How to Teach for Maximum Knowledge Retention

10th Planet Chicago after 3 hours of crucifix shenanigans.

This past weekend I had the adventure of teaching two Mastering the Crucifix seminars in Chicago--a gi seminar at Chicago Martial Arts and a no-gi one at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu Chicago.

I owe a big thanks to Javi and Dan for organizing this trip after meeting them back at the Rdojo camp, and thanks to Barry from CMA and Josh at 10PJJC for hosting me. Everyone was welcoming and friendly and eager to train jiu-jitsu.

After both seminars, I was happy to get very positive feedback from students, first in person and later through Facebook messages. The most common praise was that they felt they really “got” the material and felt they would retain it. That was fantastic to hear because I know I hate when a seminar isn’t good for much more than getting a new profile pic with a famous black belt. I really want people to learn something that will make a big difference in their game.

The Chicago Martial Arts crew (some more
disappointed than 
others about lack of DnD).

I was especially honored that the head instructors at each school attended my seminars and afterwards complimented me on my teaching style. They said they liked how I had designed my instruction around retention, with logical progressions that tied everything together.

That was validating to hear, since I have given a lot of thought to my teaching methods. With this article, I want to lay out the principles that guide my teaching style. I hope these tips help you refine your own.

Here is my advice on teaching a good class or seminar:

Fold the reps into the bigger recipe.

We all know repetition is the key to learning. But we also know that endless repping gets boring. And modern research on how to practice for real world learning shows that the classic “do 10,000 reps” method isn’t as good as we thought it was. So how do we get students to put it reps without mindlessly putting in reps?

My answer has been to spend less time on each individual “technique” (meaning what the last thing I stopped class to demonstrate), but I teach chains of techniques that contain the skills I want the student to repeat the most. They may be entering into a position several different ways, but they keep arriving at the same point, then perhaps going on to different finishes.

Build around your core concepts.

The best seminars I have attended were built around core concepts, not just a bunch of assorted “hey, this is a cool move” techniques. Cool moves are, well, cool, but they are often quickly forgotten unless they fill a niche you needed filled.

You can still show cool moves, but when they are built into a larger conceptual framework, the students have a better chance of retaining what they learn. They may forget certain techniques, but through the drilling and games you had them do, they “know” it in their bones. Students love when you have a system where every piece fits into place and they can see the unifying logic for each position and technique variation.

Rdojo Shorts Squad (P.S. Rdojo shorts are back in stock in the Inverted Gear shop)

Show what you’re teaching before talking too much.

A pet peeve of mine is when an instructor, in an admirable but misguided desire to share as many details as possible, talks and talks and talks before even showing a single rep. Of course I appreciate detailed instruction, but I don’t need a 10 minute lecture about every possibility and counter and re-counter for a technique I haven’t even seen completed once. Show the move then let’s talk about it.

When introducing a new technique, I show it in its simplest form, without much (or any) explanation in the first few reps. Then I’ll demonstrate it again, sharing more details, focusing on the major points. Then I may just send people off to drill, even if I plan to go into more detail later. Fine details are built on gross motor movements, and not the other way around. I like showing “the same” technique a few times, but with each pass we go another layer further into the finer details and deeper understanding.

Don’t overcoach or overcorrect in the beginning.

I have a personal rule to not correct a student on their first rep. If they ask for help right away, I’ll still make them attempt it unaided while I watch. I want them to try to figure it out first, even if they ultimately fail. This does two major things:

First, it gives them a frame of reference for when I give corrections. An instructor can kill a valuable learning moment by rushing in to prevent a student from even doing a single rep poorly. The student may need to feel what it’s like to do a bad rep to appreciate what a good one feels like (assuming no risk of injury).

Second, the frustration a student feels when struggling spurs the brain to work overtime to resolve the problem. Your role as an instructor is not to eliminate all difficulties or confusions, but to guide the student so these “negative” experiences lead to growth and learning.

This also has a broader applications. When you teach too many counters to counters too early, your time is often wasted because the student needs a chance to both succeed and fail in live training. The success will give them a desire to succeed again, and the failure will give them a reason to dig deeper and ask better questions.

Javi, the Panda Hunter, insisted on a Panda Gi Club group photo.

Use regressions to prepare students.

Students often need more basic versions of techniques to get a feel for a new movement. You can use regressions to accomplish this. A regression would be a simplified version of the technique or certain aspects of a technique.

For example, if I know I will be teaching a complex sequence that is unfamiliar to the students, I may start with a simplified version that doesn’t demand as much from them. Once they start getting the feel for it, we can look at it again go “okay, now here’s how you really do it.”

You can also “regress” a technique during your warm-up by seeing if students can perform its basic movements in solo or partnered drills. This allows you to check if any students lack the flexibility or coordination that will be required later, and gives them a chance to prepare their motor skills for later.

Do warm-ups that complement the lesson plan.

When I attend seminars or visit other schools, I love collecting new solo and partnered warm-ups and drills, so I share my favorite ones when I can.

My warm-up drills tend to resemble motions that will be needed in the techniques that will be taught. I dislike when warm-ups turn into a grueling conditioning routine. That said, I do believe there can be a place for traditional bodyweight exercises like push ups, squats, etc. in some warm-ups, but I won’t make seminar attendees spend time on that. No one is paying me to come out and make them run laps and do jumping jacks.

Here is what I want my students to get out of warm-ups:

  1. Literally warm up the body--increase the heart rate, raise body temperature, limber up the big joints.
  2. Develop coordination, body control, and “mat awareness”, usually through ground-based movements.
  3. Prepare the students to perform what will be taught later with simplified movements that mimic components of the techniques.
  4. Compensate for anything that may be over-trained, like doing back extensions if I know we will do a lot of flexion.

Make students see, hear, do, feel, and even teach.

You’ve probably heard the popular idea that people can be divided up into learning styles: visual, tactile, auditory, etc. While this may just be a persistent myth, I do believe people learn best when they experience material in many different ways and through as many senses as possible. Here is how we can engage those senses:

  1. See it performed.
  2. Hear it explained.
  3. Do it themselves.
  4. Feel it done to them.
  5. Teach it to someone else.
  6. Read it (if possible, like in an Artechoke instructional).

People will usually say they learn best when they’re taught a certain way (“I just need to feel it first then I get it”), and that may be true, but don’t use it as an excuse to not learn any way you can. As a student, try to develop your ability to learn through any means possible.

Demand active recall.

Throughout the seminar, usually when I’m about to move on to a new topic or take a water break, I will ask students to recall and practice techniques from earlier in the day. I may ask to see a specific technique, or I’ll leave it up to them to pick one. This simple activity will greatly boost retention, especially when you go around asking the students to teach the techniques back to you.


To summarize my teaching philosophy:

  • Have a progression that starts in the warm-ups and runs through the entire lesson.
  • Present a logical system built around core concepts, not just assorted cool moves.
  • Talk less at the start and get the students doing the moves sooner, then regroup to go into greater detail as their familiarity increases.
  • Get the students thinking about the material for themselves and even struggling with it if that means they will ultimately retain it better.
  • Keep the energy and interest high by showing variations or adding to the combo chain, but use that to get them doing more reps of the core techniques.

After-seminar Korean stir fry party (check out my party face).


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