The Drill Lesson Format: Managing Large Groups of Students

by Capt James Rodgers | September 22, 2021

teaching barbell training in a large group

The selling point of the Starting Strength instructional method is how well it breaks down compound barbell lifts into a series of manageable cues and steps that can be learned very quickly. A critical component of the teaching process are coaches who instruct trainees on the execution of lifts.

The optimal student to instructor ratio is 1:1. However, that is not always possible, since not every person who wants (or needs) to learn how to lift is a single, paying client. The student to instructor ratio can and will become much higher than this ratio in certain settings: police academies, athletic programs, and of course the military individual training system. Managing a large gaggle of students is enough to overwhelm the abilities of someone who is unprepared to apply additional structure to their teaching method, because they will lose control of the class fairly quickly if they try and teach the students like a collection of individuals. If you have 20 students and only 45 minutes, that means you will have only a little over two minutes of time to spend with each student if you were to coach them individually. That is obviously inadequate. So the smart thing to do is to adapt some structure from a different organization that teaches body movement skills to large groups of untrained individuals.

The military individual training system is a useful place to look for this structure, because in every western military there is a corps of people who, over the centuries, have figured out a very efficient way to manage and teach body movement skills to large groups of untrained individuals. These people are Drill Instructors.

The purpose of teaching drill in the past was to teach combat skills to new recruits that were essential to maneuvering large formations of men around the battlefield and to get them to be able to apply firepower (bang-bang) and shock action (stab-stab) under the direction of officers without panicking. Drill has not been very useful on the battlefield for about the last 150 years due to advances in weapons technology, but drill is still the first thing taught to a new recruit, usually right after they step off the bus. Drill is useful in the individual training system today because it teaches alertness, obedience, group cohesion, discipline and professional bearing.

The popular image of the Drill Instructor when portrayed by the media is that of a seasoned soldier screaming into a recruit's face, terrifying them into compliance. This is not accurate. Screaming, profanity and sarcasm are discouraged and the actual task of teaching someone how to do drill is a very procedural endeavor. Recruits are almost never talented athletes, so they have to be taught how to execute the movements that make up drill in a very structured and systematic manner. This lesson format works well with large groups of people and I have seen it done successfully with student to instructor ratios of 30:1. The good thing is that this structure is very simple and when adhered to, it is a reliable way to teach a large group of untrained people how to move in a particular way.

The first time I was exposed to Starting Strength’s method for teaching the lifts it reminded me of when I learned drill.

The Drill Lesson Format

The official format that I will detail here can be found here in the Canadian Forces Manual of Drill and Ceremonial. The relevant paragraphs are 32 and 33 of chapter one Chapter 1 Introduction -

This is fairly dense reading. For our purposes, these are the two most important things to remember:

  1. E.D.I. - Explain. Demonstrate, Imitate. This is how the Drill Instructor will introduce the new material to the students.
  2. C.I.C. - Collectively. Individually. Collectively. This is how the Drill Instructor will have the students practice the new material and give feedback on performance.

Here is a video of the procedure in action, a drill lesson teaching turns at the halt. This video was made to be a demonstration of the perfect procedure for a drill lesson for junior Non-Commissioned Officers on their Primary Leadership Qualification course and if you have the patience, you can see every step of the process being executed.

Explain – Demonstrate – Imitate

  • 2:24 Explain: The Drill Instructor will explain the particulars of the movement and why it is important, its relevance to the student, when it is useful and the standard to be achieved.

  • 3:00 Demonstrate: The Drill Instructor first demonstrates the movement at full speed without breaking it down into steps. For the purposes of drill instruction, steps are called "squads." The Drill Instructor then demonstrates the first squad and explains to the students what is happening.

  • 5:25 Imitate: The Drill Instructor will then have the students imitate the movement. This is when the C.I.C. happens.

Collectively – Individually – Collectively

  • 5:25 Collectively: The students all perform the first squad at once under the control of their Drill Instructor.

  • 6:08 Individually: The students will practice the first squat on their own. This will free up the Drill Instructor to come around and perform individual corrections.

  • 7:35 Collectively: once the Drill Instructor is satisfied with all of the students' performance, he then has them perform the first squad collectively.

That's the sequence. When he introduces the next squad, he goes through the E.D.I. and then the C.I.C. When both of the squads are tied together into one movement, he goes through E.D.I and C.I.C.

For the even more visual learners out there who don’t like reading a lot or watching videos for more than five minutes, here is a diagram of the process:

edi cic process

The drill lesson format is a reliable and time-tested method to teach a movement skill to a large group of students. This lesson format is particularly useful for teaching military personnel because it is co-opting a lesson format that they have already been exposed to.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have to manage a large number of students, fear not. Just stick to E.D.I. and C.I.C.

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