an inelegant solution by yourself.
  • Asking connects you with other people, which means you build up a network of people you know who have certain expertise. It also might make you feel better to talk to another person about what you're struggling with.

Who should you ask?

Before you turn to your tutor, try asking a friend or somebody sitting near you in the lab. They are working on the same exercises as you and may have already seen the same problem. Working with groups of colleagues is one of the best ways to make progress, because you can contribute a variety of ideas to tackling a particular problem. As long as, at the end, solve the problem by yourself, you will never be penalised for asking fellow students for their help.

If your friends can't help you, try Emailing your tutor. Your tutor is an expert programmer who is being paid to help you. Even if they are not in the lab at the time, you an always send them an Email.

A further option is to post on a Python forum or Google Groups. There are many helpful people out there who will give you assistance with your code, if you ask nicely. Remember to pay attention to the tips on asking for help.

Tips on asking for help.

  • Be polite. You're asking for somebody to give their time to help you, after all.
  • Make sure you have had a good attempt at solving the problem first. Everybody makes obvious errors sometimes, but if you haven't already tried to solve your problem, why should somebody else try?
  • Make sure you can describe clearly, with code examples, what is wrong with your program and what you have already tried. If you are asking for help by Email or in a forum, copy and paste code fragments and any errors.
  • If they manage to help out, say thank you. Maybe that will mean they'll help next time too.

Tips on being asked for help

Helping others with their programming can be almost as valuable as a learning experience as getting help yourself. To explain a concept to somebody else, you must have a deep understanding of that concept yourself, as well as empathy for the difficulties somebody might face in getting to grips with it. Mastering this skill will also make you a good deal more employable.

Here are some tips on answering the questions of your fellow students.

  • Be polite, even if you don't know the answer. Being unpleasant to somebody isn't going to help them, and it won't make you very popular either.
  • Try not to say "this is easy". It might be easy for you, but if they needed to ask the question, it probably isn't easy for them.
  • Think carefully about your answer before speaking. A hasty or garbled response might just make them confused.
  • Make sure you're answering the right question. Which parts of the problem do they already understand? Which parts are still missing?
  • Keep checking that what you're saying is helping them. If a long rambling explanation loses them after the first sentence, it will waste both of your time.
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