How to make a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

by Jen Sharp published in Parachutist Magazine December 2013

News flash: Being an eloquent communicator is not a prerequisite for being an excellent coach or instructor! In fact, the biggest mistake instructional rating holders make is equating teaching with talking. While having a solid body of knowledge is imperative, giving all of it to the student at once is like offering him a drink from a fire hose. Instead, you should reach, not teach. In other words, you should have a specific goal in mind for your students to achieve during any cognitive or psychomotor lesson and then help them get there. Instead of thinking of your lesson plans as topics, think of the specific actions students should eventually be able to show you. Start with the end. That is, instead of saying, “Today we’re going to talk about malfunctions,” try something like, “By the end of this session, you will show me at least three times how to properly perform canopy emergency procedures.”

If a coach or instructor neglects to set up a mechanism for feedback, it is impossible to determine whether the student met the goal for the lesson. Guided practice and assessment is an essential part of teaching. What happens if you don’t get feedback from your students? One way to illustrate this is by conducting a peanut-butter-and-jelly exercise as an icebreaker during a coach certification course or as a fun exercise during an instructional rating seminar. (You don’t want to do this with actual students!) Have a volunteer (preferably someone with the reputation of being an excellent communicator) use verbal instructions to teach you, the student, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The catch? There is no feedback allowed. The instructor cannot ask you questions, demonstrate or watch you make the sandwich. He needs to keep his back to you the entire time, and you cannot provide him with updates on how you’re doing.

As you make the sandwich, follow every direction and perform it precisely, but without a big-picture idea of the goal. For example, if the instructor says, “Stick the knife into the jar of peanut butter,” you might stick the butt end of the knife into the jar. You could interpret, “Scoop out some jelly and put it on the bread,” as scooping the jelly out with your hand and smearing it on the entire loaf.

The point? No matter how good an instructor is at describing or talking, a student primarily learns by doing while receiving guidance (a feedback and assessment loop). So, if you’d like to see your students do their best, remember to ask them to demonstrate their abilities, and provide them with meaningful feedback every step of the way.