Educators, teachers and instructors are regularly faced with students who overestimate their knowledge or ability to perform a task. A student will enter a class or training session confident that he or she can perform at the level necessary to be successful. But often the student will find himself or herself woefully deficient, having failed to validate his or her knowledge and skills beforehand.
This phenomenon, studied by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, is known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” The psychologists wanted to understand why people think that they can perform at a level greater than they can actually achieve, which creates a cognitive bias of false conception. Individuals often reason that it cannot be that difficult to accomplish a specific task and that they are more than suited to handle it — even when they lack the necessary experience or training. Therefore, individuals attempt the impossible and fail. Simply put, a person does not know what he or she does not know.
Dunning-Kruger effect: when people think they can perform at a level greater than they can actually achieve, which creates a cognitive bias of false conception.
This phenomenon seems to be a common occurrence when it comes to firearms. A case in point could be made with an individual purchasing a handgun for personal defense who receives minimal training required by the state or local authorities to legalize the purchase. This could equate to no training at all in some circumstances. Still, the purchaser may believe that he or she could defend himself or herself in a lethal-force encounter by merely possessing a firearm and participating in a crash course about its use. This is not only ridiculous but also dangerous. And it puts the person in a risky legal position if he or she ever has to use a firearm in self-defense.
How Firearms Instructors Cope
Firearms instructors are perpetually challenged by students who attend classes without basic firearms fundamentals or the backgrounds necessary to participate safely, let alone meet the expectations to successfully complete the course. The real challenge is how to deal with the students who do not even meet the criteria for attending the class. This may vary with the type of class and the venue in which it is being conducted.
Above all, safety can never be compromised. There is no more solid ground to stand on than that of maintaining a standard of safety for all persons present — students, staff and observers.
Every class should have a list of prerequisites and requirements prominently displayed along with the course description and equipment list necessary to complete the course. These prerequisites and requirements need to be made as specific as possible as to what students need to know and be able to perform on demand prior to attending the class.
Every class should have a list of prerequisites and requirements prominently displayed along with the course description and equipment list necessary to complete the course.
To put some emphasis on the necessary knowledge and performance factors, the course description can indicate that a test of the skills and knowledge is required for class attendance and will be implemented at the beginning of the class to determine each student’s capabilities before embarking on the class material.
Invariably, there will have to be judgment calls by the instruction staff as to whether a student can continue based on his or her performance. In some cases, agency or institution policy may dictate the outcome resulting from a student’s performance evaluation.
For example, I was attending an instructor certification class conducted by a federal agency with field offices around the world. One student failed to make the qualification after three tries and was on an airplane back to his home office the next day. Either the student or his supervisor failed to take the prerequisites seriously. He suffered the consequences.
No Hard Feelings
Small training schools and individual trainers generally are not as blunt as in the situation above when dealing with a student experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. When running a revenue-driven business, it can be financially imprudent to do so. Likewise, a business’s reputation may be on the line.
While safety can never be compromised, a decision may have to be made to use a second firearms instructor, if available, to shepherd a student so that he or she can achieve the level of competency necessary to continue. If there is a wide gap in the student’s capabilities and the class requirements, the best thing to do is to separate the student from the class with a simple but firm explanation as to why he or she can’t participate.
In order to keep the individual as a student, an invitation to a class he or she can legitimately qualify for would be a prudent gesture. How the cost of the class is handled is always a challenge and should be decided by the course operator. Looking at both sides of the situation (and maybe even prorating upcoming class fees) often helps to make a satisfactory decision for all involved.
While safety can never be compromised, a decision may have to be made to use a second instructor, if available, to shepherd a student so that he or she can achieve the level of competency necessary to continue.
Regardless of the challenges one student presents, it is essential to remember that there are other students in the class. Those who took the prerequisites and requirements of the course seriously and came prepared should never be shortchanged for the benefit of the one or two who did not.
There are a number of ways to deal with this type of situation. But remember, the safety and integrity of the class should never be compromised. Letting a student observe but not participate in a class is an option that could be offered if the circumstances allow it, but it is the instructor’s duty to keep guns from getting pointed at people.
In a foundational class where a student cannot manage the muzzle properly or exercise good trigger-finger discipline, consider equipping him or her with an inert gun until he or she can prove himself or herself by handling the gun safely on a consistent basis. There are a multitude of techniques that can be used to salvage a difficult situation. An instructor with a little intuition and wisdom always has a trick or two up his or her sleeve to make that happen.
A Perpetual Endeavor
Dealing with a student’s cognitive bias in believing he or she can do something that is not possible is a continuous challenge for the firearms instructor. An effective way to make the student aware that he or she doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know is to teach the student the necessary information with a simplistic, non-arguable approach. Over time, he or she will transition from someone who “knows everything” to someone who is open to learning anything.