Expert Insights

How Copy & Paste is Hurting Your Career

Every day people visit our community & copy/paste answers without engaging with the information - that's passive learning.

December 14, 2021

Stop reading if you've never done this: used a search engine to find the answer to a problem you were having at work - then copy & pasted the answer without really understanding how it worked. 

Still here? Thought so. 

Every day, thousands of people visit our community to copy & paste answers without ever truly engaging with the information - they're learning passively. Now, we're very proud of the quality of information exchanged in our community every day, but there's an issue: the copy/pasters aren't learning anything! This means they aren't advancing their career. In the same way that cramming for a test the night before isn't an effective way to learn - copying and pasting answers from the internet doesn't often lead to retaining information. 

Before we go any further - let's get one thing straight. Copy & pasting quick answers will always have a place in the modern technology professional's workflow. Sometimes you're on a time crunch; other times, you're working with a unique language or software that you'll most likely never use again. Copy & pasting is perfectly normal and effective - unless you're trying to retain the information.

On our podcast 'Conversations with Tech Experts,' community member Bruce Gust affirmed this: "You haven't learned anything when you just find a solution" he said, "context, education, and training are what you need." 

Illusions of Competence

Memory researcher Jennifer McCabe executed an experiment that perfectly showcases the pitfalls of 'passive learning.' In the experiment, she split students into two groups & had them read the same one-page essay. Group 1 had to recall & write down as much information as they could immediately after they finished. Group 2 got to study the essay right after they finished to try and remember as much as possible. 

Seven days later, the groups were tested on how well they remembered the passage. Group 1 exceedingly outperformed Group 2. The most interesting part was that Group 2 was more confident that they would perform better than Group 1. 

UCLA Psychology Researcher Robert Bjork refers to this as an "illusion of competence." The students from Group 2 felt highly secure in their knowledge at the moment after studying - the long-term strength wasn't there. 

Solutions to Copy/Paste Syndrome

With those experiments in mind, here are three solutions to help you retain more of the information you find on the internet.

1. Re-type Code

For programmers - copy/pasting code is sometimes an every-hour occurrence. If you find yourself stuck in a copy/paste cycle and feel like you're not retaining or learning anymore - try this: Apply the methods that worked in the experiment above. Re-type instead of copy/pasting. Once you've found a solution that you think will work for you - manually re-type the code. What you lose in efficiency you'll make up for in a deeper understanding (and also reduce copying and pasting someone else’s errors!). 

2. Store solutions & snippets in a Knowledge Base

Even if you're pressed for time or burnt out - you can still take simple steps to prevent information loss. A great example of this is making sure you have a dedicated knowledge base to store information. Many of our community members swear by their knowledge bases; they know they interact with so much information every day that they can't possibly expect to remember it all in detail. By storing their solutions in their Experts Exchange knowledge base, they're keeping the information out of mind but not out of sight.

3. Seek out teaching opportunities

It's well established that one of the best ways to commit something to memory is by teaching others. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that when students taught a lesson - they developed a deeper and longer-lasting understanding of the material than students who didn't teach it. So it works! Now you need someone to teach. Luckily - hundreds of people ask questions on Experts Exchange (EE) every day - meaning hundreds of teaching opportunities. In fact, many people use EE exclusively to teach and impart knowledge because they know how powerful learning by teaching is. 

No one should ever be expected to cut out the practice of copy/pasting entirely - that's silly. But it's still important to remember that whenever you're copy/pasting, you're probably not going to retain much of that information. If you're committed to learning and growing your career in technology - consider a few of the methods above, and start committing that information to memory!