Rubber Ducking

There’s a thing that many computer programmers do: they talk to rubber ducks. No, this is not a sign of impending mental collapse. It’s a real technique to understand what might be going wrong with the program. They will talk to a rubber duck, or some other inanimate object, and explain what the program does, line by line. Frequently, this will lead to an “Ah ha!” moment where they will suddenly understand what is wrong and how to fix it.

What is happening is this: By explaining what is happening at a detailed level, you force yourself to look at the problem in a different way. Many programmers will call over someone to help, explain what’s going wrong, realize what to do, thank their coworker (who hasn’t done anything), and then fix the problem. The rubber duck makes it so they don’t have to bother a coworker.

This can be done by students just as well. It’s one thing to pay attention in class, take notes, etc. and something completely different to explain the thing to someone else. The act of explaining something in detail will force better understanding, or at least show places where the person’s understanding is lacking.

So do it. Take a rubber ducky, or your stuffed Pooh bear, and explain things to it. Go into detail. Be thorough. If there’s something you realize that you don’t know, write down questions to ask in the next class. It can actually help.