Aim for the center of the target

People often ask me for advice on designing or delivering training material. One of the most common questions is how you determine the appropriate pace for the training courses or the lab exercises. It's no surprise, that's a tough question. The answer is suprisingly straightforward though.

You should design your course and set the pace for the median1 of your expected audience. Ruthlessly.

Now as with all hard and firm rules, this is a little flexible and we'll talk about that in a bit. But first, let's talk about why this is the rule I work by.

In any given class you have a certain number of students. You have a responsibility to each one of these students to provide the best training possible. But in the real world, we have finite resources. In this case, the resource we're primarily concerned with is class time and how we allocate it. The way we can best allocate class time is that which provides the greatest possible benefit for the greatest number of students.

The natural response when teaching a class is to make sure everyone is finished with an exercise before continuing. This is doing a disservice to the majority of your class.

I'm sure I raised a few hackles with this. Put down your pitchforks for a moment and let's think about this objectively. Each student in your class paid a certain amount to attend your class and they each deserve an equal share of your responsibility to deliver the best training you can. The slower students and the faster students equally. But this is not weighted on their abilities. Each student deserves an equal share.

Let's consider a few extremes. First let's say that you've got one person out of 18 in your class who is really struggling and takes three times as long to complete exercises. This means that if you hold back and make sure that all students complete before moving on then 17 students are twiddling their thumbs for 2/3 of your class. They've just wasted a ton of money on a class that didn't push their understanding whatsoever.

If you think about it at the other extreme, it's more obvious. If you've got a Mensa candidate in your class and the exercises take this person about 3 minutes to complete, would you crank on ahead and demand that everyone else keep up? You'd be out of a job soon.

Instead, you need to balance things. You should have an equal number of students struggling to keep up as are finished early. In this way, you've maximized the benefit to the class as a whole, with those squarely in the center receiving the most benefit.

You should have an equal number of students struggling to keep up as are finished early to maximize the benefit to the class as a whole.

Now, this is a bit of a naive approach. You've got trailing edges on a steep Bell curve. To truly maximize the outcome, you'll want to widen that curve a bit. You can do this by spending a little more one-on-one time with the slower students during exercises and by giving the faster students interesting extra topics to explore. Once common technique I use is to utilize the faster students as resources to help the other students. They feel valued and often the act of explaining to others helps to improve their own understanding. I also include sample solutions to my labs and exercises so that the students who are struggling have some guidance to help them catch back up.

No matter what you do, you're always going to have outliers. There isn't much you can do to avoid this, so learn to do what you can to make it easier and more productive for them. But don't ever let yourself lose track of the bigger picture. You have a lot of students. They're all looking to you for knowledge. Do the best you can for all of them.

  • 1. Median is a form of average such that there are an equal number of values above and below it on a number line. This differs from mode, which is what most people call an average.