Effective simulation training

By Guest Columnist Todd Brown

If you think about it, you might be surprised by how many instances of simulation training your agency uses on a daily basis. Role-playing exercises, force on force marking cartridge scenarios, multimedia use-of-force simulators and live fire shoot houses are just a few examples. For example, the target that your agency uses for firearms qualification is shaped and scored in a manner that simulates the human body. Simulation is a theme that is prevalent in all of our training sessions. Some might argue that all training is simulation in one form or another. However, most law enforcement instructors, and as a result, most officers, do not reap the greatest benefit from their simulation exercises.

Most training programs are structured so that the simulation exercise results in a “test and evaluation” of the trainee’s skill level. A prime example of this type of training is firearms qualification. During a firearms qualification, instructors test and evaluate the trainee’s ability to meet a minimum standard when shooting at a silhouette of a human being. While this is necessary to document proficiency with a firearm, this exercise does absolutely nothing to teach the trainee how to quickly acquire a target and accurately hit it. In other words, no learning has taken place by the trainee.

By taking the same exercise and viewing it from another perspective, that of “teaching and learning,” the exercise takes on a whole new meaning. For example, what if each qualification included a brief video showing the trainee their sight picture/sight alignment, stance and trigger press as they shot? Might the trainee leave the qualification having learned what they can do to improve their ability to shoot? The answer, obviously, is yes.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of constraints, most instructors feel that they don’t have time to add to an established training curriculum. The solution is simply to change the mindset from “test and evaluate” to “teach and learn.” By switching to the latter, an instructor can make learning the primary goal of any training exercise. Test and evaluation then becomes a by-product of the learning that takes place.

No matter what the simulation environment, i.e., force-on-force, multimedia simulators, driving simulators, etc., there are several components necessary to ensure that the training exercise is conducive to learning.

Three Tenets of Effective Training

First and foremost, there must be a clearly defined training objective. What is it that you, as an instructor, hope the students will learn by participating in this exercise? The exercise itself must be easily recreated to allow the student to go through the exercise repeatedly if necessary. The exercise must also remain consistent, regardless of who participates in the exercise.

In the case of multimedia simulators, recreating training exercises is fairly easy; each student will see the scenario run exactly as it ran for the student before them. Obviously, in role-playing exercises, this requires a complete understanding of roles and responsibilities for each participant. However, even in the multimedia environment, both the instructor operating the simulator and the trainee must understand what is required of them. The key lesson is that without consistency, there is no way to reliably reach the training objective.

Second, accurate performance feedback must be given to the trainee by a qualified instruction staff that has the necessary communication and evaluation tools. It is up to instructors to ensure that they have these tools to effectively evaluate and communicate to the students. Different students require different learning methods; but almost every expert will agree that the process of learning is in large part relating the new to the old.

In addition, the evaluation and communication process must clearly and accurately explain the student’s deficiencies. It must also provide for the most common learning elements among adults - audio and visual feedback. Examples include videos of officers as they go through training, an audio recording, pictures and common multimedia applications such as PowerPoint.

Simply telling a student what they did wrong is not enough and will quickly be forgotten. Instructors must show trainees and most importantly, allow them to apply any given corrections in the same or similar scenarios. By demonstrating the applied corrections, trainees allow the instructor - and themselves - to see that the corrective measures were, in fact, valid.

Without the opportunity to apply corrective measures, trainees will not have learned of their potential benefits and therefore have no reason to attempt to utilize these measures in the future.

For instance, after a multimedia simulation session during which the suspect on screen shoots at the officer, the officer may be given direction by the instructor to make better use of available cover and to verbalize better. By running the scenario again, the officer can apply these corrective measures. A sharp instructor will then “branch” the scenario down a different path where the suspect does not shoot. The officer, then, has learned that by making better use of cover and verbalization skills, the scenario can be altered to a much more desirable outcome.

The third component to learning requires that feedback come from a variety of sources. While trainees might be inclined to accept feedback from an expert/instructor or even their peers, independent third-party verification is even more powerful. A good example of this type of objective feedback is a videotape recording of the officer’s actions. In addition, video replay is one of the best ways to have any officer evaluate their own performance.

An example of an effective video replay technique is to treat the videotape of the officer’s training as real footage that was shot by a tourist. Inform the officer that this videotape will be playing on the evening news and in the courtroom. It represents the primary means by which most people will judge his actions. Then review the tape with the officer.

This technique is usually a very sobering exercise for all officers. Interestingly enough, it seems to have the greatest impact on the service officer with between 5 and 15 years of service. A possible reason is that this officer grouping may have had an opportunity to develop bad habits they are unaware of.

Some simulation systems, such as the Range 3000 XP4, by IES Interactive Training, allow for a picture-in-picture playback of the scenario and the trainee in real time. This allows the officer, under the guidance of the instructor, to compare his recollection of his actions relative to how and when they actually occurred as the scenario progressed.

Post-Incident Training

In addition to feedback on performance, trainees must be able to clearly articulate in their own words, according to law, policy and procedure, why they performed the way they did during the training scenario. If they are unable to provide this articulation in training, an instructor cannot expect them to be able to do it in a real-life incident.

After any real-life incident, the officer will likely be required to articulate his actions and their compliance with law, policy and procedure in a written report. Depending on the incident, this report may be in addition to interviews with investigators, lawyers and a multitude of other interested parties. The ability to articulate is not an innate skill in most officers. Proof of this fact lies in the amount of time and effort spent teaching officers to write reports correctly. Therefore, simulation training provides a perfect opportunity for officers to learn and practice the art of articulation.

A common articulation-training technique used by hundreds of instructors from all over the world is the “open-ended questioning” method.

First, the trainee is encouraged to articulate the circumstances of his or her actions in their own words. Stated another way, an instructor should ask open-ended questions of the officer such as, “can you tell me what happened?” or “what was going through your mind as the scenario played?” Open-ended questions force the trainee to describe - in their own words - the elements of the scenario, their actions and how the totality of the circumstances led the officer to take the action that they took.

Conversely, leading questions such as, “why did you shoot?” will likely elicit an answer the student believes the instructor wants to hear - “because he had a gun” - and does not address the total picture. This is where other multimedia devices that show the student relevant documentation can be extremely beneficial.

Examples include a PowerPoint presentation showing department policy in these circumstances, documents of case law pertaining to the particular situation and if available, video of the actual incident the scenario mimics, crime scene photos, reports, court documents, etc. Concrete examples allow the student to learn how things like case law apply to different situations, and will frame the student’s actions in light of current court rulings regarding similar situations.

Failure Can Equal Success

Finally, simulation training must contain two components that are missing from most training programs: the ability to fail and the ability to succeed.

The ability to fail implies training must be challenging enough to reduce the possibility the trainee might get lucky and guess the correct behavior. Additionally, the instructor has a difficult job in convincing students (who, by the nature of their jobs, are expected to always win), that failure is not only allowed, but is desirable under simulation conditions. Trainees and instructors need to know that training is a constant learning environment where past actions are improved through repetition and drill. If the student completes training scenarios perfectly, it is likely because the instructor failed to detect problem areas and has lost a golden opportunity to correct any deficiency.

The ability to succeed implies that each scenario should allow the student to repeat the training as many times as necessary until the correct behavior - articulated by the instructor - has been applied. Again, repetition is the only likely way in which trainees will develop confidence in newly learned skills. Instructors also should avoid presenting non-winnable scenarios as they wrongly condition students into believing they are powerless to affect outcomes—we have all seen examples of where this defeatist mindset has resulted in injury and even death to law enforcement officers.

Final Thoughts

As instructors, the benefits to changing our mindset from testing and evaluation to teaching and learning in simulation training far outweigh the minimal effort required. In addition to a more knowledgeable officer, one of the greatest benefits is the ability to document the fact that training AND learning took place. This type of documentation can be a powerful ally in any legal setting for every officer concerned.

In order to change the instructor mindset, the training environment must contain the appropriate tools for the instructor and the student. Video, multimedia presentations, pictures, and relevant documents outlining case law and policy are just a few examples of these tools. However, these tools are useless unless the student that receives the training is sure that failure in simulated environments is not only acceptable, but will result in learning and becoming a better officer. Students must also be able to apply any corrective behavior to an acceptable level and see that this will result in a better outcome.

Remember the old saying, “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I learn?” This is true for all law enforcement officers.

Do all that you can to foster an environment of learning in your simulation exercises. It is this environment that will reduce agency and officer liability. And at the end of the day it will result in the officer going home, the public remaining safe, and the bad guy going to jail without out anyone visiting the hospital—or the morgue.

About the Author

Todd Brown has more than ten years of experience in training federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies on judgmental use of force in simulated environments as well as in live fire environments. Brown has also trained agencies in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and several agencies in Europe. He holds instructor ratings for various use of force applications such as Baton, Firearm, Chemical Agents, Taser, etc. Brown is a member of the National Tactical Officers Association, the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as on the technical advisory board of the Force Science Research Center. Brown is the Chief Trainer for IES Interactive Training, manufacturers of the Range 3000 XP4 Judgmental Use of Force Simulator. Brown can be reached by e-mail .

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