Photo Dale Stockton
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One thing has remained constant throughout my life: education. Even now as an instructor, I still take classes and continue to take the time to learn from others.
In a recent class, the trainer made a statement that really got me thinking. Some of the other students were badgering him about what the final exam would encompass. Finally, he stated, I m not here to teach you the test. I m here to teach you what you need to know to do your job.
What a powerful statement. Every one of us has taken at least one course that was nothing more than a formality to receiving or renewing a certificate. Some of us may have even taught a course this way. But who benefits in the end from this training methodology?
As an instructor, it always looks good when there are low failure rates. As a student, we are relieved when we get long breaks, leave early and realize the final review is coming directly from the exam. But I ll ask again, who truly benefits from teaching the test?
Many fear the opposite end of the training spectrum lots of unreasonably difficult tests, harsh class environments, extremely regimented training cycles, etc. and that s understandable. No normal person enjoys a boot-camp drill instructor presentation methodology.
Companies in the training business live and die from repeat business and word-of-mouth. Making a course exceptionally demanding could take food away from your own plate. Receiving the occasional complaint about your course shouldn t be cause for concern, but when you send home a large percentage of your students with physical injuries, washouts or low grades, it may in fact be time to revisit your curriculum. But before you water down your lesson plan, think back to the last easy class you took. What do you remember most? What did you take from it?
Find the Middle Ground
Over the years, some have forgotten that training has an important purpose, not just a check mark in a log or employee file. Some put more effort into the appearance of their PowerPoint slides than the content. And in the name of moving the class along or ensuring adequate numbers pass the course, there s a growing, but unspoken trend to dumb the class down.
Another troubling tendency, on the opposite end of the spectrum: teaching to the smartest person in the class. Admittedly, it makes the instructional period go by faster, but it s a disservice to the students in the class who actually need the training. The people with the least knowledge usually won t ask questions because they don t want to bog the class down, and they don t want to seem ignorant.
Couple this problem with the possibility that sometimes the exam doesn t really test if the student retained what they should have learned, and you are, in effect, setting some students up for failure. They may slide through class and retain enough in the short-term memory bank to pass the test, but what have you just put on the street? Do they truly understand what you ve taught, or are they just regurgitating what they ve crammed the night before? More importantly, have you taught in a manner that s easy to transfer to long-term memory, where they can draw from it when they actually need it?
Ignore the legal ramifications of allowing a class to slide by for a moment. Is there a course trivial enough to allow us to just teach the test? No one enjoys sitting through yet another bloodborne pathogens update, or a Fire Extinguisher Operator class. However, assuming the students have already heard all of the material before, or allowing them to remain lax in their studies because they know just what they need to pass, potentially releases someone with deficient knowledge onto somebody s shift. This person in turn may be called upon to perform on you the very tasks you let them slide by on!
Bottom line: Training remains one of the best ways to ensure people in similar jobs have similar skills. Training helps to increase confidence in the field, and reduces error. And testing remains an excellent metric for ensuring trainees have initially understood and, later, retained those skills.
I will be the first to acknowledge it can prove difficult to jazz up a dry presentation. And, the line between an easy and an impossible test can be grey. In preparing your training, ask yourself, did my lecture present the information my students need to do those tasks well? Were they given enough time to practice the critical skills? Was my testing regimen thorough enough to make the student demonstrate the salient points, but not to the point of beating them over the head with trivia?
In closing, we are living in increasingly complicated times. The level of training our students need just for basic awareness and survival are tenfold what officers received just a few years ago. As instructors, it s our job to make sure we don t accept any cutting of corners when training recruits. And we need to extend this philosophy to in-service, specialized and refresher training.
In the old days, people said the academy provided just enough training to get you killed. One by one, we need to examine if our blocks of instruction are the ones that are propagating this saying. Ask yourself this: If I went out on patrol today, would I want a graduate of my course backing me up?
5 Tips for Trainers
Here are five ways instructors can enrich their class time:
1. Involve your students. Students fear being called upon in class and, as a result, will tune in a great deal more if they see class participation is a large part of your regimen. It can be as simple as having them finish a sentence, or giving them a bullet point and then asking them why they think that point is important. This gives you the side benefit of instant feedback you ll know if the class is keeping up.
2. Chunk your material. Instead of trying to shove an entire concept down your students throats, consider breaking the concept down into small, key points that are easier to digest. As the class grows familiar with the small keys, bring the keys together to create the large concept.
3. Give assurances. Many intelligent people don t test well. Their performance anxiety causes them to increasingly worry about the exams and, as a result, pay less attention to the lecture. Base your testing on the concepts you teach in the class, and as the class masters the concepts, praise and remind them that what they are doing well now is all they need to do in order to do well on that topic during the testing phase.
4. Accurately budget your time. Resist the urge to stretch material to fit into a longer time block, or skip material to fit into a shorter one. If you realize you re running short, use the extra time to reinforce earlier concepts. Let them do a non-graded practical. If you re running over, inform your lead instructors. Decide if the majority of the class is having trouble with the concepts, or a few. Maintaining an even instructional pace is critical don t sacrifice your entire class for one or two who consistently need extra attention. And, if there are segments you can skip in your lesson plan without hurting the overall class, you ve built in fluff.
5. Don t just teach the test. Don t read the text from the book or manual. Don t give your students bullet points pulled from the test master. There isn t a training topic around that you can t illustrate with a couple of related pictures and facts from the Internet. Make the topic interesting; give the students the why behind the reason. Even if it s refueling policy or what subject goes on what form, don t spoon-feed them. Ask a person from records to talk to the class, or videotape them explaining all the extra work officers cause others when they improperly use forms. Show them how inaccurate refueling records cause your department to lose a lot of money. Sometimes even simple topics have complex reasons. Giving your students some of the decision-making instead of just handing the policy to them now can prevent them from seeking creative ways to circumvent policy later.
Shawn Hughes is a sometimes controversial veteran patrol officer and Bomb Technician who now consults for various agencies and private corporations when he isn t writing or teaching. His articles have appeared in national publications such as the National Tactical Officers Association s Tactical Edge, the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigator s Detonator, SWAT, Police and others. His second book, on physical security vulnerabilities, is due out shortly. Contact him at email@example.com.