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Training through Repetition

Lt. Steve Finney, U.T. Dallas Police Department

Training is a fundamental component of success. My years in the military training soldiers as well as my time in law enforcement have confirmed, time and time again, the importance of repetitive training. Training is not a one-time occurrence. Rather, good training is consistent over time and is filled with repetition and building advanced knowledge upon basic knowledge. In other words, training is best when it builds upon itself. This built-in repetition is important because over time without refreshers or reminders we run the risk of information loss and forgetting. Principles of adult education and training are relatively the same among most occupations.

One analogy to illustrate repetition that comes to mind is a high school math curriculum. Calculus class is built upon trigonometry class which is built upon geometry upon class and upon algebra class. Each subsequent advanced class has many repetitive components of the preceding class.

In 2006, Lindsey Bertomen published an article in Law Enforcement Technology entitled the “Traffic Stop Experiment.” Basically, the article supports the repetition approach. The experiment involved training officers in various traffic related scenarios where the suspect posed some threat. The main conclusion of the study was “The more times scenarios were repeated, the more effective was the trainee’s [officer’s] response.”

If a task is trained to a level of simple proficiency, in order to maintain and sustain that proficiency training must continue beyond the time of initial training. The military distinguishes between basic training and advanced training. It also sustains proficiency levels through what is referred to as “Common Task Training” or layman terms annual refresher training.

Common task training can be developed by determining the specific basic missions of the trainee and providing training in those areas. In our case let’s say an officer receives basic training in crime scene response in the police academy and perhaps might receive some intermediate training later in his or her career. However the officer may not actually use the crime scene response knowledge often because generally an Investigator may be called out to the scene. What happens to much of the officer’s knowledge over time?

Experience would tell us ‘if we don’t use it, we lose it.’ If officers do not utilize their training or receive refresher training they will undoubtedly experience knowledge loss. The more complex a task, the more training is needed to maintain proficiency. In other words, proficiency is proper know-how.

By some standards, forgetfulness is natural, by other standards this knowledge loss or forgetfulness might be considered complacency. Either way, many times the result is a contributing factor to officer safety violations. Every new and seasoned officer alike is probably familiar with the Lundsford incident.

So where does that leave us now? I would suggest we return to the idea that, good training is consistent over time and is filled with repetition and building advanced knowledge upon basic knowledge. In more simple terms let’s just say “refresher” training. Have you noticed any repetition in this article yet?

We can also look to business models for the success and evidence of repetition learning. According to the Xavier University Train the Trainer Workshop, delivered by Edward E. Jones, Ed.D., learning is facilitated and enhanced through repetition.

Just stop and think of the numerous times you’ve seen the same commercial or advertisement. You could also think of how many times a political candidate repeats a message during a political campaign. Jones writes, “The world of advertising knows well the effect of repeating a message. They want to imprint the product on your mind. And it’s the constant repetition that does it.”

According to Jones, “…each time you have a “refresher” session the Desirable Learning Curve holds constant but the Forgetting Curve shows less and less fall off.” That is, people will retain more information. Jones cites Earl Nightingale, a memory instructor who tells his listeners, “a message read or heard several times a day for eight days is virtually memorized; at the end of 30 days the memory retains 90% of the message.” Jones says it is not expected that you repeat your message like a tape recorder during training, but it does show you how the mind works in retaining information and the importance of repetition in learning.

The goal of such repetitive training however is not elaborate PowerPoint presentations or hours and hours of state training credits, it is plainly to develop proficiency and skill on the part of officers in a specific task. Repetition, regardless of how it is presented has a conditioning effect.

For those officers who have the time and luxury to read books and watch videos I encourage you to continue. The trend toward computer based and online training affords officers another valuable avenue to develop and refresh basic skills and even receive credit for training. However, for most officers who live busy lives working off-duty or extra assignments, training officers and supervisors must help them reduce forgetting by providing constant repetition.

So let’s return to our main goal which is: Increased officer proficiency and skill results in better officer decision making thereby resulting in increased officer safety in the field.

Because human beings are capable of absorbing and recalling only a limited amount of information repetition is very effective in training and increasing information retention.

Experience is a wonderful teacher, but it is also a luxury that many cannot afford until it is too late. That is, until a major case has been lost because of officers’ mistakes on a scene or improper procedures and in worst cases, until an officer is injured or killed in the line of duty. Therefore, training, training and more training which provides repetition and conditioning is the way to reduce forgetfulness. Again, when I say training I’m not referring necessarily to formal training. Sound repetitive?

Now that we have identified repetition as an effective and easy approach to training, I’d like to offer some very basic, successful and necessary ideas for execution.

First, Training Officers are usually charged with scheduling state mandated training and coordinating with your state’s police training and standards agency. This does not leave them much time or interest in organizing more internal, informal and effective training.

Therefore, supervisors must take greater interest and responsibility in the training of their officers. This means identifying basic areas where officers need improvement. Addressing these areas for improvement in addition to a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting fosters communication and ensures all officers are receiving the same information.

It is common to hear the “We can’t train” excuse, “Because we must have a police instructor teach or you will not get credit”, or “We can not schedule everyone because of staffing issues or funding issues.” To that I would suggest why not take advantage of the internal resources we have available? Officers with expertise in certain areas or detectives who have advanced knowledge in specific areas have much to offer, share and contribute to the team.

In addition to traditional formal training, informal reminders, quizzes, and discussions can prove very effective in reminding officers of procedures and safety issues keeping information fresh and in the front of their mind. Shift briefings are a terrific time to simply remind officers about routine safety issues that we all take for granted such as weapon side away, separating suspects, no belly in the window, watching the hands, etc. Remember it’s about repetition.

Additionally, an organized five or ten minute Roll Call Training can present officers reminders and refreshers on such subjects as wearing latex gloves, calling for backup, SFST refreshers, review of policies and procedures, etc. Another tool I have used is a short provocative training video, followed by a group discussion. The interest and learning that occurred among officers was surprising. I was reminded that everyone has something to offer and collectively it makes the team better. Rookies as well senior officers have tips, knowledge and experience to share.

Another path I utilized when I was Supervisor of my department’s Criminal Investigation Division was to offer a two hour block of instruction, one time per month on subjects like search and seizure, evidence collection, crime scene procedure, dusting for fingerprints, DNA collection and many other topics. The training was basic and available to all officers on a voluntary basis and they could attend while on duty or earn compensatory time for attending on their off time. The greatest interest in the training was from officers in the Patrol Division. The response was very favorable.

Virtually all officers desire to be a good cop and do a good job. Training Officers as well as supervisors must help them by providing the resources and opportunities to sustain and develop proficient skill levels.

The phrase: Those who fail to prepare, should prepare to fail… holds a lot of truth. Repetition helps prepare!


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