The most knowledgeable of instructors can also be some of the least effective teachers. There are many reasons for this, but today's article will focus on alleviating boredom in students.

First, what is boredom?

It is when a student is no longer actively engaged.

What does actively engaged mean?
It means a student is actively using one or more of their senses when taking in information from the lesson.

Why does a student cease being actively engaged?
Let's look at the senses of Hearing, Sight and Touch, to answer that.

6WVJASTHearing

One of the easiest ways for an instructor to present information is by talking. However, in terms of teaching, listening is one of the least effective means of teaching. We do it because it is necessary and also convenient. Talking and listening is the most common way to get information across, but over long periods of time it has trouble.

Even a great story-teller encounters this. If you've ever been to a motivational speaker's show, you know he or she is usually a good story-teller. They are paid to be story-tellers. Stand-up comedians are much the same. However, after a show, can you remember what you learned? Could you synthesize it? Often, the answer is 'no', even though you might leave the show feeling 'good', you may not know why.

Teachers love to talk. They talk too often and too much. It is justified. The teacher knows more than the student. The teacher wants to share this information. It seems natural that they should talk. Yet, it loses efficiency in a rather short window of time.

Stories or instructions longer than five minutes tends to be too much time for students to focus on. Students are not robots, some have longer and shorter attention spans, but a general rule is not to engage just their listening abilities for more than five minutes at a time. Stories and instructions should be brief unless augmented by engaging other senses.

ImageSeeing

We are very visual creatures and HEMA lends itself well to visual learners. Instructors are often trying to 'show a thing' and they do so through demonstrations. Seeing is a wonderful way to catch interest, but it lacks when it comes to remembering finer points. Think of a fight-sequence from a movie you've seen only once or twice. You probably remember the basics of what happened, but could you recall exact positioning of the hand, the foot, the body and so forth? Most people lack such clarity.

Showing is a good way to augment the engagement of other senses, but it's not something to be relied upon. Showing a student repeatedly a technique may work. If it doesn't, the student will watch and see, yet not engage because they cannot process the fine details- only the general outline of what is happening.

Touching

Students are highly engaged when they are doing something. This is the 'touch' sense and often is the favorite of students. They are active participants in a lesson, they are focused on performing a task, and they are often engaging many senses while doing it. It would seem like this should be the primary means of teaching and preventing a student from becoming disengaged.

ImageHowever, while doing a thing does actively engage a student, that doesn't mean they are doing a thing correctly. Without guidance, a student can be actively engaged in learning the wrong way to do a technique. This can be problematic! Teachers are often asked to have their students 'do more' and the teacher 'talk less'. Yet, the students have to be doing correctly or it's wasted time.

Taste and Smell?

ImageI'm sure someone clever can relate these senses to HEMA.

"Smell this sword. Now taste it."

How do I actively engage students?

The key to being a successful teacher is to realize the strengths and weaknesses of the senses.

Students can listen, but not for long.
Students can see, but can't recall fine points.
Students can do, but must do correctly.

By using all three an effective lesson can be brought about.

Say - Model - Do

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  • Talk briefly about a technique. (No more than five minutes)
  • Show the technique with a volunteer or fellow instructor. (Show it only once or twice because the student's won't recall finer points)
  • Have the students perform the technique and correct their behavior. (Correct the student so what they do matches what they saw and heard)

While it may seem rudimentary and easy, experienced teachers know how easy it is to get off task and off track. It is easy to talk too much, show too much, and for students to do too much improperly. A fine balance should be struck.

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HEMA Students

One of the advantages instructors have is that HEMA students tend to be already motivated. They can politely put up with long lessons. That doesn't mean they are actively engaged though. To do this, even HEMA students need variety.

Venue

Venue matters.

ImageA workshop, in which anyone can attend, should be wrapped around core concepts that can easily follow the 'See Model Do' method.
A class for advanced students might have less techniques, but have much more of the students doing the task.
A class that lasts two hours will need many techniques to keep the students engaged, while a shorter class can just have one or two.

While it may seem like common sense, we have all been to a meeting, workshop, or class that had someone talk for too long, present too much or too little information. The goal of the instructor should be to pass on information that the student can retain.

Retention

Learning well doesn't mean you'll necessarily retain well. To retain information it must be used somehow. HEMA provides many opportunities for this because so much of what we do is task-orientated rather than information recollection.

After teaching a technique, using 'Say Model Do', a great way to improve retention is by having the students teach what they learned to another. Having students teach has many risks and rewards to it.

The good

A student who can successfully teach what they learned to another has demonstrated a deep understanding.
A student who is teaching is actively engaged using a variety of senses.
A student who teaches well has clearly retained the information and put it to use.

The bad

A student can easily improperly teach what they learned because they have not yet fully mastered the information.

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This means it may not always be a good idea to have your students teach one another. I often select people who already have experience to do this and if the class is mostly novices, I dispense with it unless I can be on hand to correct faulty teaching, which is perfectly fine in a smaller venue, but not so much in a large one.

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Sample

Objective = Have the students enter a guard.
Time Limit = Not long.
Students = Not many.

Teacher = Gives the name of the guard. Explains some of what it can do and how it relates to the system as a whole.
Teacher = Enters the guard and has students take note of key points on structure.
Student = Enters the guard trying to mimic the teacher.
Teacher = Looks over the students and makes corrections.
Student = If one student has done a very good job of entering the guard he or she is asked to help correct another student.

Connecting this to other tasks leads to a lesson, and if done well, the students will remain actively engaged throughout.

There are many other ways to keep students actively engaged. The above is a simple and easy to follow method. Other things to try include:

  • Games
  • A series of drills that change
  • Socratic (My least favorite. Students ask questions and you use that to get them to where you want)

Richard Marsden
My name is Richard Marsden, I teach history for a living, have a Bachelors degree in Secondary Education from ASU and a Masters degree in Military Studies: Land Warfare from AMU. I'm an author, historical fencer, I dabble in economics, and am a husband to a loving wife who tolerates my eccentricities.