Maximizing knowledge transfer from training
Repeated exposures to contextually meaningful exemplars with specific performance feedback under stress will improve officer performance
By Dawn A. O’Neill, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA, & John O’Neill, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA
Over 100 skills in 21 weeks. Those are the common amount of defensive and control tactics (DCT) taught to recruits across the average length of an American police academy. Recruits must also know local penal codes and may complete some variations of defensive driving, community policing, implicit bias and firearms training. They must pass physical fitness tests and may have the opportunity to complete in vivo or virtual scenario-based training. That’s a lot of boxes to check.
If an academy runs like a workweek, recruits must pass all competencies within 840 training hours. However, only 168 hours are spent on defensive tactics, use-of-force, non-lethal, and firearms training, on average.  How can trainers confidently prepare their recruits with an adequate professional foundation to not only “check the box” in the academy, but keep them safe on the beat? Behavioral science can help.
For the past several years, the Contextual Behavioral Science Institute has been collaborating with the state of New York to revise its training protocols through the lens of behavioral science. Our collaboration is based on years of research conducted across American academies,  and our knowledge of how humans acquire and maintain skills.
Based on this foundation, the following takeaways may lead to the best long-term performance:
1. Develop a task analysis for each skill
A task analysis is a written breakdown of each step into sub-steps and may include pictures. All trainers teach the same skill. All officers are exposed to the same materials. The trainer and trainee both know exactly what is expected of their performance.
Specific steps within the skill may be pinpointed for remedial training.
In our research, we found that there were common errors or omissions for particular steps within DCT across recruits. Pinpointing these deficiencies empowered trainers to zone in on challenging sub-steps to help recruits hone the skill. Trainers discussed providing task analyses to recruits to help prepare for test days and seasoned officers for in-service training. Developing a task analysis takes front-end resources, but then your agency has a permanent product for future use.
2. Provide a rationale for each skill
Officers, and especially recruits, are used to being “voluntold” to complete assignments. However, trainee buy-in is important if you want the trainee to value and use the skill. What’s the so what? Why should they care? How will the skill keep them safe on the street? Why does the trainee need to be mindful of moving off of the midline or off of the x? Being a trainer is an honor that is typically awarded to those with decades-long field experience. Trainers we worked with had a deep pride and dedication to training. This depth of knowledge is vital to convey to trainees.
3. Model the skill, as completely and accurately as possible
Visual instruction is vital for new skills, and for previously learned skills that are either rarely performed or are essential for survival. The model should be an exemplar. This means that even lead trainers need to take a moment to review the skill before modeling it for trainees.
All trainers should be modeling the same skill (queue the task analysis mentioned above). The trainer should consider modeling the skill from various angles. The skill should be modeled both fluidly and step-by-step.
Trainers should consider developing a standard video incorporating all of these elements to model the skill. Similar to the task analysis, trainees will know exactly what is expected of them. Agencies could show the video during training and make video tutorials available for officer review within an online training database.
4. Provide specific, direct positive and corrective feedback
If you are in any academy or in-service, you know the look. The trainers stand in small groups watching you with arms crossed. They dole out a head nod and may come over to you to have you perform a skill again. If you're lucky, you might get a "Good," but trainers can do better.
Trainees benefit from very specific, frequent positive statements about what they are doing well ("Strong work approaching the subject off of the midline") and what needs improvement (“Remember to drop your knees, instead of bending at the waist”). Some trainers have remarked that they forget to call out trainees when they're doing well and find it even more difficult to provide specific, positive statements about performance.
If combined with the video model step above, agencies could record trainees performing the skill. Then, show the trainee their performance next to the model while pausing to provide positive and corrective feedback.
5. Program realistic practice opportunities
Well planned, skill-building scenario-based training is essential for knowledge transfer. Skills are more likely to be maintained if associated with realistic stress and context, instead of statically performing, say, a rear handcuffing technique with little to no resistance. If officers don't practice the skills full out, they may not fully perform them on the street. Trainers all have their favorite stories of the rookie that said "radio" instead of actually communicating with dispatch, or pulled out a Simunition gun only to announce, “Bang, bang” instead of pulling the trigger. We chuckle when it's just training, but these training scars can lead to compromising, if not fatal, line-of-duty errors.
Taken together, a task analysis, rationale, visual model, specific positive and corrective feedback, and realistic training opportunities will help with skill acquisition. However, a single block of training is insufficient for skill maintenance. Quick 10- to 15-minute refresher training sessions substantially improved recruit performance in the academy.  If skills are not frequently used on the street and POST does not require a review, performance should be expected to decline, even for seasoned officers. The best hope of knowledge transfer comes from repeated exposures to contextually meaningful exemplars (rationale with task analysis and model) with specific performance feedback under stress.
1. Reaves BA. (2016). State and local law enforcement training academies, 2013 (Report No. NCJ249784). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
2. O'Neill J, O'Neill D A, Weed K, Hartman ME, Spence W, Lewinski WJ. (2019). Police Academy Training, Performance, and Learning. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(2): 353-372. doi: 10.1007/s40617-018-00317-2. Erratum in: Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(2): 373-374.
About the authors
Dr. Dawn O'Neill has over a decade of experience in clinical practice and research. She is currently the Director of Clinical Practice and Co-Host of the Public House Podcast at the Contextual Behavioral Science Institute. She holds two baccalaureate degrees, one in Psychology and the other in Criminal Justice, both from the University of South Dakota. She earned a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Minnesota State University and a doctoral degree with specialization in Behavior Analysis and Therapy from Southern Illinois University. She also holds a graduate certificate in gerontology. She is a doctoral-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a Licensed Applied Behavior Analyst (LABA) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Dr. O'Neill has published peer-reviewed articles in the fields of behavior analysis, behavioral gerontology, police psychology, ergonomics, law enforcement and exercise science.
Dr. John O'Neill has over a decade of experience in behavioral science. He is currently the Director and Co-Host of the Public House Podcast at the Contextual Behavioral Science Institute. He earned a bachelor's degree in Psychology (2007), a master's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of South Florida (2012), and a doctoral degree with specialization in Behavior Analysis and Therapy from Southern Illinois University (2015). He is a doctoral-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and Licensed Applied Behavior Analyst (LABA) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He has published peer-reviewed scientific research, book chapters, and professional magazine articles. He serves as Chair of the Dissemination of Behavior Analysis Special Interest Group and previously served on the Editorial Board of the “Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science."