“You know they have the answers, but now you’re whining because they expect you to learn their way of thinking rather than having their successful model broken by conforming to yours.” Software Development Times, June 2012, Feedback, Scott Brickner.
The project was simple, survive the Air Force training known as Squadron Officers School (SOS). The junior officers attending the school were divided up into teams and we all competed as individuals and as teams to achieve what the Air Force wanted us to learn.
One thing we had to do was pretty straightforward. We had to study and learn Air Force history, the history of air combat and the strategy and tactics of modern air warfare. There was a lot of reading to do. The material was not taught in a class, we had to study in our “free” time and then test to demonstrate our knowledge.
We had a recommended, school traditional, way to study for these tests. The process was also straightforward. The study material would be divided up to the individual members of the team. We would all study our individual material and then get together and teach each other what we had learned. We would also provide each other “dirty purples” which were notes we had taken on the material we read and then give copies of these notes to each other.
This process had been the tradition for some time. Why would I try and do something different? Pretty simple. We took the first test and we didn’t do very well on it.
The test makers had a simple strategy. They would take a sentence — a statement of fact, policy, history, etc. — and put it on the test exactly as it was in the book. They would then duplicate the question multiple times and just change one or two words in the sentence, still making it sound quite logical, but now being incorrect. I found it near impossible to reason out the right answer. Instead, unless I knew the right answer up front, it became just a guess.
The problem was that our process — taking notes, summarizing what we read, teaching each other — didn’t work well in this situation. This was because we needed to know precisely the wording and not just the general policy or strategy involved. We needed to know the details of the material, not the overall concepts (by the way, I hated this kind of testing — I’m first a concepts guy and then into the details as needed).
I decided to try something different. While I still read and summarized my portion of the material for the team, I also decided to read all the material. This made sense to me because I needed to recall exact wording in many cases. I found that sitting in our study sessions just increased imprecision as we discussed what we had learned, in our own words and based upon how we interpreted it. That was a problem, because we were being tested on precise wording and understanding.
Reading all the material took more time, so I did a couple of things. First, I skipped most meals. Instead I survived on boxes of “Nutri Grain” cereal eaten with … water. Actually, it worked very well and I maintained my energy and alertness for many weeks of intense training. Secondly, I also stopped sitting in on our group study sessions. Not everyone attended every session, only about half attended each one. No one seemed to notice that I was missing more than most.
We took the next test. I missed one question. I missed it by making the classic mistake of changing an answer at the last minute from what had been the correct answer to an incorrect one. I wasn’t sure, so I ended up changing it. I would later learn that if I am not sure, then I should keep the original answer as that was more often the correct one.
OK. I had something that was working. I ended up reading the material to be studied, three times. The first time I read it quickly to just get an idea of what the material was about. The second time I read it, I highlighted key points that were the central point of that part of the material. The third time I read it, I “taught” myself by explaining the material to myself (yes, I was talking out loud to myself) and then reading it to see if I had gotten it right. Three reads of the material. Each had a specific purpose.
I never missed another question on another test. Some of my teammates, now noticing that I was not attending the study sessions, suggested that I was holding back on them and I needed to attend the sessions and “teach” them the material so they could also get better scores.
So, I outlined to them what I was doing and why I was doing it. I then produced a one page guide that described the method and why I thought it worked.
Their reaction? No. Come teach us what you know, Bruce. We don’t want to do anything different from what we are already doing. You need to come to our sessions and tell us what we need to know for the test — you know, the answers to the upcoming test.
I repeated that what was working for me was reading the original material multiple time — not reading someone’s notes nor listening to someone’s verbal recollection.
A couple of people adopted my process and their scores improved. The others just stuck to the original process and maintained average test scores.
Inevitably, to improve, we need to change the way we do business. Sometimes it is not a huge change, but it is a change. If we find ourselves seeking a new approach or method, but then pushing back and saying “great, but we don’t really want to change, we just want you to show us how to succeed by doing what we always do” then we will probably not succeed.
What have real changes been like for you?