Why we need to train officers before we can test them

Effective education involves pre-tests, post-tests, evaluation rubrics, performance objectives and scripted presentation materials


By Lon Bartel, VirTra

Are you testing or training your team? It seems like an easy question to answer.

Conceptually we all understand we need to educate our people before we test them. We want to provide students and officers with the material and skills they need to perform critical tasks, let them develop in those areas and then be tested.

By developing a specifically written curriculum, you will ensure you are effectively using any simulated event training. (Photo/VirTra)
By developing a specifically written curriculum, you will ensure you are effectively using any simulated event training. (Photo/VirTra)

However, do you fire up your simulator, place your students into a highly immersive and realistic environment, and run them through a scenario, finishing by telling them what they did right and what they did wrong? If you answered “Yes,” then you are only testing them. They showed up, you gave them a problem to solve, they solved it and then you evaluated them. By definition, that would be a test, not training.

avoid information overload

There can be some training value in a test, but do not confuse testing and training. Seasoned trainers know that if you provide too much feedback on too many areas the information won’t stay with the student. I have seen this occur with many debriefs. Trainers throw out too much information for students to digest, but the assumption is that if it was covered in a debriefing, the student learned from it. How do you know they learned? How much of your feedback was integrated? Did you retest to find out?

Let me give you a real-world example. Pretend you showed up for College Algebra and I, as the instructor, hand you a test and ask you to complete it. You turn it in, and I grade your answers and make corrections to any wrong answers. I then tell you what you did right and what you did wrong and give you a grade. But were you trained? Were you ever trained to do the math topic first? Did you get to practice a similar equation to ensure you could transfer the concept to the test? Did I use a consistent method to ensure you have an understanding of the expectations? Were you provided a “worked problem” to help guide your actions? This kind of example has been applied to training methods as far back as the 1980s.

how we learn

In 1988, Dr. John Sweller presented evidence that conventional problem-solving activities such as taking tests do not effectively develop a schema. A schema is a file folder that our brain creates to identify, group and relate to things. We develop a schema when we do things like throw a football or draw a firearm. Developing schemas is how we learn. To do it, we have to have enough working memory available to move what we are working on in our head to our long-term memory. If the working memory is overburdened with problem solving (completing the test), then we cannot effectively move it to our long-term memory. This means we can’t effectively develop a schema, or learn from the experience if it is under too much pressure or load.

One way that working memory gets overloaded is when we are engaged in complex problem-solving. Dr. Sweller referred to it as cognitive load – when the cognitive load is too high, effective learning is compromised. If you give your students a problem and their working memory is filled up by trying to answer the problem, they have no reserve to move the lesson into long-term memory effectively.

However, Dr. Sweller’s work did not say you can’t learn from taking a test. He said it is not as effective as other methods such as a “worked problem.” The use of a “worked problem” is a method to help facilitate the development of a schema with a structured presentation of the problem and only partial amounts of the solution provided. This requires the student to “fill in the blanks” of what has not been provided. Providing a partial answer to the student allows for less of their working memory to be tied up in problem-solving. Think of it as a study guide to an exam.

The value of a training plan

Even officers who have “had the class before” may need to knock the dust off or warm up their skills again. From the research, we know feedback is critical to better performances. An important aspect of feedback is that it is timely, which means it needs to be close enough to the behavior to be able to relate, such as telling your dog “bad dog” for chewing on your shoe 10 minutes ago has no meaning to the dog in the present moment in time. These same principles should apply to law enforcement training. If you wait to the end of the scenario to provide seven points of correction to debrief on, are you sure the points from the start actually stick? If you are not giving a test, why not pause the event at the first point of error and correct it? Letting an error compound as the event unfolds has little training value.

Instead by developing a specifically written curriculum you will ensure you are effectively using any simulated event training. It must be more than just a list of what events you are going to run. Do you have a pre-test, post-test, evaluation rubric, performance objectives and scripted presentation materials? For example, VirTra’s V-VICTA program provides a step-by-step curriculum in a prescribed format to ensure that a training plan is carried out. There is nothing that says effective training requires a student to fail miserably. We can let them make an error, pause the event and discuss the current behavior. Afterward, we get them to dig in and truly understand the mistake. This makes debriefing a valuable part of the training and helps reinforce the schema required for learning to take place. Without effective debriefing as a crucial component of training, we are only testing the students. Few trainers will get to an opportunity to re-test and see if any transfer takes place. So, ask yourself, are you testing or training your team?


About the Author

Lon Bartel is a use-of-force expert for VirTra, Inc., and works closely with law enforcement agencies on use-of-force scenario training. He is a retired peace officer and has been a certified law enforcement trainer for over 17 years. AZPOST recognizes him as an expert in the areas of defensive tactics and firearms. He served as his Department’s Rangemaster from 2005-2017. Lon co-founded the Arizona Tactical Officers Association and served as secretary for five years. As a SWAT member, he was a senior operator and was instrumental in creating the explosive breaching program for his department in 2008 where he served as the lead tactical breacher. Lon was also an adjunct instructor for the largest manufacturer of force on force technology and training munitions for six years. This experience has allowed him to witness thousands of simulated forces on force incidents, providing invaluable insight into human performance under stress. Lon has used his expertise to serve on numerous review boards, which include reviewing and evaluating 300+ actual police cases involving the use of force and deadly force. He graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Exercise and Sports Science (Magna Cum Laude) from Arizona State University. Most recently, Lon has been certified by the Force Science Institute (FSI) as a certified Use of Force analyst and is a certified Advanced Specialist with FSI as well.

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