4 ways to help trainees 'make it stick'

The best trainers find ways to help their students engage with the subject in creative and meaningful ways

The best trainers know that throwing out information and hoping it sticks is just wishful thinking.

Excellent trainers provide context to give the material some meaning to the learner. Without some connection to the material, students will have little success keeping the information in their long-term memory.

Here are four strategies to help trainees “make it stick.”


Studies show that a brief introduction or “teaser” about upcoming material can help retention.

The old saying “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” applies.

Providing an outline or a relevant assignment or reading a day or two ahead of the class can get students thinking about the topic. They will be more curious and attentive by feeling a little familiar with the subject.

War Stories

A good story can give students a mental picture of how the topic works in real life. Stories don’t have to be dramatic or funny, but those ingredients can help forge that emotional connection that is a powerful association with the lesson.

Students may have some relevant stories of their own from their experience, even if it isn’t police related.

If a learner can relate a concept to their own life experience, the trainer has an added advantage. Asking for examples can help encourage students to think of a time when they have encountered a concept related to the subject matter.

Creative Thinking

The human brain loves patterns and routines. While this is a useful trait, it can lead to learners filing your presentation in an old, boring category in their mind:

“Report writing = high school English = boring.”

To keep a fresh perspective, try compelling some new thinking. One of my favorite exercises uses a team approach. Each team chooses an item from a category that I offer such as something you find in a car or an item on a restaurant menu. After they choose, I ask them to compare their choice to the topic.

“Report writing is like a spare tire because ___.” 

The exercise is fun and exposes different angles of thinking to the topic at hand.

New Terminology

Words communicate more than abstract ideas. They come with a certain set of expectations.

Asking students to come up with a different title for a class can help them think about the meaning of the course. It may also reveal pre-existing ideas and expectations that can help the trainer understand the students’ mindset.

Relabeling can help define the purpose of a class for the trainer as well. Which sounds more purposeful? 

“Incident Reconstruction” or “Report Writing”

Using “First Unit Staging” instead of “Scene Response” can implant the idea of managing a scene rather than just rolling up on it. “Preventing Post-Arrest Assault” sounds more powerful than “Handcuffing.”

Trainers are among our most competent and enthusiastic law enforcement officers. Making that enthusiasm reach into the minds of learners happens best when the learner attaches the significance of the course material to his or her own needs, experiences, and interests.

The best trainers find ways to help their students engage with the subject in creative and meaningful ways.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

logo for print