Swift | Silent | Deadly

How to Be a Good Student

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Today I’m going to turn the instructorship articles around and talk a bit about the other half of the student/instructor equation: the student. I honestly don’t know what I’ve done more of in my adult life: teaching or being a student. As an adult I have spent thousands of hours in the student seat, and my learning has never stopped. It has slowed down significantly, and the chances I get to be a student these days are precious. Below are some tips on how to be a good student. This might be a standalone, or it might be a Part I….we’ll see.

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These tips are directly based on stuff I’ve seen as a student over the past couple years, not as an instructor. It’s funny – as an instructor most of the things I’m going to mention below don’t really bother me, which tells me I need to be more mindful of them when I am instructing. It also demonstrates the value of continuing your education if you are an instructor; there’s always something to be learned!

Also, let me point out, this is not directed at most of you. Many of you who attend classes on your own time and your own dime already know this. If that sounds like you, maybe you can share it with someone who doesn’t already know this stuff. Let’s get into it!

I love the opportunity to sit and learn, especially from a great instructor. Being in the student role gives you a chance to to several things:

  • learn the material being taught,
  • pick up new instructional techniques and ways of relating material,
  • observe the instructor for things you do/don’t want to imitate, and
  • observe students form a different vantage point.

Believe it or not, observing other students is sometimes the most interesting and informative part of the whole class. Hopefully this is not the case – if I’m paying for a class I want to get more out of it than watching other students – but sadly, sometimes there is little or nothing to be gleaned from the instructors (or worse, the “information” they provide is outright wrong). Though I am not always a perfect student, I have learned a few things about being a student. Here are some things you can do to improve your learning outcomes, be respectful of the instructor, and be an asset to your student body. It wouldn’t seem like saying most of these things would be important but. . .

Taking Notes

It wouldn’t seem like I would have to say this, but: take notes! I am constantly surprised at the number of students I see showing up to classes who don’t take notes (including my own classes). I am never more shocked than in classes like EMT-Basic, where quizzes are frequent and exams are insanely detailed. Yet some of my fellow students in EMT routinely show up unprepared to take notes. I see this more commonly in the firearms and defense-related classes I take. This is somewhat understandable, I suppose – a lot of guys get focused on the shooting they will be doing and may not think about the classroom component. But they should.

If you go back and read my Concealed Carry Class AAR (by far the most popular article on this site) you will notice a photograph of my notes. This is because I took copious notes during the class. At first, I took notes because I thought the information presented in the class might be valuable. Later I realized that the information presented in the class might be necessary one day to prove how factually inaccurate my class actually was. As I looked around the room of seven other students I didn’t see a single student taking any kind of notes at all.

Notes give you a way to review the information the instructor has provided you. Importantly, it gives you a reference point for the future. I periodically review notes from classes that have been especially good or impactful to ensure I’m not “drifting” too far from what I learned, and to validate that if I am drifting, it’s for good reason. An occasional sanity check like that is a good thing.

Secondly, it gives you proof of training. In ten years that instructor may or may not be able to testify with absolute certainty that he or she told you about the Tueller drill / “21-foot rule.” If references to the Teuller drill are in your notes from that class, I’d say that could make a pretty compelling case that you had knowledge of the potential danger posed by someone armed with a knife, inside of 21 feet, with intention and a direct path to you. Why would that matter? Good question. As Andrew Branca elucidates in his excellent The Law of Self Defense, in order for you to use information such as the Tueller drill in your legal defense, you have to be able to prove you were aware of it prior to the event in question. Notes are a phenomenal way to prove knowledge of such concepts.

Admittedly, this one comes from my instructor side. If you want to go above and beyond, take notes on paper or a laptop rather than  typing notes on your phone. It’s a double-standard, I know, but when your head is down in your phone it looks like you are texting or otherwise fucking off. You probably aren’t, but the instructor doesn’t know that. Be respectful of the instructor; stop at CVS and pick up a $0.99 notebook and a $2.99 pen on your way to that $500 class.

Two Ears, One Mouth

One of my biggest gripes of my fellow students is in question-asking and anecdote relating. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “you have two ears and only one mouth.” When you are in a class surrounded by other people who paid to be there, it’s a good time to heed that advice. Everyone paid to hear the instructor speak. No one paid to hear their fellow students tell war stories or ask superfluous questions. Unless you have something that directly relates, it’s probably won’t add much to the class. For example, if you are in a shotgun class and can say, “I shot a dude with as shotgun and here’s what happened,” have at it! I want to hear your story. But if all you have to say is, “I read about ___,” or “my cousin knew a guy ____” the class is probably better off for not hearing it.

Questions are a little different than anecdotes. Questions can be a really important part of a class. If a question is warranted and appropriate for the class, I have no complaint with it. An instructor should welcome good questions! Questions from the class demonstrate that everyone is paying attention and absorbing the information. Good questions can move the class along. Good questions are probably ones that multiple people have, and help out the entire class.

I truly enjoy good student questions. Believe it or not, it’s not even that uncommon for me to get stumped by a student question and have to spend my lunch hour figuring it out and little makes me happier as an instructor. Nothing is a stronger indicator that students are actually thinking about your material in abstract ways, and its applicability beyond what you are presenting. I also depend on a certain question, popping up around the same time (mid-afternoon on day one) in my course to introduce a certain piece of material†. It has never let me down!

So by all means, ask good questions! It’s hard to define a good question but I can give a few examples. Questions asking the instructor to restate or clarify something are perfectly appropriate. Questions that help to contextualize a technique, add nuance, or indicate or contraindicate it are beneficial to most of your fellow students.

Not all questions are good questions, though.

Inapplicable Questions

As an instructor it is easy – believe me – to go down a rabbit hole with questions that aren’t applicable to the class. Sometimes instructors, myself included, enjoy entertaining hypotheticals, getting down in the weeds, and demonstrating how much we know. Those of us with a depth of knowledge on a topic rarely get to “flex” and enjoy the opportunity to get deep into a conversation about our subject matter. It’s on the instructor to handle questions like these quickly and not get bogged down, unless they directly contribute to the course material that students have paid for. Even doing the best possible job, students can still slow the class with unwarranted questions.

Don’t get me wrong – part of the fun of attending classes is talking to other enthusiasts about a variety of topics and I’m not discouraging that at all. I’m referring to the act of raising your hand in the middle of a lecture or demonstration to ask something that blatantly doesn’t apply.  There are a couple sub-categories of inapplicable questions, the first of which is the question that ranges extremely far outside the scope of the class. Like asking about open-heart surgery in a first aid class. If it doesn’t directly impact what I’m being taught here, please don’t waste my – or the instructor’s – time in asking it during instruction.

Another category of inapplicable question is the unanswerable question, a la  “why do they want to take our guns?” I totally understand and share your concerns about encroaching gun control. However, the middle of a class on emergency medicine is not the time to get into something that no one in the class could definitively answer…even if a definitive answer for such a vague question were even possible. Unless the class you are attending is a course on legislative action to fight gun control efforts, please, save that for a sidebar with your buddies later.

And then, obviously, there is the question that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the class. I probably don’t need to talk about these because they are incredibly obvious.

“Look at me” Statements Phrased as Questions

As a student, this type of question from a fellow student is incredibly annoying. These questions are questions in name only. They are phrased as questions, but they are really, “look at me” statements. The person asking these questions knows the answer. Sometimes it is obvious he or she knows the answer. The point isn’t to ask a question, it’s to demonstrate to the rest of the class that her or she already knows the material. I could name countless, first-hand examples of this. Instead, I’ll just show you what it looks like.

First, don’t ask, “are you going to cover ___?” (translation: “Look at me! I know what’s coming next!”) until the instructor has had a chance to cover it. For example, if you are at a day-long handgun class and the instructor has just begun describing the emergency reload, don’t butt in and ask, “are you going to cover tactical reloads?” I get it – you want the instructor and the other students to know you’re in the know – but please, let the class progress. If the instructor asks, “are there any questions about reloads before we get into malfunctions?” it might be a good time to ask if tactical reloads will be covered.

Do you see the difference? In the latter instance the instructor has apparently finished the reload portion. If he hasn’t covered it to your satisfaction – or covered something you hoped to see – it is perfectly reasonable to ask. In the former example he had barely begun explaining reloads. He wasn’t at a stopping point, and it was clear he still had plenty to go. He might have covered it, even if you hadn’t asked. If you have the confidence in an instructor to pay for his class, you should have the confidence to let him unroll the class at his pace.

Alternatively, if you begin a question with, “when I was with ___, we did it this way” (translation: “Look at me! I already know about this thing that you guys are paying to learn about.”) you probably don’t actually have a question.


There are also just a couple things I want to address around breaks and break time.

Come back from breaks on time. If you’re paying for a quality class, the instructor probably has ample material to fill the hours. This is certainly the case in my five-day class, where I will generally work late at least two days, and work through lunch at least one day, and still never cover everything I would like to cover. Though it might not seem like it, taking an extra five minutes on a ten-minute break really begins to add up. In just an eight-hour class with a break every two hours, an extra five minutes adds up to 20 minutes of lost class time –  As a student, I want everything the instructor has to give me; be back in your seat on time.

Don’t steal ALL the instructor’s break time. I have attended course where I really wanted to chat it up with the instructor. Maybe I was a fan of the instructor before I signed up for the class, or maybe their message is really resonating with me. Maybe you know the feeling. On the flip side of the coin I also really enjoy meeting my students. Occasionally there is a student, though, who goes up to the instructor the moment break is called. He stays up there talking for the entire break, and as soon as the next break is called…he’s back (and yes, “he” is almost always male).  Here’s the deal: the break time is also the instructor’s break time. The instructor is up there talking and probably standing all day. Being about to take an hour, relax, and most importantly, not talk, is much needed on both sides. If you want to come up and say “hi” feel free! Most instructors would be glad to meet you and make your acquaintance. If you have questions, however, I – and probably most instructors – would prefer you ask them for the benefit of the whole class (and trust me – it’s annoying when you walk up to the podium to ask a question, seconds after the instructor has asked the entire class, “any questions?”).

Closing Thoughts

This might have turned into a bit more of a rant than I hoped for, but I hope the message still found a home. Be respectful of the instructors whose classes you attend. Much more importantly, be respectful of the students around you who have paid and traveled to attend the class, as well.

 †If you’re curious, the question is roughly, “but don’t websites prevent that from happening by limiting the number of login attempts to 3 (or 5 or whatever)?” The answer is “yes, they do but no, that doesn’t adequately protect you.”

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