TITLE: Q School, Taking Exams, and Learning Languages
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: May 05, 2007 1:32 PM
has been a slowly-dawning realization. On Thursday, I felt
another trigger in a similar vein. I heard an interview with
who was promoting his new book on
"Q School" is how professional golfers qualify for the PGA
tour. This isn't just a little tournament. The humor and
drama in some of these stories surprised me. By nearly
everyone's standard, all of these players are incredibly
good, much, much better than you and especially me. What
separates those who make it to the Tour from those who
Feinstein said that professional golfers acknowledge there
are five levels of quality in the world of golf:
What separates those who it make from those who don't is
the gap between levels 3 and 4. Then, once folks qualify
for the tour, the gap between levels 4 and 5 becomes a
hurdle for players who want to be "players", not just the
journeymen who make a good living but in the shadows of
I see the same thing in the world of professional tennis.
On a smaller stage, I've experienced these levels as a
competitor -- playing chess, competing in various academic
venues, and doing academic work.
What does it take to make a step up to the next level? Hard
work. Physical work or, in chess and academia, intellectual
work. But mostly, it is mental. For most of the guys at Q
school,and for many professional golfers and tennis players,
the steps from 3 to 4 and from 4 to 5 are more about the mind
than the body, more about concentration than skill.
Feinstein related a Tiger Woods statistic that points to this
difference in concentration. On the PGA Tour in 2005, Tiger
faced 485 putts of 5 feet or less. The typical PGA Tour pro
misses an average of 1 such putt each week. Tiger missed
0. The entire season.
Zero is not about physical skill. Zero is about concentration.
This sort of concentration, the icy calm of the great ones,
probably demoralizes many other players on the tour, especially
the guys trying to make the move from level 4 to level 5.
It might well infuriate that poor guy simply trying to qualify
for the tour. He may be doing every thing he possibly can to
improve his skills, to improve his mental approach. Sometimes,
it just isn't enough.
Why did this strike me as relevant to my day job? I listened
to the Feinstein interview on the morning I gave my final exam
for the semester.
Students understand course material at different levels.
That is part of what grades are all about. Many students
perform at different levels, on assignments and
on exams. At exam time, and especially at final exam time,
many students place great hope in the idea that they really do
get it, but that they just aren't able to demonstrate it on
There may be guys in Q School harboring similar hope, but
reality for them is simple: if you don't demonstrate, you
It's true that exam performance level is often not the best
predictor of other kinds of performance in the world, and
some students far exceed their academic performance level
when they reach industry. But most students' hopes in this
regard are misplaced. They would be much better off putting
their energy into getting better. Whether they really are
better than their exam performance or are in need of better
exam performance skills, getting better will serve them well.
But it's more than just exams. There are different levels
of understanding in everything we learn, and sometimes we
settle for less than we can achieve. That's what my
was trying to say -- there is a need to graduate from the
level at which one requires external reference to a level
at which one has internalized essential knowledge and can
bring it to bear when needed.
I am sure someone will point me to
and it is certainly relevant. But that taxonomy always
seems so high-falutin' to me. I'm thinking of something
closer to earth, something more concrete in terms of how
we learn and use programming languages. For example, there
might be five levels of performance with a programming
- hitting balls on the range, well
- playing a round of golf, well
- playing well in a tournament
- playing well in a tournament under pressure, with a chance to win
- playing well in a major under pressure, with a chance to win
I don't know if there are five levels here, or if these are
the right levels, but they seem a reasonable first cut for
Concourse C at Detroit Metro. (This weekend brings the
spring planning meeting in one of North America's great
international cities, Montreal.) But this idea of levels
has been rolling around my mind for a while now, and this
interview has brought it to the top of my stack, so maybe
I'll have something more interesting to say soon.
The next step is to think about how all this matters to
my students, and to me as an instructor. Knowing about
the levels, what should students do? How might I feed this
back into how I teach my course and how I evaluate students?
For now, my only advice to students is to do what I hope to
do in a week or so: relax for a few minutes at the advent of
- recognize an idea in code
- program with the idea, using external references
- program with the idea, without external reference,
but requiring time to "reinvent" the idea
- program with the idea, fluently
- program with the idea, fluently and under pressure