TITLE: Q School, Taking Exams, and Learning Languages AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 05, 2007 1:32 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My previous entry has been a slowly-dawning realization. On Thursday, I felt another trigger in a similar vein. I heard an interview with John Feinstein, who was promoting his new book on Q school. "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 don't? Feinstein said that professional golfers acknowledge there are five levels of quality in the world of golf:
  1. hitting balls on the range, well
  2. playing a round of golf, well
  3. playing well in a tournament
  4. playing well in a tournament under pressure, with a chance to win
  5. playing well in a major under pressure, with a chance to win
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 the best. 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 the exam. There may be guys in Q School harboring similar hope, but reality for them is simple: if you don't demonstrate, you don't advance. 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 last entry 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 Bloom's taxonomy, 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 language feature:
  1. recognize an idea in code
  2. program with the idea, using external references
  3. program with the idea, without external reference, but requiring time to "reinvent" the idea
  4. program with the idea, fluently
  5. program with the idea, fluently and under pressure
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 OOPSLA 2007 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 summer! -----