3 Things I Wish I Had When Learning RSep 23, 2022
I remember learning to code in R. I wasn't sure where to start, and I had a lot of questions. I'd seen the cool things R could do, but I needed support. I kept running into errors and finding complex, technical articles that didn't really answer my question.
While I do think R is user-friendly for beginning coders, there are three things I wish I had when I was learning it.
First, I wish I had a community: a safe place to ask questions, celebrate what I learn, and share what I create.
Other than using an online search to find responses that solved similar problems to mine, I’m kind of intimidated by the forums where people ask questions - I’m not sure how to use them properly and sometimes more experienced people respond poorly to questions not asked or formatted in the right way.
I’m a big believer that there are no silly questions, so it’s really important to me to have a forum for asking questions where everyone buys into that and supports each other with empathy and kindness. I’ve had trouble finding such a forum, so when I run into an error in my code, I resort to online search (which I must admit has been quite successful most of the time).
In addition to being a safe place to ask questions, community helps with perspective; it can help you see the progress you’ve made. It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the challenge right in front of you, but a supportive community can help you take a step back and recognize how far you’ve come. Then they can help you brainstorm ways to address the current challenge.
Coding can be a very lonely and isolating activity, so it’s important to have folks you can reach out to and collaborate with. It’s also important to have a supportive place to share your work and celebrate your successes.
Second, I wish I had clear tutorials and instructions for using the packages in R.
I first learned base R in college following my professor’s book about statistical analysis, which means I didn’t learn anything about the packages that advance R’s capabilities (granted at the time there weren’t as many packages available because this was over ten years ago…anyway…). The next time I used R was on the job, and while I was in a very supportive environment and we used some packages, I learned mostly by reading existing code and searching for help online.
Now, there are more resources available for learning R. But many of them aren’t created by people trained in education and the psychology of learning. R users are very generous with sharing their code and methods, but it’s useful to have a clear structure to guide beginners through the process. It can be tricky as a new R user (or even an experienced R user) to follow code from another person’s thought process.
My learning journey with R has been very piecemeal - a little here, a little there - as I needed it. A framework with a step-by-step introduction to R and how to do data analysis and visualization in R would have been super helpful!
Third, I wish I had the RStudio development environment.
When I first learned R, I used the software that comes with the initial installation. If I remember correctly, it was basically just a big text box in a gray window with a flashing cursor where you could start typing.
Luckily, when I used R for the first time in a job, the company used RStudio! RStudio is a free software that you can use to write and run R code. It’s great because there are different areas or section of the software: one for writing code in a file you can save, another for running code directly, a third for seeing the variables and data tables in your current session, and a fourth for the help documentation and viewing plots as you create them.
RStudio is a great software tool for writing code in R, and I think it makes R more accessible for beginners.
These three things I wish I had when learning R motivated me to create Learn R With Me, a community for new R users to learn to code and find support. If you’re reading this in late September 2022, I’m launching my membership community with a free introduction to R mini-course - check it out!
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