Training police recruits to think (part two)

In order to develop long-term memory, motor programs, and problem-solution schematics, the science of cognition and motor skill development must be incorporated into the training program. The learning experience must be structured in accordance with contemporary principles of motor learning and performance. Skills can be practiced in blocked, variable, constant or random patterns or some combination thereof. Studies have demonstrated that for both cognitive and motor-skill training, a schedule of variable and random practice proves more effective for long-term skill retention.

Blocked Versus Random Training
Blocked practice is a sequence in which the student works on a single skill or sub-skill for multiple repetitions before moving onto the next task. In a random schedule, the learner minimizes consecutive repetitions of one task and intersperses it with the practice of multiple tasks during the same practice period. The skills are practiced in no particular order. While it may seem intuitive to master one skill before moving to another, experiments have established that practicing in a random manner more effectively develops the student’s long-term retention of the material.

Recruits learning a new skill will most likely need some measure of blocked practice before moving to a random practice model. The extent to which the student must remain in the blocked schedule depends upon the innate traits of the individual, prior knowledge, motivation, attention, and most importantly the simplicity or difficulty of the task to be mastered. The instructor can influence most of these variables by structuring the instruction in an efficient and effective manner, utilizing motivating coaching skills, and minimizing the cognitive load of the material by simplifying the tactics, techniques, and procedures taught to the recruit. As soon as the student has a fundamental understanding of how to perform a technique, random practice scheduling should be incorporated.

Constant Versus Variable Training
Recruits may feel more comfortable practicing a single skill for multiple repetitions believing that they are beginning to “get it,” and may become frustrated when just at that point the instructor steps in and moves on to another task. Since adults have a need to understand why they are doing what they are doing, instructors should explain the science of motor-skill development in order to mitigate that frustration.

In order to improve the recruit’s problem-solving and adaptability skills, tasks should be practiced in a variable manner. Variability refers to a practice sequence that introduces a number of variations of a particular skill during a training session. Variation refers to both “surface” as well as “structural” features of tasks. Since the ultimate goal of instruction is the transfer of skills from the learning environment to the “real world,” the context (surface features) and the content (structural features) of a task must be practiced in reality-based surroundings.

Let’s use a prone-handcuffing tactic as an example. In a constant practice regimen, the student performs his or her instructed handcuffing technique in isolation. The recruit learns a single method for applying the handcuffs with no problem-solving or environmental challenges. In fact, the recruit may be required only to apply the handcuffs from a single approach angle.

Sterile practice in a mat-room environment is not realistic training. Problem-solving scenarios in real-world environments (also referred to as the specificity of learning principle) must be incorporated into practice sessions in order to prepare the recruit for the real world. We can promote this realistic training by varying the task requirements. First, ensure that the recruit is forced to practice his or her handcuffing technique from all approach angles (head, side, foot) and knows how to apply the technique to either hand. This would be an example of surface-feature variability since the underlying procedures to accomplish the task remain the same. Second, vary the structural-features by changing the environmental considerations.

At my agency we are fortunate to have a “Sim-house” and seldom-used hallways adjacent to the mat room. The recruits soon discover that the techniques they learned in a wide-open area do not translate to confined spaces, when operating from a position of cover, or in cluttered rooms where backup officers cannot attain that picture-perfect cover position. Incorporating a problem-based-learning precept, we encourage the students to develop options for adapting their initial training to solve the current problem in this more realistic environment.

Some of the recruits are able to discover practical answers to the novel problem of handcuffing in a more realistic environment. Frankly, we are not looking for a perfect answer, but rather a solution that is reasonable and satisfactory. Other recruits, for one reason or another, discover that the cognitive load of developing problem-solutions is too great. This extraneous load then interferes with learning (Plass, et al., 2010). At any “stall point” in learning and problem solving, the instructor must then use one of several coaching strategies to further the instruction. Strategies include worked examples, part problem solving, prompts, hints, inquiries, or direct instruction when necessary.

Open and Closed Skills
Police work is an open-skill enterprise. Open skills are those that are performed in an environment that is unpredictable or in motion and that requires individuals to adapt their movements in response to dynamic properties of the environment. Unfortunately, most instructors with whom I am familiar train students in a manner that is most consistent with closed skills. Closed skills are performed in predictable and stationary environments that allow individuals to plan their movements in advance (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000). This is far from the real-world environment of police work. A byproduct of a random and variable training model in an open-skill environment is a level of stress-adaptation.

The impact of closed-skill training can be measured. Recruits were asked to “self-report” on their experiences in the academy. While the assessments were more observational than empirical, those recruits assigned to the more “closed-skill, constant, and blocked” training methodology reported that they felt less prepared and more stressed about scenario testing while in the academy. Some even reported that due to the monotony of the “more-reps” instructional strategy, they became bored and did not feel challenged during training sessions. These recruits stated that they had difficulty transferring their mat-room theoretical knowledge into the practical knowledge needed for scenarios. They also reported feeling less confident than did the random-practice group in their ability to improvise and adapt to novel situations that they expect to encounter in the Field Training Program.

Blocked and constant training works best for short-term memory retention. Therefore, if your desired outcome was to teach a skill today that the student is to be tested on tomorrow, then direct the student to perform mass repetitions of the skill. If, however, your goal is to develop a skill that must be retained for many years (arrest and defense tactics come to mind), then apply variety and randomness to your training cycle.

New material is soon forgotten if not reinforced. Therefore, review time must be strategically incorporated in practice schedules. We have found that the high-risk, high-frequency skills needed by officers are more readily retained with frequent and short practice sessions distributed throughout the academy training. We start almost every training session with a review of standing handcuffing and searching. These are the tasks most frequently performed by patrol officers. Additionally, after every break we immediately review the new material that was presented in the previous instructional block. Performance rapidly improves with this strategy, as does the interest, confidence, and motivation of the student.

Through appropriate modeling of skills, and the application of the scientific principles of adult-learning and motor skill development, we demonstrate relevancy, motivate the recruit to take responsibility for learning, and develop their ability to transfer their skills to novel situations. Additionally, by developing and applying simulations and training vignettes to their learning cycles, the recruit develops a problem-solving attitude and has an opportunity to adapt to the stressors presented in the event.

In order to more quickly develop the problem solving arrest and control skills of young police recruits, be sure to deliver content; while at the same time remember how equally important it is to set context. Get out of the mat-room as quickly as possible. Work in hallways, on stairs, and in and around vehicles. Set up scenarios that challenge their skills early. Make these scenarios realistic and solvable. Our job is to guide and coach the recruit to an acceptable resolution, not demand that they choose the same solution that we would. You are not going to be there on the street to direct them.

Teach them how to problem solve — how to think — and be confident that you have given them your best.

Force Science Institute. (2005). Hot new area of brain research offers hope for better training, sharper street smarts. Force Science News, #25.
Macleod, M. (2009). An interview with the lion of Al Qaim. Marine Corps News Room, 09.20.2009.
Plass, J. L., Moreno, R., Brunken, R. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Schmidt, Richard A., Wrisberg, Craig A. (2000). Motor learning and performance: a problem-based learning approach (2nd ed.). Champaing, IL: Human Kientics.


About the author

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.

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  2. Police Training
  3. Officer Safety
  4. Police Trainers

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