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Problem-based learning in basic police academy instruction

Given the increasingly complex nature of modern policing, agencies must consider adopting new instructional methodologies to improve the performance of new officers

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Rather than sitting in rows and instructing through lectures and PowerPoint, the Stanislaus County (California) Sheriff’s Office police academy emphasizes small and large-group learning.

By Clayton H. Hawkins, Ph.D.

The Stanislaus County (California) Sheriff’s Office police academy is one of 41 state-certified police academies in California. The Stanislaus Academy provides basic and advanced law enforcement training to over 4,000 police officers and sheriff’s deputies from the California Central Sierra and Central Valley, a region composed of six county sheriff’s offices and 30 municipal police departments that serve a residential population of 2 million.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, nearly 50% of police recruits fail initial training during their first year of employment, including the basic academy and field training program. Interviews with training officers and academy staff attribute the high failure rate to underdeveloped decision-making and communication skills.

To improve police training, law enforcement educators need to consider new instructional methodologies designed to improve the interpersonal skills of police recruits. For example, andragogical-based adult teaching methodologies, like Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and other student-centered teaching techniques, emphasize learning by exposing students to interactive activities. Learning from these activities improves students’ communication skills and cognitive development, including thinking, reasoning, and decision-making.

Adult learning concepts and problem-based learning

Malcolm Knowles popularized adult learning theory in the 1980s, arguing that adults are more interested in learning new skills they can apply to their jobs than learning new content. Because they are motivated learners, Knowles emphasized that adults prefer active rather than passive learning, including hands-on activities such as role plays, teach-backs, scenarios, and small and large group discussions. These activities build knowledge and improve confidence, critical thinking and communication skills.

To promote interactive learning, academy instructors assume the role of facilitators rather than teachers, reorienting their instructional style from lecturing to facilitating recruits’ understanding and application of course material. They present interactive learning problems, guide discussions, provide feedback and clarify course content.

During their 20 weeks of instruction, the recruits participate in more than 70 interactive learning activities and live scenarios during which they learn policing skills by interviewing role players who assume the role of victims, witnesses, reporting parties, and suspects. The recruits collect evidence, utilize radios to conduct warrant queries, make arrests, conduct searches, and prepare investigative reports. The first-hand experience gained from these activities provides valuable practical experience.

However, even under well-controlled conditions, problem-based learning is challenging to implement. Interactive classroom activities and field scenarios require substantial logistical support, including facilities, role players, proctors and props. These activities complicate scheduling by requiring sufficient set-up, run time, and post-activity debriefing to maximize training content and lessons learned.

Before introducing problem-based learning, the academy’s instructional cadre was composed of 90 topic-specific instructors, each teaching single courses. Instructors completed coursework in adult learning concepts to introduce problem-based learning, including lesson planning, facilitation, and use of learning activities.

After completing training, the new problem-based learning academy was launched with 35 instructors, each teaching multiple courses in an interactive and coordinated delivery model.

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Instead of the instructors solely teaching, the recruits complete reading assignments, teach course content to the class, and respond to a wide range of live interactive scenarios.

Results of problem-based learning

Since 2015, 565 recruits involving 16 classes have completed basic academy training utilizing problem-based learning. To determine its effectiveness, the academic passing rates of recruits from the academy and the field training program are compared before and after the introduction of problem-based learning. According to the data, prior to 2015, the average pass rate of recruits from the academy was 71%. Since 2015 and the introduction of problem-based learning, the pass rate has increased by 13% to 84%.

The pass rate of recruits from the post-academy field training officer program is similarly evaluated. That analysis found that before 2015, the average recruit pass rate was 75%. However, since 2015 and the introduction of problem-based learning, the pass rate of officers from the field training program has increased by 15% to 90%. Therefore, the data suggests that since the introduction of problem-based learning, the passing rates of recruits from both the academy and field training program have improved.

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Scenario training allows the recruits to apply the concepts they learn in the classroom to simulated policing incidents under the supervision of a training officer.


Given the increasingly complex nature of modern policing, law enforcement agencies must consider adopting new instructional methodologies to improve the performance of new officers. Rather than traditional lecture-based instruction emphasizing rote memorization, new training strategies emphasizing problem-solving, communication, critical thinking and decision-making skills are needed.

Among its advantages, problem-based learning offers unique opportunities for recruits to solve problems and make decisions within a result-oriented coaching environment. This experience improves confidence and offers recruits a real-world perspective unattainable through traditional instruction. However, implementing problem-based learning is challenging and requires the retraining of instructors and extensive use of personnel and logistics.

About the author

Clayton Hawkins is an instructor at the Stanislaus County (California) Sheriff’s Office Basic Academy and former captain with the Calaveras County (California) Sheriff’s Office. He is a POST Master Instructor, spending 22 of his 34 years in public service as the commander of a regional bomb squad and hazardous materials response team. Clay has a Ph.D. in political economy and has been teaching courses in the Basic Academy and in-service training programs since 2009.