How they teach at West Point

I attended a wedding on Saturday at West Point, home of the United States Military Academy and training ground for the U.S. Army’s officer corps.  The bride and many of the guests are teachers at West Point and explained how instruction is organized.  Although the government strives to minimize costs, like a private or state university, they are much more interested in the outcome because they will be employing the graduates. 

Class size is typically 12-14 students.  About half of each class is devoted to reviewing student homework and having students work through problems collaboratively.  The West Point philosophy, sometimes referred to as “the Thayer Method”, is that sitting passively in a lecture is not going to result in too much learning; the students must be active for a substantial portion of each class and the instructor must find out what they’ve actually learned by talking to the students .

7 thoughts on “How they teach at West Point

  1. According to this graduate of West Point and Harvard Business School:

    1. We haven’t really won a war against a credible opponent since 1945.

    2. USMA graduates are significantly less successful in real life than would be expected given their high-school qualifications.

  2. I’m former military, but did not have the happiness of attending West Point. I was a state school ROTC graduate. You’re certainly correct that a small class with a lot of interaction with the instructor and other students is the best way for most people to learn.

    Since I retired from the Air Force I’ve taught some classes in the local junior college . This experienced has convinced that there is a lot about teaching methods that the academic community could learn from the military.

    Just to name one there is the whole area of grades. I find the whole grading thing to be really silly. The system of giving A/B/C/D/F implies a degree of precision in measuring learning outcome that is not really possible. Does anyone really think that in any interesting subject that someone who scores an 89 (‘B’) on a test really knows less than the student who scored 91(‘A’)?

    I like the Air Force way of evaluating students. We had only three outcomes for any Air Force course I ever taught or took:

    1) Pass – Learning objectives achieved. Every formal course had well defined learning objectives. It certainly is possible for an instructor to know that a student has mastered the core objectives of the course. About 90-95% of students would pass the typical course (the only exception I knew of being pilot training, where it was more like 85%).

    2) Failed – Did not master the learning objectives of the course. The Air Force was really good about not sending people to training for which they were not qualified, but sometimes things just don’t click for a student. If a student failed a course he or she either continued to receive training until they passed (sometimes retaking the course, sometimes getting individual tutoring), or just went back to their unit. These students represented only about 5% of a typical course.

    3) Distinguished Graduate – Showed exceptional grasp of the learning objectives. Instructors can easily tell the handful of students who far exceed the level of mastery required by the course learning objectives. Being a course ‘DG’ was a major career enhancer. Only 5% percent or less of the students in a typical course would be DGs.

    I found that most of my computer science students who came to class regularly* could satisfy the learning objectives I spelled out on the first day. A handful couldn’t grok the subject ( C++), and a handful were wizards. Just like in the service.

    *Regular attendance isn’t a problem at the service academies, skipping a class there being an actual crime. Most of the college students I failed were the ones who missed a lot of classes.

  3. K: As a taxpayer, I’m with you on the “winning a war” front. One of the instructors talked about how the superintendent of West Point was fanatical about football because he thought that was the best way to raise the status of West Point. I wanted to point out “Stanford does it with new research results” or “Maybe winning a war would impress more people” but thought it would be rude in mixed company…

  4. I think the definition of “winning a war” has changed. Ambiguous outcomes are arguably better when you’re dealing with situations where the cultures are radically different and unlikely to accommodate themselves to a victor, and where every war is a guerilla war, not against a professional military on a battleground removed from the general population. What you may want to do is just keep a lid on things and buy some time.

    So be more specific and describe how a won war would have looked, without resorting to deus ex machina assumptions about the defeated culture.

  5. What philg writes is similar to the teaching philosophy at Cal Poly (and I imagine, other polytechnic engineering schools).

    Cal Poly has a reputation for turning out technically adept graduates, but the drawback is that it’s not much of a research institution, and the post-grad level of learning is not that good (compared with the typical UC school, for example).

    They have a good reputation at the undergrad level because they emphasize “learning by doing”, and most of the graduates thrive in industry or go on to successful post-grad careers at _other_ universities.

    I imagine that the military schools have the same strenghs and drawbacks.

    That is why they have to have separate “post-graduate” schools, such as the Naval PostGraduate school in Monterey, CA.

    (I myself did not attend Cal Poly nor any military academy, but I researched them when I was applying to college out of high school, and I know people who went to these places.)

    – Jay L.

  6. Jim Howard,

    According to Yegar Gaidar’s account of Soviet history, I would disagree with you.


    In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet leadership, however, was not intellectually prepared to heed lessons from the School of Salamanca. The shortest quotation about the intellectual capacity of the Soviet leadership came from the Politburo minutes: “Mr. Zasiadko has stopped binge drinking. Resolution: nominate Mr. Zasiadko as a minister to Ukraine.”

    While intellectual capacity was not the strongest quality of the Soviet leadership, they still understood the need to manipulate the oil market.


    Yet one of the Soviet leadership’s biggest blunders was to spend a significant amount of additional oil revenues to start the war in Afghanistan. The war radically changed the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. In 1974, Saudi Arabia decided to impose an embargo on oil supplies to the United States. But in 1979 the Saudis became interested in American protection because they understood that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a first step toward–or at least an attempt to gain–control over the Middle Eastern oil fields.

    The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.

    As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive. The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust. There were three options–or a combination of three options–available to the Soviet leadership.

    ((lists 3 solutions))

    Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.,filter.all/pub_detail.asp


    While there’s some validity in the arguement that the B2 stealth had a large part to do with the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, I would assert that this was simply a final straw. The Soviet System was doomed from the start as not only Gaidar points out, but has been well documented elsewhere. Take a look at N Korea’s economic prowess for instance, their entire economy is dependent upon opium, counterfeit Marlboro cigarettes, and counterfeit US currency, it is unlikely that the USSR would’ve managed much better. The hyperinflationary 80’s and the accumulating war debt taken on by the US may yet prove your congrats to be ultimately misplaced, Star Wars may ultimately defeat the US, not the Soviets.

    Perhaps the bigger picture is that central planning is horribly wasteful, and socialized programs have a track record of performing poorly in the long-term. The final chapters on the evolution of governments & economies are no where near completion…



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