How to Be a Great Instructor

by Fred Hoffman, MEd on Apr 01, 2008

When teaching the adult learner, create a welcoming, motivating and trusting space.

Most people have been lucky enough to have teachers who left a lasting impression on their lives. Think about one of your favorite mentors or instructors. What made him or her so special? And what can you do to create the same experience in your own classes? You may presume that you are a great instructor, but do your participants see you as such? Will you be remembered as an outstanding teacher?

Carl Rogers, a psychologist and education researcher, said, “All human beings have a natural propensity to learn; the role of the teacher is to facilitate such learning.” Teaching adults is a complex task, and when you add the particulars of the health and fitness industry, with its multitude of activities and professional responsibilities, the task becomes even more complex.

Many fitness instructors become professionals without ever studying how to teach. They come from various disciplines, such as sports or dance, and often learn to teach from being thrown into the situation, through trial and error, or simply by being passionate about what they do. Overall we are doing a good job as teachers, and as the profession continues to evolve we see more and more education-specific training. However, maybe it’s time to take it up a notch.

Although we can’t be everything to everyone or please all of the people all of the time, we do need to understand how our students (and potential students) learn best. Many education experts suggest that for the learning process to be successful, you must create an environment that is welcoming, motivating and trusting. When I look at what factors have contributed to my own success as an educator, I recognize certain key elements that allow me to be effective and successful when instructing the adult learner. I learned many teaching skills through continuing edu­cation, but most of the lessons were acquired over time, as life experience.

Know Your Target Audience

The more you know about your students, the more effective you can be as an instructor. I learned this early in my career when I announced to a class that I would be taking a 6-month leave of absence. From the look of disappointment and uncertainty on many people’s faces, I realized that I had been providing something through my actions, behaviors and words without really knowing what that something was. I was making an impact in their lives! That was the first day I saw my students as individuals, and not just a sea of faces.

When you walk into the group fitness studio, you may make the assumption that the participants have come to class just to get in shape, lose weight and get stronger. But you should be asking yourself some simple questions: Who are these people who come to my classes, and why are they here? What do these people do for a living? What are their lives like outside of my class? What are their underlying reasons for attending week after week? It’s not always an easy task to really get to know your audience, but a simple “Hello, what’s your name?” can open up a dialogue that may disclose just enough information to make a difference.

Leigh Crews, group fitness director at the Rome Athletic Club in Rome, Georgia, believes that adults “don’t want to be anonymous” and that you should get to know a little bit about each participant. She goes on to say that by acknowledging individuals in a class, you can “help members develop respect for each other and at the same time foster a sense of belonging. The class becomes a collaborative effort, and everyone has a sense of ‘We are in this together.’”

It is essential always to keep in mind that each one of your students has a full life outside of the classroom or gym. They are mothers and fathers, lawyers, secretaries, journalists, actors, construction workers, athletes, accountants, singers—the list goes on and on. These people come to your class with life experiences and previous knowledge in many different areas, including physical activity. This knowledge may be basic, and it may even be misunderstood, but it is your job to build on it and use it to your advantage to create a positive learning experience.

Create a Welcoming Environment

When people feel safe and welcome in a learning environment, they are not only willing but ready and eager to learn. Adults need to feel they can perform their activities in a nonjudgmental setting and that they can have a dialogue with the instructor. Threat of any kind may lead to failure. A relationship that establishes trust is vital and must be built from the beginning.

Be respectful of your students and acknowledge the wealth of experience they bring. Alexandra Williams, MA, a staff instructor for the exercise and sport studies and recreation department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, stresses that as an instructor you need to “teach and speak to students as you would like to be taught and spoken to. Speak to adults as adults who want to learn; not as children in adult bodies.”

Adults have a need to be self-directed, so you must allow for choice whenever possible. Plan learning activities and programs to meet personal objectives—this is essential for success. In movement-based group exercise classes, for example, Williams tells her students, “As long as you’re not running into your neighbor, you are free to do the workout that works best for you.” As a result, she has had several students comment that they specifically come to her class because they know they can pace themselves without feeling different or disruptive. “If I’m doing a mambo and a student is walking in place, who really cares?” Williams says. “At least they’re moving.”

Most people welcome praise. It is both encouraging and reassuring and allows students to become more confident. Praise can come in many different forms. It may be a direct comment, a smile, a thumbs-up gesture, the wink of an eye or a more general “good job today” type of comment. It doesn’t take much, and it can make a significant impact on someone’s behavior. Positive reinforcement helps you ensure correct or appropriate behavior and should be used often when students are learning a new skill. It can also help students retain what they’ve learned. Sincerity is key; learners want praise, but they want it to be genuine and natural.


Adults need to be motivated to learn but must be interested in learning before they will be motivated. In the fitness scenario, we are quite lucky because most of our participants choose to come to our class or workshop. Our challenge is to keep them interested and motivated enough to come back! So how do we do it?

Hold their attention with humor, active participation and storytelling (but not too much). Build interest with variety by mixing it up and inserting the unexpected. Students want to see that you are interested as well—not only in the subject matter, but in them. It’s usually obvious when an instructor is bored, distracted or just going through the motions. Keep in mind that each person will be motivated differently, as everyone has unique qualities, interests, experiences and needs. Help students motivate themselves by showing that your class is valuable and useful. But don’t forget that what is valuable or useful for one person may not be for another. This is yet another reason you should get to know your students.

Adult learners also need a reason for learning something. They want an explanation behind a procedure, method or principle and want to see the logic of the material presented. Lacking this, they will quickly question or reject what you’re teaching. But more important, they want to know that the subject matter or class will help them, and that it is relevant to their life and needs. It is important to distinguish between “nice to know” and “need to know.” For example, it is “nice to know” how many calories you can potentially burn during a movement class. However, what participants “need to know” is how to maintain or increase the intensity to maximize energy expenditure.

When students see that your class is rich and rewarding, and that there is a useful application for what they have just learned, they will be motivated to continue. For example, it is easy to make the connection between the core exercises you just taught and how improved core strength can help students in their activities of daily living. This application is enhanced when participants use the information immediately in a new situation or setting.

Develop Trust in the Process

A particularity of the fitness industry is that we teach movement, and we teach it in all different forms and shapes. Regardless of format—dance, yoga, strength training or cycling—the common denominator is that we perform. The theory behind movement is important, but to truly understand it, people need to feel what it is like to actually perform a movement or exercise pattern. If you have already established rapport and motivated students, they will be in a better position to relax and trust in the process. Although understanding might require a lot of practice, repetition reinforces the learning process and allows the learner to improve and succeed at the task at hand. A quotation from Confucius (handed to me on a piece of paper after a presentation) sums it up: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Just as the participants bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom, so do you! Remember that your students keep coming back to learn from you, so share all that you’ve learned and acquired over the years with them, and use it to create the best learning environment possible!

SIDEBAR: Be Prepared and Organized

Adults learn methodically. They expect the instructor to be prepared for class and present material in an organized fashion that follows a logical sequence. This means giving the big picture first, followed by more specific parts; showing what is most important, and then least important; and moving from easier to more difficult. When teaching an exercise pattern, for example, present it in the order that it is actually performed. To teach a traditional push-up, demonstrate how it ideally should be executed. Follow this by demonstrating the first variation, then the second and so on. Then show modifications and emphasize the importance of elements such as alignment. When you present the material in a way that allows people to come to the right conclusion by themselves, they not only learn better but are more likely to retain what they have learned.

SIDEBAR: Tips for Teaching Adult Learners

“While adult bodies may not be as fresh and quick as younger ones, their minds are gaining wisdom. Adult exercisers are smart, experienced with movement, interested in the ‘whys’ of your teaching decisions and happy to be educated.”

—Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, instructor, Spectrum Athletic Club, Santa Barbara, California

“It has been my experience that adults learn best by active participation and when led by example. They need clear direction and positive feedback in a nonintimidating environment.”

—June Kahn, June Kahn’s Bodyworks, Boulder, Colorado

“I stay attuned to participants’ comfort levels. Instead of aiming for a perfect correction, I focus on small and vital improvements (for safety and/or effectiveness) so the learning situation doesn’t become a high-pressured experience for the participant.”

—Amanda Vogel, MA, group exercise instructor, presenter, Vancouver, British Columbia

“Students at every level deserve [my] total commitment to be enthusiastic, well organized, well informed and understandable. And treat everybody like a somebody.”

—Ken Alan, lecturer, department of kinesiology, California State University, Fullerton

“I try to tap into the experience the students bring to the classroom. Adults have backgrounds that can add so much, and the bottom line is that the room as a whole knows a lot more than I do as an instructor. Their knowledge augments the program I am teaching.”

—Bethany Diamond, founder, Ovarian Cycle Inc., Nautilus Institute Master Trainer, Marietta, Georgia

Fred Hoffman, MEd, is the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, director of international services for the Club & Spa Synergy Group and the fitness marketing consultant for Reebok France. He can be reached at

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About the Author

Fred Hoffman, MEd

Fred Hoffman, MEd IDEA Author/Presenter

Fred Hoffman, M.Ed., is the owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services and the author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry. The recipient of the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award, Fred holds a Master’s Degree in Health Education from Boston University and has over thirty years of experience in the fitness and health industry. Fred is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and from 2013 to 2016 he served as a member of the ACE Industry Advisory Panel. Fred’s expertise has taken him to nearly 50 countries on six continents to speak at more than 200 conferences and conventions. In 2001 he was elected to the International Who's Who of Professionals. Certifications: ACE and ACSM Education provider for: ACE