A thread over at pistol-forum about class prerequisites has been bouncing around in my head for a while and I wanted to talk about it in more detail. Setting a prereq for a class isn’t as simple as it may sound.
There are essentially two types of prerequisites: experience-based and performance-based.
The experience-based prerequisite expects the student to have completed previous coursework. Sometimes that requirement is specific to a given instructor (“you cannot take my Uber Tactical Pistol Lvl IV until you have successfully completed my Very Tactical Pistol Lvl III class“). Other times it simply requires the student to have some demonstrable previous relevant training from any known instructor.
The biggest problem with such prereqs is that they rarely tell you much about a student’s true capability. I sat through a year of pre-med Biology at an Ivy League university… twenty years ago… taking it pass/fail… and barely passing. So I can check the box “biology training,” I guess. But I wouldn’t know an endoplasmic reticulum from a mitochondrion if they both came over for dinner. In other words, just because I was present in the class doesn’t mean I know a single thing that was being taught.
The mere fact that someone can list a class on his training resume doesn’t mean he absorbed anything from the class. A class graduation certificate is not the instructor’s personal endorsement of every student to be safe, skilled, and switched on.
A performance-based prerequisite establishes some demonstrable skill level as a requirement. Again these can be very specific (“able to shoot El Presidente from concealment in under 8 seconds“) or general (“C-class or Sharpshooter ranking in a popular action pistol sport“). While I think there is a lot more validity to these performance-based prereqs, the reality is that they’re not perfect, either.
First, there’s the matter of proof. Do you require the student to email you a video of himself shooting the El Prez? How do you know it’s really him? How do you know he didn’t cheat on the distance? And more importantly, what if the student doesn’t have the facilities and equipment to videotape himself proving it to you?
Another option I see bandied about quite a bit is to start classes off with a shooting test. If you cannot make the prerequisite, you’re sent home. That sounds great but sometimes people don’t perform their best on demand in a one shot, all or nothing attempt. Who among us has never bungled a drill? So as an instructor, I wouldn’t be able to stay in business if I told the guy who’d just spent $500 on a class, plus $500 on a plane ticket, and bought $500 worth of ammunition, that he’s ejected from the class before it even begins.
The tack I take, then, is to announce a performance standard and tell students they’re expected to be able to meet it. Then as soon as the admin, safety, and emergency procedure brief is done at the beginning of class we walk up to the line and shoot a quick series of tests. They’re not even the same exact tests as the prereq. I used to use those instead but invariably it bogged down into trouble when people publicly failed them. So instead I use slightly different tests that still let me evaluate the three things I care about: safety, marksmanship fundamentals, and familiarity with gun handling.
Most folks do fine. But once every class or two I get a guy who clearly flunked. Rather than kick him out, I pull him aside and give him a little boilerplate speech: “Based on what I saw during the test, you’re a safe shooter but your fundamentals aren’t where they need to be to get much out of this class. We’re going to start at a point past where you need to be and we’re going to accelerate from there. You’re welcome to stay if you want but understand that I will not slow the class down for you and I will not spend time trying to get you up to the prerequisite skill level. That wouldn’t be fair to all the people who paid for the class as-advertised. If you’d rather, you can leave and I’ll happily give you a free slot to any future class you want. But if you stay, understand that all I care about is that you’re safe… as long as you’re safe, the class is going forward as planned regardless of your ability to keep up.”
To date, the number of people who’ve opted to go home has been zero. Most of the guys who stayed said they had a lot of fun. Hey, if having fun was your goal, I’m happy it worked out.
For my “level 2” class, Aim Fast Hit Small, I’ve got both types of requirements:
- must have taken the more basic Aim Fast Hit Fast class (experience-based), and
- must have scored at least Intermediate on the F.A.S.T. in class (performance-based).
Knowing you’ve been through my class once already means I don’t have to explain everything a second time in terms of how I grip, sight, draw, reload, etc. Knowing you made at least Intermediate on the test means I know you absorbed enough that you’re ready for the AFHS coursework.
Any time you create a prerequisite, you run the very real chance of prohibiting people who would, in all honesty, be perfectly good students. That’s regrettable. But having been in more than my share of classes that were literally brought to a halt by people who had no business being there I think it’s better to err on the side of exclusivity.
And no matter what prerequisite you create, there will always be a student who finds his way into a class for which he is inadequately prepared. Knowing how to deal with that — in a way that doesn’t punish all of the students who are ready to take the class they paid for — is just part of being an instructor.
Train hard & stay safe! ToddG