Reasons why students do not do as their instructors tell them

Frequently instructors complain that their students can not do the tasks they are being asked to perform. When you are an expert in your own field it is very easy to think that your students are either stupid or deliberately ignoring you.

However, it should always be kept in mind that if they could already do what you are teaching them, they would not be paying for you to teach them! People do not take lessons to learn what they can already do.

We must assume that if someone has come on a training course, they will do their best to learn and improve their skills. It then becomes the instructor's job to find a means of doing just that, if the approach you are trying does not produce the result you desire, it is your job to find an approach that will work! After all, that is why we get paid to do what most people only get to do on their holidays.

Working from this basis means that when a student is unable to perform a task, instead of just repeating the task, we need to discover the reasons, then change the task until the student is successful.

There are three reasons why learners are unable to absorb teaching:

  1. Perception.
  2. Emotions.
  3. Technique.

Before jumping to easy conclusions an instructor should work through these three elements.


If a student's perception of the task is different to the instructor's, there is no way that they will be successful. A skilled instructor should have several approaches to explaining any concept.

Examples for a boat handling manoeuvre could be:

  • To demonstrate the whole exercise, then let the students attempt it.
  • To give a verbal explanation.
  • To draw out the manoeuvre on paper or white board.
  • To lead the student with relevant questions.
  • To let them experiment for themselves.

So always be ready to ask yourself, "what does this student think the task is?". If you think that their perception of the task is incorrect the best way to find out, is to ask them to describe what they are about to do, then be ready with a different method of explanation if required.

To fully learn a new concept, many people need to be told 7 times, some will need more!


If someone's perception of a task they have been unsuccessful at, is correct, the next aspect to consider is their emotional state.

Especially on boats, there are many emotional pressures on students which they may not experience in the normal life. A good instructor will spot when this is the case, and change the situation to remove some of the stress.

Examples of stress may be:

  • Having to give orders.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Then need to pass an exam (especially with those who intend to work on the water).
  • Being aware that people are watching them.
  • The memory of the time they got the exercise wrong the last time.
  • Feeling sea sick.
  • Worry about family or work matters unrelated to the course.

If you suspect that a student is stressed, try talking to them about it, or simplify the task to reduce the stress. A simple approach may be to move to an area where there are fewer people watching, or for the instructor to take some of the task on themselves.


This is the last aspect to assess. It is really easy when a student is not doing as requested, to jump in with more technical information about the task, frequently this will just make things worse, especially if the student is feeling under pressure already.

If you feel that the student requires more technical input, restrict it to one element at a time. This will mean that instead of expecting perfection, we should be looking for a good attempt, the student then could be given more opportunity to polish up their ability later.

This is not always easy when there is a set time table, or an exam at the end of the course. In these situations it is vital that the instructor is honest with the student, and gives some advice as to where they can realistically expect to be by the end of the course. It may be that some students will require further training before reaching the required standard.

The most common reason for students struggling on courses, is them not having a good enough level of understanding before starting that course or particular exercise. Where this is the case, the instructor may have to go back to basics. There is nothing more frustrating for the student and instructor to keep hammering away at the same thing unproductively, when the real cause of the lack of learning is that the student needs to cover some basics, to prepare them for the more advanced task. All instructors must be ready to teach simple information that they may consider the students should already know at their level of experience. Students will come to courses with a wide range of backgrounds and previous training.

This approach can be summed up as P.E.T. ing your students!

A major part of the joy of teaching is in finding students who are struggling, then working out the best method of helping them to improve. This will stretch any instructor, even after 25 years of teaching I am still having to find new approaches. That is why, when students ask, "don't you get bored doing the same thing every day?", I can honestly say, "No I don't, every day is a different challenge". is free to use, but if you feel you would like to contribute to the running and development costs you can donate via Paypal:

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