How I teach Git

I've been using Git for a dozen years. Eight years ago, I had to give a training session on Git (and GitHub) to a partner company about to create an open source project, and I'm going to tell you here about the way I taught it. Incidentally, we created internal training sessions at work since then that use the same (or similar) approach. That being said, I didn't invent anything: this is heavily inspired by what others wrote before, including the Pro Git book, though not in the same order, and that IMO can make a difference.

The reason I'm writing this post is because over the years, I've kept seeing people actually use Git without really understanding what they're doing; they'd either be locked into a very specific workflow they were told to follow, and unable to adapt to another that, say, an open source project is using (this also applies to open source maintainers not really understanding how external contributors use Git themselves), or they'd be totally lost if anything doesn't behave the way they thought it would, or if they made a mistake invoking Git commands. I've been inspired to write it down by Julia Evans' (renewed) interest in Git, as she sometimes ask for comments on social networks.

My goal is not to actually teach you about Git, but more about sharing my approach to teaching Git, for others who will teach to possibly take inspiration. So if you're learning Git, this post was not written with you in mind (sorry), and as such might not be self-sufficient, but hopefully the links to other learning resources will be enough to fill the blanks are make it a helpful learning resource as well. If you're a visual learner, those external learning resources are illustrated, or even oriented towards visual learning.

Mental model

Once we're clear why we use a VCS (Version Control System) where we record changes inside commits (or in other words we commit our changes to the history; I'm assuming some familiarity with this terminology), let's look at Git more specifically.

One thing I think is crucial to understand Git, is getting an accurate mental model of the concepts behind it.

First, that's not really important, but Git doesn't actually record changes, but rather snapshots of our files (at least conceptually; it will use packfiles to store things efficiently and will actually store changes –diffs– in some cases), and will generate diffs on-demand. This sometimes shows in the result of some commands though (like why some commands show one file removed and another added, while other commands show a file being renamed).

Now let's dive into some Git concepts, or how Git implements some common VCS concepts.


A Git commit is:

Each commit is given an identifier determined by computing the SHA1 hash of this information: change a comma and you get a different SHA1, a different commit object. (Fwiw, Git is slowly moving to SHA-256 as the hashing function).

Aside: how's the SHA1 computed?

Git's storage is content-adressed, meaning that each object is stored with a name that's directly derived from its content, in the form of its SHA1 hash.

Historically, Git stored everything in files, and we can still reason that way. A file's content is store as a blob, a directory is stored as tree (a text file that lists files in the directory with their name, mode, and the SHA1 of the blob representing their content, and their subdirectories with their name and the SHA1 their tree)

If you want the details, Julia Evans wrote an amazing (again) blog post; or you can read it from the Pro Git book.

A graph with 5 boxes organized in 3 columns, each box labelled with a 5-digit SHA1 prefix; the one on the left is sub-labelled "commit" and includes metadata "tree" with the SHA1 of the box in the middle, and "author" and "committer" both with value "Scott", and text "The initial commit of my project"; the box in the middle is sub-labelled "tree" and includes three lines, each labelled "blob", with the SHA1 of the 3 remaining boxes and what looks like file names: "README", "LICENSE" and "test.rb"; the last 3 boxes, aligned vertically on the right are all sub-labelled "blob" and contain what looks like the beginning of a README, LICENSE, and Ruby source file content; there are arrows linking boxes: the commit points to the tree, which points to the blobs.
A commit and its tree (source: Pro Git)

The parent commit(s) in a commit create a directed acyclic graph that represents our history: a directed acyclic graph is made of nodes (our commits) linked together with directed edges (each commit links to its parent(s) commit(s), there's a direction, hence directed) and cannot have loops/cycles (a commit will never be its own ancestor, none of its ancestor commits will link to it as a parent commit).

A graph with 6 boxes arranged in 2 lines and 3 columns; each box on the first line is labelled with a 5-digit SHA1 prefix, sub-labelled "commit" and with metadata "tree" and "parent" both with a 5-digit SHA1 prefix –different each time–, "author" and "committer" both with value "Scott", and some text representing the commit message; the box on the left has no "parent" value, the two other boxes have as "parent" the SHA1 of the box on their left; there's an arrow between those boxes, pointing to the left representing the "parent"; incidentally, the box on the left has the same SHA1 and same content as the commit box from the above figure; finally, each commit box also points to a box beneath it each labelled "Snapshot A", "Snapshot B", etc. and possibly representing the "tree" object linked from each commit.
Commits and their parents (source: Pro Git)

References, branches and tags

Now SHA1 hashes are impractical to work with as humans, and while Git allows us to work with unique SHA1 prefixes instead of the full SHA1 hash, we'd need simpler names to refer to our commits: enter references. Those are labels for our commits that we chose (rather than Git).

There are several kinds of references:

A graph with 9 boxes; 6 boxes are arranged the same as the above figure, and are labelled the same (three commits and their 3 trees); two boxes above the right-most (latest) commit, with arrows pointing towards it, are labelled "v1.0" and "master" respectively; the last box is above the "master" box, with an arrow pointing towards it, and is labelled "HEAD".
A branch and its commit history (source: Pro Git)

The three states

When you work in a Git repository, the files that you manipulate and record in the Git history are in your working directory. To create commits, you'll stage files in the index or staging area. When that's done you attach a commit message and move your staged files to the history.

And to close the loop, the working directory is initialized from a given commit from your history.

A sequence diagram with 3 participants: "Working Directory", "Staging Area", and ".git directpry (Repository)"; there's a "Checkout the project" message from the ".git directory" to the "Working Directory", then "Stage Fixes" from the "Working Directory" to the "Staging Area", and finally "Commit" from the "Staging Area" to the ".git directory".
Working tree, staging area, and Git directory (source: Pro Git)

Aside: ignoring files

Not all files need to have their history tracked: those generated by your build system (if any), those specific to your editor, and those specific to your operating system or other work environment.

Git allows defining naming patterns of files or directories to ignore. This does not actually mean that Git will ignore them and they cannot be tracked, but that if they're not tracked, several Git operations won't show them to you or manipulate them (but you can manually add them to your history, and from then on they'll no longer be ignored).

Ignoring files is done by putting their pathname (possibly using globs) in ignore files:

Summing up

Here's another representation of all those concepts:

A graph with 10 boxes; 5 boxes are arranged as a line in the center, labelled with 5-digit SHA1 prefixes and with arrows between them pointing from right to left; a note describes them as "commit objects, identified by SHA-1 hash", another note describes one of the arrows as "child points to a parent"; a pair of boxes (looking like a single box split horizontally in two boxes) is above the right-most (latest) commit, with an arrow pointing down towards it, the upper box of the pair is labelled "HEAD" and described as "reference to the current branch"; the  lower box is labelled "main" and described as "current branch"; a seventh box is above another commit, with an arrow pointing down towards it; it's labelled "stable" and described as "another branch"; the last two boxes are under the commit history, one above the other; the bottom-most box is labelled "Working Directory" and described as "files that you 'see'", the other box, between it and the commit history, is labelled "Stage (Index)" and described as "files to go in the next commit".
Commits, references, and areas (source: A Visual Git Reference, Mark Lodato)

Basic operations

This is where we start talking about Git commands, and how they interact with the graph:

Commit, branch switching, and HEAD

When you create a commit (with git commit), Git not only creates the commit object, it also moves the HEAD to point to it. If the HEAD actually points to a branch, as is generally the case, Git will move that branch to the new commit (and HEAD will continue to point to the branch). Whenever the current branch is an ancestor of another branch (the commit pointed by the branch is also part of another branch), committing will move HEAD the same, and branches will diverge.

When you switch to another branch (with git switch or git checkout), HEAD moves to the new current branch, and your working directory and index are setup to ressemble the state of that commit (uncommitted changes are tentatively kept; if Git is unable to do it, it will refuse the switch).

For more details, and visual representations, see the commit and checkout sections of Mark Lotato's A Visual Git Reference (be aware that this reference was written years ago, when git switch and git restore didn't exist and git checkout was all we had; so the checkout section covers a bit more than git switch as a result). Of course, the Pro Git book is also a good reference with visual representations; the Branches in a Nutshell subchapter covers a big part of all of the above.

Aside: Git is conservative

As we've seen above, due to its content-addressed storage, any “change” to a commit (with git commit --amend for instance) will actually result in a different commit (different SHA1). The old commit won't disappear immediately: Git uses garbage collection to eventually delete commits that aren't reachable from any reference. This means that many mistakes can be recovered if you manage to find the commit SHA1 back (git reflog can help here, or the notation <branch-name>@{<n>}, e.g. main@{1} for the last commit that main pointed to before it changed).

Working with branches

We've seen above how branches can diverge. But diverging calls for eventually merging changes back (with git merge). Git is very good at that (as we'll see later).

A special case of merging is when the current branch is an ancestor of the branch to merge into. In this case, Git can do a fast-forward merge.

Because operations between two branches will likely always target the same pair of branches, Git allows you to setup a branch to track another branch. That other branch with be called the upstream of the branch that tracks it. When setup, git status will, for example, tell you how much the two branches have diverged from one another: is the current branch up to date with its upstream branch, behind it and can be fast-forwarded, ahead by a number of commits, or have they diverged, each by some number of commits. Other commands will use that information to provide good default values for parameters so they can be omitted.

To integrate changes from another branch, rather than merging, another option is to cherry-pick (with the same-named command) a single commit, without its history: Git will compute the changes brought in by that commit and apply the same changes to the current branch, creating a new commit similar to the original one (if you to know more about how Git actually does it, see Julia Evans' How git cherry-pick and revert use 3-way merge).

Finally, another command in your toolbelt is rebase. You can see it as a way to do many cherry-picks at once but it's actually much more powerful (as we'll see below). In its basic use though, it's just that: you give it a range of commits (between any commit as the starting point and an existing branch as the end point, defaulting to the current one) and a target, and it cherry-picks all those commits on top of the target and finally updates the branch used as the end point. The command here is of the form git rebase --onto=<target> <start> <end>. As with many Git commands, arguments can be omitted and will have default values and/or specific meanings: thus, git rebase is a shorthand for git rebase --fork-point upstream where upstream is the upstream of the current branch (I'll ignore --fork-point here, its effect is subtle and not that important in every-day use), which itself is a shorthand for git rebase upstream HEAD (where HEAD must point to a branch), itself a shorthand for git rebase --onto=upstream upstream HEAD, a shorthand for git rebase --onto=upstream $(git merge-base upstream HEAD) HEAD, and will rebase all commits between the last common ancestor of upstream and the current branch on one hand and the current branch (i.e. all commits since they diverged) on the other hand, and will reapply them on top of upstream, then update the current branch to point to the new commits. Explicit use of --onto (with a value different from the starting point) is rare actually, see my previous post for one use case.

We cannot present git rebase without its interactive variant git rebase -i: it starts with exactly the same behavior as the non-interactive variant, but after computing what needs to be done, it'll allow you to edit it (as a text file in an editor, one action per line). By default, all selected commits are cherry-picked, but you'll be able to reorder them, to skip some commit(s), or even combine some into a single commit. You can actually cherry-pick a commit that was not initially selected, and even create merge commits, thus entirely rewriting the whole history! Finally, you can also stop on a commit to edit it (using git commit --amend then, and/or possibly create new commits before continuing with the rebase), and/or run a given command between two commits. This last option is so useful (to e.g. validate that you didn't break your project at each point of the history) that you can pass that command in an --exec option and Git will execute it between each rebased commit (this works with non-interactive rebase too; in interactive mode you'll see execution lines inserted between each cherry-pick line when given the ability to edit the rebase scenario).

For more details, and visual representations, see the merge, cherry pick, and rebase sections of Mark Lodato's A Visual Git Reference, and the Basic Branching and Merging, Rebasing, and Rewriting History subchapters of the Pro Git book. You can also look at the “branching and merging” diagrams from David Drysdale's Git Visual Reference.

Working with others

For now, we've only ever worked locally in our repository. But Git was specifically built to work with others.

Let me introduce remotes.


When you clone a repository, that repository becomes a remote of your local repository, named origin (just like with the main branch, this is just the default value and the name in itself has nothing special, besides sometimes being used as the default value when an command argument is omitted). You'll then start working, creating local commits and branches (therefore forking from the remote), and the remote will probably get some more commits and branches from its author in the mean time. You'll thus want to synchronize those remote changes into your local repository, and want to quickly know what changes you made locally compared to the remote. The way Git handles this is by recording the state of the remote it knows about (the branches, mainly) in a special namespace: refs/remote/. Those are known as remote-tracking branches. Fwiw, local branches are stored in the refs/heads/ namespace, and tags in refs/tags/ (tags from remotes are generally imported right into refs/tags/, so for instance you lose the information of where they came from). You can have as many remotes as needed, each with a name. (Note that remotes don't necessarily live on other machines, they can actually be on the same machine, accessed directly from the filesystem, so you can play with remotes without having to setup anything.)


Whenever you fetch from a remote (using git fetch, git pull, or git remote update), Git will talk to it to download the commits it doesn't yet know about, and will update the remote-tracking branches for the remote. The exact set of references to be fetched, and where they're fetched, is passed to the git fetch command (as refspecs) and the default value defined in your repository's .git/config, and configured by default by git clone or git remote add to taking all branches (everything in refs/heads/ on the remote) and putting them in refs/remote/<remote> (so refs/remote/origin/ for the origin remote), with the same name (so refs/heads/main on the remote becomes refs/remote/origin/main locally).

A diagram with 3 big boxes, representing machines or repositories, containing smaller boxes and arrows representing commit histories; one box is labelled "", sublabelled "origin", and includes commits in a branch named "master"; another box is labelled "", sublabelled "teamone", and includes commits in a branch named "master"; the commit SHA1 hashes are the same in "origin" and "teamone" except "origin" has one more commit on its "master" branch, i.e. "teamone" is "behind"; the third box is labelled "My Computer", it includes the same commits as the other two boxes, but this time the branches are named "origin/master" and "teamone/master"; it also includes two more commits in a branch named "master", diverging from an earlier point of the remote branches.
Remotes and remote-tracking branches (source: Pro Git)

You'll then use branch-related commands to get changes from a remote-tracking branch to your local branch (git merge or git rebase), or git pull which is hardly more than a shorthand for git fetch followed by a git merge or git rebase. BTW, in a number of situations, Git will automatically setup a remote-tracking branch to be the upstream of a local branch when you create it (it will tell you about it when that happens).


To share your changes with others, they can either add your repository as a remote and pull from it (implying accessing your machine across the network), or you can push to a remote. (If you ask someone to pull changes from your remote, this is called a… pull request, a term you'll have probably heard of from GitHub or similar services.)

Pushing is similar to fetching, in reverse: you'll send your commits to the remote and update its branch to point to the new commits. As a safety measure, Git only allows remote branches to be fast-forwarded; if you want to push changes that would update the remote branch in a non-fast-forward way, you'll have to force it, using git push --force-with-lease (or git push --force, but be careful: --force-with-lease will first ensure your remote-tracking branch is up-to-date with the remote's branch, to make sure nobody pushed changes to the branch since the last time you fetched; --force won't do that check, doing what you're telling it to do, at your own risks).

As with git fetch, you pass the branches to update to the git push command, but Git provides a good default behavior if you don't. If you don't specify anything, Git will infer the remote from the upstream of the current branch, so most of the time git push is equivalent to git push origin. This actually is a shorthand to git push origin main (assuming the current branch is main), itself a shorthand for git push origin main:main, shorthand for git push origin refs/heads/main:refs/heads/main, meaning to push the local refs/heads/main to the origin remote's refs/heads/main. See my previous post for some use cases of specifying refspecs with differing source and destination.

A diagram representing a "git push" command, with four git graph diagrams (dots, some labelled, connected by lines) arranged in two lines and two columns; an arrow in between the columns implies that the left column is a "before" state and the right column an "after" state; graphs on the above line are inside a cloud, representing a remote repository, and have two branches, "master" and "other", that diverged from a common ancestor; the bottom left diagram has the same shape as the one above it except the labels are changed to "origin/master" and "origin/other" and each branch has more commits: the "master" branch has two additional commits compared to "origin/master", and "other" has one more commit thatn "origin/other"; the top right diagram has two more commits in its "master" branch compared to the top left diagram; the bottom right diagram is identical to the bottom left one except "origin/master" now points to the same commit as "master"; in other words, in the "before" state, the remote lacked three commits, and after the "git push" the two commits from the local "master" branch were copied to the remote while "other" was left untouched.
git push (source: Git Visual Reference, David Drysdale)

For more details, and visual representations, see the Remote Branches, Working with Remotes, and Contributing to a Project subchapters of the Pro Git book, and the “dealing with remote repositories” diagrams from David Drysdale's Git Visual Reference. The Contributing to a Project chapter of Pro Git also touches about contributing to open source projects on platforms like GitHub, where you have to first fork the repository, and contribute through pull requests (or merge requests).

Best practices

Those are directed towards beginners, and hopefully not too controversial.

Try to keep a clean history:

This only applies to the history you share with others. Locally, do however you want. For beginners, I'd give the following advices though:

In case of any problem and you're lost, my advice is to use gitk or gitk HEAD @{1}, also possibly gitk --all (I'm using gitk here but use whichever tool you prefer), to visualize your Git history and try to understand what happened. From this, you can rollback to the previous state (git reset @{1}) or try to fix things (cherry-picking a commit, etc.) And if you're in the middle of a rebase, or possibly a failed merge, you can abort and rollback to the previous state with commands like git rebase --abort or git merge --abort.

To make things even easier, don't hesitate, before any possibly destructive command (git rebase), to create a branch or a tag as a "bookmark" you can easily reset to if things don't go as expected. And of course, inspect the history and files after such a command to make sure the outcome is the one you expected.

Advanced concepts

Only a few of them, there are many more to explore!

We're done.

With this knowledge, one should be able to map any Git command to how it will modify the directed acyclic graph of commits, and understand how to fix mistakes (ran a merge on the wrong branch? rebased on the wrong branch?) I'm not saying understanding such things will be easy, but should at least be possible.