The Myth of "Go as Fast as the Slowest Student"

My recent article, "Lessons Learned as Professional Instructor" was one of the most popular articles I've written in a long time. It was also the article that has probably drawn the most (and certainly the most vitriolic) criticism of any I've ever written. Today I'm going to respond to one particular criticism that popped up several times.

Most of the jabs at my article don't merit any response at all. Most seemed to entirely miss the point, and take issue with something they thought I should or shouldn't be teaching (despite not really knowing what I teach). Some accused me of not being a "professional instructor" despite the fact that definitionally I am, like it or not. Many complaints assumed I was a firearms instructor, despite the article containing at least a half dozen photos of a classroom with computers. These people obviously didn't read the article, and almost certainly wouldn't read a follow-up, so I'll save my breath.

One particular complaint I heard does merit some examination, however. Several times I heard some variation of “I only go as fast as the slowest student'".

The Problem

I get the idea that an instructor means to convey in that statement. The general idea is that no student will be left behind. I don’t really think adhering to “I only go as fast as the slowest student” is a great instructional model, however. In fact, I would contend that it's not really any better than saying, "I only teach as slow as the fastest student." If you boil both of these statements down to their essence they basically mean, “I don’t care if all of my students learn something. I will only focus on teaching the slowest/fastest in the group.”

This statement (or strict adherence to it) places emphasis on spending more time and energy on the least skilled/knowledgeable students. This is in spite of the fact that all of your students are making equal expenditures of time and money to be at your class. This is a problem. If I were going to hang my hat on a motto like this (I’m not, but if I were) it would be something like, "I try to ensure that all students receive value from my classes."

Focusing only on the slowest student(s) creates several problems.

  • First, what are the faster students doing while you are spending all your attention getting a slow student up to speed? At best they are sitting/standing quietly while you get “the slowest student” caught up. At worst, they’re engaging in conversations that get louder and louder and become a distraction.

  • Faster students walk away not feeling great about having paid for your class. If you pay for a class and most of your time is spent watching the instructor fuss over one student, do you feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth? I don’t, and I’d bet you don’t either.

  • If it becomes obvious to the slowest student(s) that you’re spending all your time on him/her/them, it can impact their ability to learn. No one likes thinking they are the person holding up the whole class. This puts pressure on them to pick up the pace. This can have a lot of less-than-desirable outcomes. Students will sometimes pretend they understand something when they don’t, or hesitate to ask questions in the future. They may become more focused on keeping up than with actually learning.

Solutions?

I was tempted to spend a good chunk of this article detailing my own experience of being in classes where slower students monopolized instructor time. Instead of complaining about the problem, I'd like to offer a few solutions for instructors to consider. Below are some possible options. None of these should be considered a standalone solution; you may choose to leverage one or several of these ideas in combination.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against helping the slowest students. However, this has to be balanced with also helping the fastest students, and providing value to everyone in between.

  1. Narrow the skill, ability, and knowledge band among your students. If everyone is an entry-level student, you can train entry-level skills/knowledge. If everyone is at an advanced knowledge or skill level you can tailor your training around this level of knowledge or skill. Some will still be slower and some will still be faster, but the gap between the slowest and fastest student will be much smaller. How do you do this?

    • Screen students before registration, and accept registrations only from those with the experience to keep up in your class. The exact standards could vary: written test, attendance at prerequisite courses, etc. This is probably the best way to deal with this problem, if this method is available to yo

    • Conduct an "in test" at the beginning of your class to ascertain readiness to attend your class. Consider this: if someone showed up at your firearms class and was grossly unsafe would you have a problem asking them to leave? Safety is the demonstration of specific knowledge and skills. An in-test is just a demonstration of different knowledge and skills. This one is much harder to pull off, since students have already traveled to you. You're going to have to tell them "no" in person and send them packing. If you do take this tack you should also clearly state the prerequisite standard(s) prior to registration.

  2. Have adequate staff. There are some reasons it may not be feasible to exclude students who don't meet a certain skill level. For example, I teach a large number of classes to military groups where I am working under a contract with a clearly defined Statement of Work. I can’t reject any student that gets sent my way. One way of dealing with this is having an assistant instructor (or two, or three depending on class size). Having adequate staff allows groups to break out and receive training that they are ready for.

  3. Refine your curriculum. In my previous article I mentioned that on Monday morning I can tell you what we’ll be doing at 1300 on Thursday afternoon. This is because I have taught my class scores (possibly hundreds of times). I have worked to refine it. I have built in exercises and student labs. I have honed my schedule to a fine point. This allows me and my assistants to work with slower students or students who missed a module because of work obligations, while the rest of the class has a lab or exercise to work on. Is it going to seriously hamper learning if the slower students don’t get to to do this exercise? No - they’ll still get the baseline knowledge, and plenty of other exercises. Is the exercise a waste of time for the faster learners? No, in the same way that me spending a day on the range working the fundamentals of sight alignment, sight picture, and trigger manipulation are not a waste of time for me.

These “solutions” may work for you…or they may not. There are probably a dozen other ways to skin this cat, but sticking to a policy of “I will only ensure learning occurs in a subset of my students” is not one of them.

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Justin Carroll