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Training Adults Is Different!

All law enforcement trainers need to understand how adults learn and what they can do to maximize officer learning. Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the study of adult learning, discovered that adults learn best when 1) they understand why something is important to know or do, 2) they have the freedom to learn in their own way, 3) learning is experiential, 4) the time is right for them to learn, and 5) the process is positive and encouraging.

Mandatory in-service may change some of these “learn best” factors, so it is important for trainers to “sell” what they are presenting to the officers. When a trainer is forced to present material, it can negatively impact learning. If a training session begins with the statement, “I don’t understand why I’m presenting this, but the captain said that I needed to do so,” it’s unlikely that any learning will take place.

Agency and Instructor Responsibility

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, an international behavioral science consultant to law enforcement and an acclaimed law enforcement instructor, stated, “Agencies can facilitate better learning by offering highly motivated, top-notch instructors who have access to excellent instructor training, relevant classes, student-centered learning based on adult learning principles, and leaders who themselves exemplify eagerness to learn and willingness to change. Instructors and FTOs who are negative or poor teachers need to be moved on to other assignments.”

Those that wear the stars, bars and stripes better be sold on any training delivered to the officers. Even training that is mandated by a governmental entity but not seen as important by the top law enforcement administrator must be delivered to the rank and file in a positive and meaningful manner. Personal training topic likes and dislikes must be put aside for the good of all involved.

If possible, only agency supervisors and administrators should attend the first of two training sessions. Their attendance should be seen as an opportunity to fine-tune the training material and to discuss any topic or presentation concerns with the instructor. This input gives the agency a vested interest in the material presented.

Detective Michael Savasta of the Coral Springs, FL Police, an experienced instructor, believes that learning is the responsibility of both the instructor and the trainee. Savasta said, “I believe learners have the biggest problem when it comes to relevancy. Learners, especially adult learners, must see how the topic applies to their jobs and what value it is to them. This makes identifying the class objectives one of the most important things an instructor must do in the beginning to instruct a topic.”

There are times when mandated training is required for presentation by a specific instructor. If that is the case, it is still a good idea to have agency supervisors and administrators attend initial training sessions. Any professional instructor will be open to input by the agency leaders.

Valerie Van Brocklin, an Alaska-based former prosecutor at the state and federal level and a well-known national law enforcement trainer, stated, “I believe the instructor can and should play a significant role in awakening officers to the responsibilities of how to be trained. Teaching doesn’t equal learning, and telling doesn’t equal training. “How to be trained” is a great application of adult learning theory—it’s about adult learners taking responsibility in the training/learning process and holding their instructors accountable.”

Unfortunately, there are still instructors who are rigid and not open to any meaningful changes. If this is the case, it should be documented, with fact and opinion kept separate. A follow-up paper trail may be necessary to report this poor material presentation to those responsible for mandating the course of instruction. Personal likes and dislikes should not factor into any evaluation process.

Some special considerations may need to be addressed when instructing law enforcement officers. In general, most officers prefer to be taught only by other officers. There are a few exceptions; for example, EMS-related training can be taught by EMTs or other EMS personnel, and legal updates can be presented by attorneys, though preferably not defense attorneys. But officers prefer an experienced officer over a PhD by a large margin.

Anyone who presents material to law enforcement officers should understand who the officers are and what their responsibilities are. Instructors should have formal instructor development training. An instructor who is well trained knows how to create an environment that is conducive to learning. A professional instructor will present material with energy and enthusiasm and be able to get class members actively involved in training.

Personal Responsibility

Officers should still be able to learn non-law enforcement related material from those with expertise who are not police officers. Learning new skills or acquiring new knowledge can help any officer be more effective. An open mind is a good thing. Learning how to develop a better memory and effective interpersonal communication can be taught by experts who do not have law enforcement backgrounds, yet who understand what officers do. Students need to respect the instructor, but the instructor should also respect the students.

John Fryksdale, Chief of Police for Richmond, IL noted, “Officers should be respectful to the instructor and listen, even if they don’t want to be in the class or disagree with the material or topic. Officers should realize that all training is an excellent opportunity to learn something and take away a skill, viewpoint or another way of doing things.”

Some things that an officer can do are basic. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, U.S. Army (retired), a nationally known and very well respected law enforcement speaker who presents his material in an extremely upbeat, “fire and brimstone” manner, believes something as basic as note-taking is essential. He stated, “Mandate note-taking during training. Get used to pulling out the notebook and taking notes, even during the hands-on phases. Getting accustomed to pulling out that notebook and taking notes is a key cop skill and a key learner skill. It should be taught and graded at the academy, FTO phase, on the street AND during all training.”

The process of “encoding” the learning (observed/heard) into notes (written/reformatted) is the first step in successful learning. It should be taught, mandated and graded at all levels. Grossman adds, “During my presentations, the number of cops who bring a pencil and take notes, any notes at all, is usually about one in 10 (10%), and often less than one in 20 (5%).”

Betsy Brantner Smith, a recently retired Naperville, IL Police Department Sergeant, nationally instructs training programs on leadership, communication, emotional survival and officer survival from a mindset perspective. She said, “Cops are accustomed to controlling their environment; even the newest rookie has a great deal of control over the public, his or her daily goals, and him or herself.”

When officers enter a training class, they have to put that control aside, or put it into the hands of the instructor. Officers are also acclimated to being “the expert,” but again, when they come into the classroom, they are learners, not experts. This can be difficult for some officers to put aside, and it’s a great reason why all instructors should never stop being students.

Training is too important to not be addressed in all areas. It is the role of the agency leaders, supervisors, instructors and trainees to do everything possible to maximize both the delivery and the reception of any training topic. Training time is too valuable of a commodity to waste.

Ed Nowicki, a nationally recognized use of force expert, is a part-time officer for the Twin Lakes (WI) Police Department. He presents Use of Force Instructor Certification Courses across the nation and is the executive director of ILEETA. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

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