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E-Learning in the Equivalency Academy

By Debbie Mealy, PhD, Deputy Director, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission; and Steve Lettic, PhD candidate, Assistant Director, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission

nline or elearning has been around for years. However, law enforcement training has sometimes been challenged to use it to its maximum effectiveness.

The state of Washington has found a solution. In 2010, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC) was tasked with finding a better way to deliver its equivalency academy. This academy was designed to orient officers from other states to Washington state law and state criminal procedures. The challenge was to take the old, static lecture and PowerPoint-driven format, focus the content, and use real-world problems to drive home the learning. At the same time, the WSCJTC wanted to increase the critical thinking skills and increase learning retention.

The result was a type of hybrid learning model that used several sound educational techniques that could improve several skill areas. The first aim was the instruction of Washington state law and its identified differences from other states. However, the learning did not stop at new laws and legal codes. Students discovered the law’s application through ill-structured problems, collaboration with other officers in the class, and debate as to the origin and intent from accessing prosecutors in their home jurisdictions. Another benefit is the ability for the students to be in their home agencies and be in field training at the same time the course is being delivered. This has resulted in training not only of the student but of the agency in a squad refresher–type of setting.

Instructors in the online equivalency course first created a positive training environment that kept four important principles in mind.

  • The first is encouragement and feedback that is timely, specific, and thoughtful.
  • The second is the selection and catering to different learning styles through as many mediums as possible. In the classroom, this might be through the use of visual presentations, audio snapshots that highlight calls for service, or case studies. In the online environment, the learning styles are addressed in discussion boards, reading assignments, ill-structured problems, and creation of test questions to drive the learner towards a higher level of learning.
  • The third is considering the applicability to the participant’s current jobs or positions and designed problems that had to be solved using material found online or in their home agencies.
  • The fourth principal used to create the optimal training environment is providing precourse work and instructions before the course begins. This was accomplished by sending out precourse reading assignments and instructions that the participant needed to come ready to discuss them on the first day of the course. The first day of the course is at the WSCJTC campus and conducted face-to-face in order to give all participants a chance to “see” each other and the instructor. In addition, the first day of instruction is used to assess the participant’s ability to navigate the learning platform and help the participant locate needed tools online by asking the instructors directly. This support decreased the frustration with technology and increased the focus to the learning content.

When the training environment is encouraging, with constructive feedback from the instructor, the trainee has a better chance at developing confidence in newly learned abilities.1 Researchers have found that trainees’ confidence in their abilities relates to the number of training tasks performed on the job, as well as the difficulty of the tasks.2 Implementing multiple learning methods also may improve training transfer. Using the “trial and error” method encourages the trainee to make mistakes and to think about the causes of the mistakes and learn from them, which is one of the foundational principles of the problem-based learning (PBL) method.3

Problem-based learning is facilitated through questions and dialogue and makes use of real problems or dilemmas. Collaboration takes place through discussion boards and interaction with the instructor online. Learning opportunities are created by using the collective experience of all the participants when facilitating the solution. Training programs based on active learning and participation are useful when implementing organizational safety programs and establishing organizational culture.4 The individual and collective experiences of the group are posited to result in much greater knowledge acquisition during the process of problem solving. Nina Keith found evidence that error-based training led to higher levels of retention, as well as the ability to adapt to a variety of situations.5 Likewise, it is vital that training tasks apply to the job because the higher the perceived practical relevance, the higher the motivation to transfer the training to the job.6 Lastly, providing training materials before training begins is a technique to establish relevance and to involve the trainee in the learning process before instruction begins, which improves the effectiveness of the training session. This also allows for deliberate, prepared learning.7 It has been shown that the development of expertise is reached by using this technique of preparing for one’s own development and participation in the learning experience.8

With these training philosophies in mind, the online curriculum was created to foster encouragement and feedback from instructors, participants, and agency training officers, which is imperative to the success of the participant officer. The agency training officer monitors the training as it relates to the job agency culture and answers additional questions.

Keeping in mind the trial-and-error methods referenced above, the online discussion boards provide the students the opportunity to ask and answer questions with anonymity, preventing them from being afraid to ask “dumb” or “elementary” questions. This anonymity allowed participants to receive numerous responses from their classmates—who may have also been provided with information they had not known or would not have otherwise considered.9 It also allowed them to speak their mind regardless of their ranks or titles, because, thanks to the anonymity, each post was simply coming from a classmate and not someone that may have been a superior. Everyone was seen as peers.10

Problem-Based Learning Exercises

The PBL exercises (PBLEs) also proved to be very helpful for officers who were transferring from departments outside the state of Washington. The officers felt that the scenarios presented in the PBLEs required them to know Washington state laws in order to completely answer the questions asked in order to receive full credit. Several officers stated that the in-depth requirements for the PBLEs forced them to learn Washington state laws much faster than if they were required to simply study and repeat them, because they were asked to explain why they would take a certain course of action and where in the Washington State Constitution it says that they are allowed to use such action. The involvement of the course instructors also was seen as a high point during the academy, as many of the respondents stated that they thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated how involved the instructors were. They were quick to respond to discussion posts and emails and were readily willing to offer any support that the officers might have needed.

Relapse Prevention Training

Relapse prevention training is typically used as a way to help drug addicts make positive decisions once they are out of rehab.11 When it is applied to organizational training, this type of training provides trainees with skills to assess situations where they may be tempted to resort to old habits instead of implementing the skills learned in training. Relapse prevention training provides an alternative support system for the trainee to act in accordance with the behavior outlined in training.12 It is most effective when supervisor support is low, because it does not directly involve the supervisor. 13 An example of this is “the buddy system.” Trainees are able to work together to reinforce desired behavior without overwhelming input from conflicting sources. The conflicting sources are mitigated using the anonymity of the online environment and the ability of the agency trainee to have access to the course materials at the same time the participant trainee. This is strengthened by the agency participant (typically the training officer) having as much access to the online instructor to answer questions as well. In one such interaction, the agency training officer thought the material was good enough to use and discuss with the participant trainee’s squad, creating a second level of learning and helping integration of that officer into the agency culture that much faster.

A supportive work environment is one that gives the trainee the opportunity to use new skills and has a culture that inspires and promotes people to move the organization in the direction of continuous learning and change. If the trainee given neither the chance nor the resources to apply the skills learned in training, the trainee will be less likely to retain those skills over time.14 Training is also more effective when the work environment encourages personal development.15

It is important that the supervisor be involved in all aspects of the training process, including the trainee’s goal setting as well as aiding in the development of the curriculum. Partnership among trainee, instructor, and supervisor allows for an opportunity to work together to identify barriers that may prevent the trainee from retaining those skills.16 The higher the perceived supervisor support to utilize skills gained in training, the higher the transfer.17

The intent of developing an eight-week online training program was to encourage interaction between the training officer and the lateral officer participant. The objective is to encourage learning in the classroom that is shared in the field with real-life experiences and interaction, thus sustaining the full training loop. The most successful participants are those whose departments allow time to complete work on duty and also encourage full exchange of ideas between the novice participant, the classroom interaction, and the expert practitioner (the training officer).

While the PBLEs were seen as being very helpful in introducing new officers to the different laws in the state of Washington, they also were viewed as being, at times, overly demanding. While no officers argued the importance of the PBLEs, some did feel that they asked them to provide a lot of what they felt was unnecessary information in regards to the scenarios. Some officers felt that if they were able to simply focus on the required steps and precautions needed to handle the situation rather than being forced to also include the historical precedents that allowed them the ability to use such courses of action, their needs would have been better suited. When first arriving at the academy, the officers were told that the PBLEs would require six to eight hours of effort to complete, but in reality, the administrators were informed that it took twelve to fifteen hours per week to complete the required assignment. Many of the respondents expressed that this time commitment would not have been an issue if they had simply been informed of the actual time it would take per assignment in the beginning. The extra time spent on the PBLEs placed the officers under a lot of stress to both complete the assignment as well as fulfill their duties to their departments and their families. It was reported that the extra time it took to complete the weekly assignments resulted in some of the officers being given time on the clock to work on them, placing unexpected strain on their departments, which had to operate with one fewer officer.

While seen as highly innovative and an effective blend of technology and learning methodologies for the law enforcement training world, the online PBL format is still a work in progress. Currently, the WSCJTC is exploring refining its online training process and strengthening many other programs using sound research-based techniques. For more information on these or other training programs at the WSCJTC, contact Deputy Director Debbie Mealy at or Assistant Director Steve Lettic at ♦


1J. Kevin Ford et al., “Factors Affecting the Opportunity to Perform Trained Tasks on the Job,” Personnel Psychology 45, no. 3 (September 1992): 511–527.
3Nina Keith et al., “Active/Exploratory Training Promotes Transfer Even in Learners with Low Motivation and Cognitive Ability,” Applied Psychology: An International Review 59, no. 1 (January 2010): 97–123.
4Silvia Gherardi and Davide Nicolini, “The Organizational Learning of Safety in Communities of Practice,” Journal of Management Inquiry 9, no. 1 (March 2000): 7–18.
5Keith et al., “Active/Exploratory Training Promotes Transfer Even in Learners with Low Motivation and Cognitive Ability.”
6Heather Burns et al., “Identifying Organizational Sustainment Opportunities for the WSCJTC Equivalency Academy” (study, Seattle University, 2011).
7Peter J. Fadde, “Instructional Design for Advanced Learners: Training Recognition Skills to Hasten Expertise,” Educational Technology Research and Development 57, no. 3 (June 2009): 359–376,
8Ford et al., “Factors Affecting the Opportunity to Perform.”
9Keith et al., “Active/Exploratory Training Promotes Transfer Even in Learners with Low Motivation and Cognitive Ability.”
10Burns et al., “Identifying Organizational Sustainment Opportunities.”
11Lisa A. Burke and Timothy T. Baldwin, “Workforce Training Transfer: A Study of the Effect of Relapse Prevention Training and Transfer Climate,” Human Resource Management 38, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 227–242.
12Timothy T. Baldwin and J. Kevin Ford, “Transfer of Training: A Review and Directions for Future Research,” Personnel Psychology 41, no. 1 (March 1988): 63–105.
13Ibid., “Identifying Organizational Sustainment Opportunities.”
14Raymond A. Noe et al., “Relapse Training: Does It Influence Trainees’ Post Training Behavior and Cognitive Strategies?” Journal of Business and Psychology 4, no. 3 (1990): 317–328.
15Burns et al.
16Mary L. Broad and John W. Newstrom, Transfer of Training: Action-Packed Strategies to Ensure High Payoff from Training Investments (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992).
17Susanne Liebermann and Stefan Hoffmann, “The Impact of Practical Relevance on Training Transfer: Evidence from a Service Quality Training Program for German Bank Clerks,” International Journal of Training and Development 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 74–86.

Please cite as:

Debbie Mealy and Steve Lettic, "E-Learning in the Equivalency Academy," The Police Chief 80 (January 2013): 48–50.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 1, January 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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