5 keys to active learning for cops

Active learning takes many forms, ranging from attending classes to reading in your off time

This article was updated on July 18, 2017.

Although there are many things I wish I had known at the start of my career, one of the most important is a commitment to active learning.

In law enforcement we talk about active shooters, active patrol and active life styles. However, we treat learning as a passive activity, something that simply happens over time and only when we are assigned to attend police officer training.

Active learning takes many forms, ranging from in-service training sessions and police conferences to reading in your off time. (Photo/Pixabay)
Active learning takes many forms, ranging from in-service training sessions and police conferences to reading in your off time. (Photo/Pixabay)

Active learning takes many forms, ranging from in-service training sessions and police conferences to reading in your off time. Here are five ways you can enhance and expand your police officer education and training.


We often talk about learning from our experiences. Debriefings are the greatest real-time learning opportunities available to us. The question is what are we learning? Are we truly learning a better way to do things or just learning that “Boy we really screwed that up. Better not do that again?” Or maybe we are learning “Well none of us got hurt so we must have done a good job.”

The true purpose of a debriefing is to learn from the experience so that the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation we will perform at a higher level. The keys then are to stay positive and view it as a learning opportunity. Determine what went well and what needs to be done better in the future. When addressing what we want to improve in the future focus on what to do, as opposed to what not to do again.


Just one hour a day reading equals 364 hours a year. Measured over a 25-year career, that’s 9,100 hours of learning, which is the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks of learning a year. Again, given a 25-year career, this one simple habit equates to more than 227 weeks of learning. Here’s a little more math:

  • One book a week is 52 books a year – over a 25-year career that equals 1,300 books;
  • If you read a book every two weeks that is still 650 books over your career;
  • Even a book a month equates to 300 books over 25 years.

Obtain a library card. Find others who are interested in learning and create a network to share periodicals and books. If you can get a group of four people together and each of you invest $25 or $30 a year to subscribe to a different periodical, then for less than 10 cents a day you have access to four magazine subscriptions a year. And while you should definitely access online resources like PoliceOne, don’t forget to look outside of law enforcement as well, and subscribe to magazines publications like Success or similar publications.


Enroll in Automobile University by turning your daily commutes and travels into mobile educational sessions. The average North American spends one hour per day in their vehicle. Using that time listening to educational and motivational material, like the Policing Matters podcast, instead of music equates to a lot of learning. All the numbers related to one hour of reading per day also stand true with listening to educational materials in your car. Combine that with the hour a day of reading and you have 455 forty-hour weeks (18,200 hours) worth of learning in just 25 years.


  • Courses: Take advantage of in-service courses offered by your agency. The list of law enforcement specific training courses offered by quality trainers around North America is endless. Do your research and look toward those of interest to you.
  • Classes: Take one or two University or College classes every year. Over a 25-year career you can earn a degree, a second degree or an advanced degree. And don’t discount the value of seeking out adult learning programs through your city’s Parks and Recreation Department or your local library.
  • Conferences: Every year there are a number of great conferences and courses offered around North America. 

Here are steps you can take to attend the courses, classes and conferences that interest you but might appear out of reach:

  • Budget early by putting money aside from every paycheck and begin attending conferences early in your career – if you save just $2.50 per day you could save $910 in one year, which would easily allow you to attend a conference at least every two years;
  • Most organizations offer scholarships to help deserving officers attend so seek out and apply for those – once you are in a financial position to do so, then donate to the scholarship funds to help other deserving officers who follow you;
  • Ask the conference organizers if they offer any price incentives for officers attending at their own expense;
  • Make a pitch to your supervisor that if you pay your own way and they allow you to attend on company time, then you will make a presentation upon your return and share some of the key elements you learned;
  • Share any handouts or other materials you acquire at the conference – if you show a willingness to attend at your own expense and then share the information, the agency may be more willing to pay you to attend future courses and conferences.

5. following

Finally, seek others who have been there and done that. Find mentors and role models who have already accomplished what you hope to achieve and ask their guidance and advice. Too often we shy away from this powerful learning tool thinking that people will think we are sucking up. The reality is that the majority of those people would be happy to share their experiences, their failures and mistakes, and their lessons learned. If they are not willing to share then they were not a good choice for a role model and we can learn from that and move on.

closing point

During more than four decades as a pilot with the Air Force and commercial airlines, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger had to weather his share of storms and mechanical glitches. When questioned by Katie Couric about his heroic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, Sullenberger credited his past experiences for giving him the maturity to steer the plane. He replied, "One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15, 2009 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

We all need to learn from Captain Sullenberger and start making deposits at the start of our career.

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