Home > Articles > Programming

The Birth of Fluent Learning: the More Things Change…

Rebecca M. Riordan describes her journey from artsy art history major to techie tutorial designer and author of a book series that teaches programming concepts using cognitive science and instructional design.

Read Fluent Entity Framework and more than 24,000 other books and videos on Safari Books Online. Start a free trial today.

Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

Women in Technology

Visit our Women in Technology Resource Center.

Rebecca Riordan is the author of the "Fluent" series, which includes Fluent Entity Framework, Fluent Visual Basic and Fluent C#.

Thirty years ago, I was an undergraduate studying the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University, and computers were big scary things that lived in the basement of the Engineering building, tended by a coterie of awkward young men with slide rules and pocket protectors. They were probably still being built with vacuum tubes. (The computers, not the young men.) But I didn’t know anything about that stuff then. I was one of the cool artsy kids, and back then cool artsy kids didn’t speak to people with slide rules and pocket protectors.

It was the world before the Internet. If you wanted to know something, you found a book or a journal and looked it up. If you were researching a subject, you started with the readers’ guides to periodical literature. For those of you who aren’t familiar with readers’ guides, they were indices of all the articles published in magazines and journals in a specific field during a specific period of time. (Think of them as a kind of prehistoric Google.) In the field of art history, there were four or five different readers’ guides, and each guide consisted of one volume for each year, going back over 100 years.

Yep, that’s four or five hundred volumes. An entire room full of books. And yep, you had to check each one individually. Every one of the many, many papers I wrote at university started with a couple of days sitting on the floor of the special collections room surrounded by readers’ guides. I’d take down a few volumes, check each one for a dozen different related subjects, and then put them back. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes I’d find something relevant; most of the time I didn’t, but I always had to check them all.Every. Single. Volume. One at a time.

I remember the moment so clearly. It was the beginning of my senior year, and I was doing the preliminary research on what would become my senior thesis. I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by readers’ guides, and I thought to myself, “There has just GOT to be a better way.”

I complained  aboutthe tedium of preliminary research to my brother. Luckily for me, my brother had a shiny new degree in Computer Science from Cal Poly. (He also had a slide rule and a pocket protector, but we can’t pick our family.) That was the first time I ever heard the word “database”. We talked about a world in which all those separate sources of information could be combined, and you’d only have to ask your question once.

It sounded great. It sounded wonderful. It also sounded like science fiction. But three months after I graduated, IBM released the first PC and the world changed forever.

Flash forward to 2010. The reality of making a living in the real world had forced me out of art history and into this new field we called “information technology,” partly because it was interesting to me, but mostly because that’s where the jobs were. (When was the last time you saw a want ad for an art historian?) In the last thirty years, I’d climbed the corporate ladder of a major software company, built and sold two consultancies, and made a small name for myself writing computer tutorials.

Now I was working on a project that required me to learn JavaScript. I’m not a stupid woman, and I know my way around a computer. Like anyone who has been working in this industry long enough, I’ve learned a dozen programming languages and platforms in the course of my career. But I was really struggling with how scoping works in JavaScript. (I’m still not sure I really understand Javascript closures.)

I remember the moment so clearly. I was sitting in my office—on a chair this time—with three JavaScript books open on my desk and a dozen Web pages open in my browser, and I thought to myself, “There has just GOT to be a better way.”

Not having a sibling with a convenient degree in teaching, I went to the library. (That hasn’t changed either: If I want to know something, and I’m not sure exactly where to look, I still try to find a book or journal and look it up.) I found a wonderful book by Donna E. Walker Tileston, What Every Teacher Should Know about Effective Teaching Strategies (Corwin, 2003), and the Fluent Learning series was born.

I spent the next few months researching cognitive science and instructional design. It turns out that the people who teach professionally know quite a lot about the best way to do it. It also turns out that those of us who write computer tutorials have been doing almost everything wrong. In our industry you need to be learning all the time just to stay even. Studying new languages, technologies and methodologies is just a fact of life. But we were making all that learning a lot harder than it needs to be. I was determined to find a way to fix that.

It isn’t really our fault. I’m quite sure that nobody ever set out to write a book that made a subject hard to understand, any more than anybody ever set out to design software that was hard to use. But both of these things happen all the time, because nobody gets to know everything. (More’s the pity.) Egregiously difficult interfaces get built because programmers are too busy coding to learn UX or graphic design. Egregiously difficult tutorials get written because authors are too busy learning JavaScript or relational database design or…whatever…to learn instructional design. (Assuming they even know such a thing exists. I didn’t, until I found that book.)

And that was one of the big issues that worried me when I was designing the series: We can’t expect authors to take the time to study instructional design, any more than we can expect programmers to take the time to study art or the patterns of human interaction. This is the 21st century. Everybody I know already has more work than one person can reasonably do in a lifetime. But in a lovely, lucky bit of symmetry, I found the answer in my subject.

It’s a fundamental principle of both cognitive science and instructional design that people learn by making mental models, and that they make those models primarily by analogy. We compare and contrast the “new stuff” with “old stuff” that we already know in order to understand and remember it.

Well, in this industry, we know about patterns. Whether it’s a design pattern, an algorithm, or just the syntax of some programming statement, we work with patterns on a daily basis. And that’s what Fluent Learning is. It’s a pattern, or more properly a set of patterns, for presenting information in a way that makes it as easy as possible for people to learn. The patterns are based on my research but (at least in theory) you don’t need to understand the principles in order to use the patterns.

From simple things like how to write the chapter task list, to more complicated ones like how to build exercises based on Bloom’s hierarchy of task complexity, Fluent Learning is ultimately just a set of patterns. The patterning starts with the structure of the book as a whole. Fluent Learning books begin with an overview chapter that links the subject of the book to something the reader is likely to already know (a cognitive principle called “attaching”) and end with a final summary chapter that walks the reader through the entire subject (analogous to something teachers call a “knowledge organizer”).

Each chapter in between uses this basic pattern in miniature, and adds some patterns for presenting detail: priming (the old “tell them what you’re going to tell them” principle), exploring (exercises over exposition), and elaborating (returning to a subject several times to provide more detail, rather than trying to present everything there is to know about it all at once). All of these are fundamental to the learning process.

In my research, I learned some ways of categorizing the information to be taught, and the techniques teachers have developed for teaching each type. Those are folded into the Fluent patterns, too, as is Bloom’s hierarchy, so that exercises stay interesting. (And so that they’re real exercises, not just sample code presented one step at a time.) There are more, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Of course in birthing the series, there were lots of other things that had to happen. There were templates to build and graphics to design. (The two years I spent studying studio art before I moved to art history left me a failed artist, but they sure come in handy now.) But when all is said and done, Fluent Learning is just a set of patterns that anybody should be able to learn and apply. No degree in cognitive science or teaching credentials required.

But notice that I said “should be able to learn and apply.” I’ve just finished up my fourth title in the series. I’ve tweaked the graphics and adjusted the process with each title, and I think each title is a little better for it. It’s only now that I feel reasonably confident that I can make these patterns accessible to the experts who write computer tutorials.

But I still have a lot to work to do systemizing and documenting the patterns and structures before they’re really accessible. As it stands, the book templates still require too much understanding of the underlying principles.

For more articles and resources, visit our Women in Technology page.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020