Be a Good Student

Photo: Erick Brenneman

When members of the public choose to invest their time, effort, and energy to attend training, they usually research the instructor and/or the class. They give due diligence, prepare, and possibly have some expectations of the results the training will produce. Eventually they enter into a contract with the instructor. That contract is spoken or unspoken and stipulates that something of value, generally money, will be exchanged for knowledge. As the other party to this contract, what does the instructor receive besides monetary gain? What should they expect to gain from students attending training?

Normally the student has the instructor at a disadvantage, as the instructor does not have the opportunity to research the student to the same extent that the student has researched the instructor. So as part of this contract, the student incurs an obligation to be a good student. They incur the obligation within the framework of this contract to add value to the interaction. They should add value beyond the obvious monetary exchange. What the instructor should gain is an expectation of engagement and two-way communication. The student should attempt to perform the drills, evolutions, or techniques to the best of their ability. They should attempt to display competence within the context of the instruction.

Competency is the responsibility of the student. There is no valid measurement within the context of a self-defense scenario where an instructor can pronounce you “good to go.” No guarantee can be made in reference to any perceived outcome should you have to defend yourself or others. The student’s only valid outcome will be to strive to be better when they leave than when they arrived.

As mentioned previously, the student accomplishes this by performing the drills, evolutions, or techniques to the best of their ability. The student should also ask questions and receive feedback. They should take corrective action where needed based on that feedback and continue to strive for excellence. What a student should not do is assume they have nothing to learn. Occasionally I see students who think they have it all figured out. Although in reality this is demonstrably not the case, these students have come to the conclusion that they do not need to apply techniques, conduct the drills, or perform the skill sets as requested. They may believe that the simple act of gripping the firearm, for instance, is something they no longer need to practice. In their mind, they have moved beyond that simple task.

A very high-level martial arts practitioner once told me he often attends training where the level of hands-on skills taught are well below his level of expertise. He does not immediately let everyone know that his skills are superior. Instead he strives to find areas for personal improvement within the context of the course. This is in line with the Japanese concept of kaizen.

Kaizen simply means “improvement.” In practice it has come to symbolize a philosophy of continual and ongoing small improvements that affect the entire process. Applying this philosophy to the student experience, the “good student” continually evaluates, accepts critique, seeks improvement, and applies necessary skills to make incremental changes for the better. A good student does not rest on their laurels and think they are “good to go.”

Next time you attend training and are asked to perform a task you believe you have mastered, try to find small areas of improvement you can work on. Ask questions and challenge the curriculum. Any instructor worth your time will welcome an open, honest, and respectful discussion. Attempt to apply the techniques and procedures as explained and keep an open mind. If you leave a training session not having learned anything, the fault is yours.

Challenge the curriculum, give value, and keep training.

Reply to David Cole
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23 Responses to “Be a Good Student”

  1. Larry

    Excellent article. For anyone who cannot relate to martial arts, there is probably something that reinforces the premise of the article.
    I studied piano from someone who competed internationally when she was 14yo. She insisted that I practice “keyboard orientation exercises then scale (all 24) before practicing my repertoire. Then practice the difficult parts of the repertoire.
    Shooting skills—all skill development—requires no less. Practice does NOT make perfect!! Perfect practice (as described in this article) makes perfect

  2. David Cole

    Good article and I will also pass on to students as a training device. I did a class for 1 student and when he showed up he informed me he was “U-Tubed Trained”. I won’t say what I was thinking but after a while he stopped talking so I guessed he missed a bunch of “lessons” and he began to listen. What a treat that was but I later declined any advanced lessons as he had his own ideas of training.


    There is a Sgt.Schlutz sounding type of quote from Socrates or Plato that goes something like, “I know one thing and that is that I know nothing”. Even the wisest are still in need of more learning.

    • Will

      Well Schultz-y would be a bit sad you refer to him as Sgt. SchLUTZ !!

      Col. Klink will have to put you on guard duty until you improve upon your spelling ;-)

  4. Andrew

    Anyone interested in learning about the Kaizen Way, I highly recommend this short book, called The Kaizen Way – One Small step Can Change Your Life, by Robert Maurer. It is excellent, short and easy reading filled with examples of how it this concept can be applied to all aspects of life both individually and on a corporate level.

    • Will

      Thank you for the recommendation Andrew.
      A quick online search found it in my local library – Requested & scheduled for delivery!!

      BTW – Dr. Maurer wrote a sequel, “The spirit of Kaizen: creating lasting excellence one small step at a time”.
      Another patron has it at the moment, but I’m next on the request list for it!

  5. Don Rary

    I will try my best, but want you to know that I am physically disabled on my left side due to severe brain injury.

    • Albert McBee

      All of us are disabled in one form or another. It comes from a life of honest work. Even carpenters have crooked thumbs from mis-struck hammer blows.

  6. Gary

    I agree totally. I have had students who would not even attempt to practice the fundamentals the way they were taught in the class. Rather they just said “I do it this way.” I wondered why they bothered to take the training. I have yet to take a class that I have not gained something from. I assume that I do not know it all when I take instruction. That is not just assumed for the purpose of the class, it always proves true.

  7. Wes Boozer

    As an instructor of advanced gun fighting skills, I could not agree with you more. I would add that I learn from my students as well. Not every client is motivated by the same thing nor learns at the pace. I try to learn better teaching skills and techniques from each client. The common thread is, there must be interaction and participation from both the instructor and client. Great article.

  8. Patrick Thomas

    I am in total agreement with your statement here. If you apply the “Kaizen” mentality to all you do, you will be a better person in this life.


    I have been a trainer/teacher for over 45 years. I have often attended classes where I know as much or more than those teaching, — Guess what… I ALWAYS learn something new, It may be a tidbit of new information; it may be a new approach to teaching a particular subject,
    The way to self-improvement has to begin with an open mind.

  10. Ken

    Excellent article! This reminds me of an article that I read by a highly skilled and highly credentialed SCUBA diver, who pointed out that one should always strive to learn and improve wherever he/she can–because it could save your life.
    This came up because two other divers didn’t like the dive master making them go over some basic skills before a dive, and didn’t understand why this man ‘put up with it.’ A person should always be open to learning, and always strive to be a good student.
    It’s that attitude that helped me through a 34 year career as a professional firefighter.

    • Will

      Great example Ken. Listening to and following the instruction of your teacher is actually a sign of maturity, whereas it is a clear sign of immaturity to ignore the counsel of someone w/ more experience than you in most disciplines … particularly in a skill as critically detailed as diving where even a slight deviation from best practices can get you – and others inter-dependent on you – killed!
      I am not a diver, but I think you’d have to be a fool to ignore the instruction of your dive-master!

  11. Donald

    Good article. No time spent in learning is wasted and there is always room for improvement.

  12. Mike Bemiss

    It is foolish for anyone to attend a class with the idea that they “know it all”. There is always much to learn, some of it from watching other students in the class.

  13. Brandon Fisher

    I agree 100%! I have been in the martial arts for over 30 years and have expanded out into teaching basic and defensive pistol courses. Though I have found many similarities and some differences I strive to learn just 1 thing from each class I take and each class I teach. I am convinced every instructor if they try hard enough can learn something from each class they teach. Always strive to grow in knowledge and skill, that will make you the competition and not the other way around. I have never been that concerned about what other people are doing in the classes with the martial arts and I take the same approach with firearms. You can only control what you do and what your students learn. Why waste time with stressing over things you can’t control.